Translator: Joseph Webster and Laiyin Yuan
Published on: N/A
Original text (in Chinese): N/A
Members of the official Chinese delegation to Tanzania in 2013 used President Xi’s presidential plane and diplomatic pouches to illegally smuggle ivory from Tanzania to China, according to an explosive report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a British NGO. The EIA “is an independent campaigning organization committed to bringing about change that protects the natural world from environmental crime and abuse.” The EIA’s report on the illegal elephant trade in Tanzania, called “Vanishing Point,” can be found here.
The following article is a translated response to the EIA report. It is not an official media response. As of this writing, it appears that the Chinese and English language editions of Xinhua, the Global Times, or China Daily have not published an article about the EIA report, despite – or perhaps because of – its potentially harmful influence on Africa-China relations and its unsettling implications about the Chinese leadership’s adherence to its own laws.
Why Is China Always Accused on the Ivory Issue?
Does the continuous China-bashing on the ivory issue provide any benefit for solving the poaching problem?
During the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference, an article without credible evidence attracted great attention and mass reprinting from the Western media. The article is about a piece of news that was written 20 months ago with the sensational title “Chinese Presidential Delegation smuggles ivory.” This article has nothing to do with the ivory trade itself. This article is nothing but another Western media’s attempt to witch-hunt and sneer at China.
Just a week ago, Vietnam seized a ton of smuggled ivory and six kilograms of rhinoceros horn. Cases like this have never stopped no matter if they are in India, Thailand, or other Southeast Asian countries. The international media, however, has not shown the least amount of interest towards these events.
Of course, this article is not chicanery, but I do hope that the readers can have a better understanding of the real ivory problem, instead of choosing sides indiscriminately. After all, most people really want to help solve the wildlife-poaching problem, rather than taking sides regardless of facts.
This year, a Kenyan wildlife protector, who was doing research for wildlife conservation in Oxford, came to China with her local colleagues for a joint investigation into the Chinese ivory business. The results were eye-popping.
Previously, media propagandized that all Chinese people love ivory accessories. This stereotype was shattered when they found that more than 99 percent of Chinese people on the street do not wear ivory accessories. Furthermore, their perspective, which is that the increasing ivory price is a significant cause of market scarcity, was weakened by the soaring price of jade and precious timber. In addition, the so-called omnipresent ivory exchange market is actually barely seen. The market and subsequent transactions only exist in limited space.
As a result, she (translator’s note: she appears to refer to the “the Kenyan wildlife protector”) concluded that the international media’s consistent pressure to embarrass China over ivory has no tangible benefits. It is just like people cursing the entire family as thieves when one of its members steals things and runs back home, instead of trying to find the actual thief. This brings no positive impact on the issue, but may rather worsen the situation.
Her view directly reflects the perspectives of many Chinese wildlife protectors and ordinary people who have little interest in ivory products. Simba, a former civil servant in Chongqing who now devotes himself to the cause of wildlife protection in Africa, said that the recent report made him very angry. He believed that it is prejudiced against Chinese people, labeling Chinese youth who actively promote wildlife protection and most of the ordinary people as murderers.
Then, what causes the problem?
First is domestic legislation. China is still a country where ivory products can be legally traded, provided the trade goes through formal channels with official certificates. However, it is the legitimate business that provides the most direct and convenient conditions for illegal trading. When the above-mentioned wildlife protectors visited a legal ivory store in Guangzhou, they were unexpectedly asked by the shop owner to establish a certain “cooperative relationship” in selling illegal ivory.
The United States, the largest ivory trader just a few years ago, has started banning ivory business gradually by allowing only internal circulation and trade of existing domestic stock made prior to certain years. However, China is still wavering and hesitating, deciding whether or not it should prohibit legal ivory trade through new laws. As long as the legal prohibition is absent, the loophole can never be eliminated.
Second is the change of domestic consciousness of the wildlife conservation issue. Increasing consumers’ understanding of market demand’s direct impacts on poaching in Africa, as well as the importance of wildlife conservation, are the keys to solve the demand problem in the long run. There has been considerable progress in China in recent years. As the official and unofficial promotion and education for wildlife conservation have made certain achievements, more and more people have a better understanding of the cruel source of ivory products. There are many people who come to Africa tourism and, through their own experiences, become aware of the importance of wildlife conservation. Moreover, participation of celebrities also allows domestic and international wildlife conservation issues progress towards the public sights.
However, those who want to buy ivory will continue buying, but they will be more cautious and restrained. Such demand will be significantly reduced with the decreasing tendency and the growth of the new generation. Just as in Japan, the largest consumer market for African ivory products thirty or forty years ago, now the new generation shows less interest in ivory and the demand for new ivory products has qualitative changes.
In addition, as more and more Chinese people come to Africa to travel, work, and live, a certain proportion of them will bring ivory products home. Due to poor regulation in the past, bringing ivory products from Africa seems to be a fashion. It is obvious to know who feeds these ivory markets when ivory sculptures of Avalokitesvara, God of Wealth, Lord Guan Gong (Chinese hero of loyalty, integrity and courage), as well as ivory chopsticks and Chinese chess are ubiquitous in African markets.
However, this fact is no longer cause for concern. On one hand, Chinese customs and other relevant departments are increasingly taking this matter seriously. African customs, on the other side, are also intensifying penalties for ivory smuggling. In Kenya, the illegal possession or transit of ivory will lead to imprisonment and fine without bail, hoping to imprison more reckless smugglers as long as possible. Since last year, many Chinese nationals have been serving prison sentences in Kenya due to illegal ivory smuggling.
In terms of the incident reported recently, because the official delegation can take the special channel for diplomats and charter flights, and their baggage will not be rigorously checked, it may provide opportunities for them to bring back ivory products. However, my personal experience is that the high-level delegation of Premier Li Keqiang, which visited four African countries this year, had repeated and strict injunctions on carrying illegal products, including ivory. In the end, no so-called wild animal products were discovered during their baggage screening.
With so much criticism of the Chinese, is the problem solved? Of course not!
As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Why do international media not pay more attention to the sources of African ivory supply and their insufficient capacity building for wildlife conservation and government corruption? Try to imagine this: so many containers of ivory can be collected on the savanna and transported hundreds of kilometers away to port, pass customs, go on board, and depart. How can poaching surveillance, goods and transportation examination, and cargo inspection be absent during this entire process?
Wildlife conservationists believe that, to some extent, local corruption is the major cause for a powerful interest group of local poachers and supervisors, which is difficult to overcome.
In addition, Kenya has the top-ranking wildlife security equipment and armed patrols in the world, as well as hundreds of international institutions and NGOs claiming to focus on wildlife conservation. Why has the seriousness of the problem not been mitigated at the source?
A few months ago at a press conference, when I asked the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on how to solve the problem of the entire industry chain, he did not answer my question directly, but told me afterwords that this is a good question.
According to an official investigation of Kenya Wildlife Services, some Western NGOs in Kenya only operate in name. They neither provide substantive assistance for wildlife conservation nor care about the conversation issue. They only use this as a fancy excuse to lobby for profits from developed countries.
For the same reason, it is dubious to believe that those voices, which only focus on criticizing China instead of fixing the problems in the entire industry chain or the development of other large consumer markets, can reflect their real concerns on ivory and poaching issues. Furthermore, there are countless reports only trying to put political pressure on China through ivory issues. Ivory is nothing but another “weapon of mass destruction” used in a political game.
The trade of ivory products will always exist as long as there is demand and supply. For many Chinese people who have been crazy about ivory products for a long time, especially for those ivory-carving lovers, it is still hard to keep them away from ivory purchasing. Moreover, it is unnecessary to ban ivory trade from them because there is, after all, a large amount of hoarded supplies due to natural deaths. Nonetheless, for those who still want to purchase and transport illegal ivory products from Africa, the only advice is to be prepared for the legal consequence accompanied with their behaviors. It is not about abstract moral issues, but only for the sake of their own life in the future.
Grievances are quickly spreading among Chinese in Kenya in recent days. Two Asian-look men were arrested last week in the port city of Mombassa for illegally smuggling ivory. Without any reference or investigation, all major media in Kenya have reported this case indicating the two were Chinese, and even one of the reports claimed the trial was postponed due to lack of Chinese interpreter. However, it turned out that the two men were Indonesian and Thai respectively rather than Chinese. The label of ivory smuggling, however, has been again attached to the Chinese.
At the same time, a batch of illegal ivory was caught earlier in October at the Kuala Lampur airport, the sender apparently was the Chinese Embassy in Burundi. After a month-long investigation, the Chinese embassy has been cleared of any wrongdoing in a press conference last week that someone had faked the sender’s name and the embassy has nothing to do with this case. Four people involved have been arrested, staff of Burundi Airport management company, Burundi Aviation Authority and Air Burundi.