After investigating the Chinese connection with the ivory trade in Africa for the past three months, below is my own conclusion about how it is possible to break the Chinese-ivory link.
Experts have estimated that China is responsible for about 70% of world ivory market. Beyond statistics, I have witnessed it with my own eyes in Africa. In some countries the phenomena of Chinese buying/smuggling ivory is more prosperous, such as Mozambique; in some countries the level is very preliminary, such as Namibia. However, it is there without sign of weakening. The problem next is what could we do to stop it.
“You can’t change them by moral appeal,” a Chinese resident in Africa told me, those ‘blood-ivory campaigns’ are not going to work.
Somehow it is true. It is not accurate that Chinese people are all unconcerned about the disappearance of Africa’s elephants. However, when we consider Chinese education, it is those relatively affluent who have the most awareness on the issue while the vast majority of Chinese migrants in Africa are generally lower-class, less well educated. Given how difficult life is for many Chinese migrants in Africa, there’s now a widely-held perception that only the poor and desperate leave China and “if you have choices, you don’t come to Africa.”
There are basically two groups of Chinese people in Africa: the self-driven small businessmen — most who do not speak English and possess only a primary-school level education. The second group often work for Chinese state owned enterprises (SOESs). This group tends to be much better educated than their working-class compatriots.
This composition of these two groups of Chinese migrants is the key to understanding the booming ivory trade in Africa. First, as not highly educated Chinese, this group has relatively low awareness about conservation; second, those Chinese who would come to Africa have their sole goal in minds: to make as much money in as short time as possible, therefore they are very active in seeking personal gains from the time in a place that many do not actually like.
So now that we recognize the problem, what can we do?
First, implement much stronger legal punishments and customs enforcement in both Africa and China. Most Chinese purchasing ivory in Africa are only buying a small amount, often thinking: “it is not difficult to get out of African customs (what’s the worse that can happen, pay a few bribes if I’m caught?), and in China, there is a very high chance that your contraband will not be found if you hide them well — even if found, if the amount is less than one or two kilograms, just give them to the custom and you are fine.” Therefore, in China, customs enforcement needs to become much stronger: the tolerance about ivory products should become “zero-tolerance” instead of “no punishment under the value of 10000 yuan” — even if you just bring an ivory bangle, you should be fined heavily. Moreover, not only should the penalties should be raised, the intensity of searches should also be increased as well. On the African side, cracking down on widespread corruption among customs and government officials is what could help lead to major change — although I think this will be more difficult to achieve than increasing the smuggling penalties on the Chinese side.
If both of the above are done, although there still would be a high level of smuggling by those who want to make a quick fortune, the huge number of small buyers’ behavior would likely change significantly.
Second, the influx Chinese in Africa need to be better selected, registered and managed. From the host countries side, there should be certain thresholds of allowing Chinese to immigrate, especially to stay for long time. Such thresholds should be education, language skills, and a clean criminal background. There should also be a registration system of those Chinese so there is some record of illicit behavior. In China, there should be an immigration bureau (China does not actually have a formal immigration service as is common in many countries) to manage and register outbound Chinese. Moreover, Chinese embassies in Africa need to change their function from “service” to “management”. For example, Chinese would have to register at their local embassy or else that embassy will not provide assistance or other services in the future. Therefore, Chinese in Africa could be managed by such a registration system managed by the Chinese government, which would ultimately improve the quality of the migrants that come to Africa by virtue of the higher-standards imposed.
Third, there should be programs to attract better-educated Chinese to Africa. In order to change the composition of Chinese in Africa, other than reducing the problematic ones, there should be ways to increase the number of skilled and educated migrants. Therefore, both African and Chinese governments should create incentives for highly-educated Chinese to come to Africa, perhaps by student exchange programs, salary bonuses or other kinds academic/professional fellowships.
Fourth, anti-poaching awareness campaigns should involve as well as target Chinese migrants living in Africa. Instead of broadcasting campaigns to Chinese back in China, campaign organizers need to engage the Chinese community on the continent and use them to influence others. Chinese in Africa often live in close-knit communities making it easier to reach a large number of people within that target demographic. In order to do so, NGOs should recruit some Chinese who already live in Africa to design and implement anti-ivory campaigns. Yes the market is in Mainland China, but without the Chinese in Africa, the transportation channel for that ivory would become much more complicated.
Over the past three months, I have seen a few of the Chinese who are better integrated into local communities, better connected with non-Chinese and who have generally assimilated themselves to the larger culture s— and those people are much less likely to participate in ivory trade.
Finally, there should be more constructive cooperation of Chinese and African journalists. On one side, Chinese journalists are necessary for local media outlets to explore the “how” and “why” regarding the Chinese-ivory problems, like who are the players and what are they thinking, rather than simply exposing “what”, like who has been caught smuggling how much contraband? On the other hand, African journalists could do more to help Chinese people understand what the consequences are of the ivory trade on all people, particularly Africans and Chinese. Even African journalists just feeding the Chinese media with more compelling elephant poaching stories would be helpful because it is rare that such stories make it into Chinese mass media.
Of course these things are always easier said than done, but after months of investigating this problem, including extensive on the ground interviews with both buyers and smugglers, I believe change can happen if some or all of these policy changes are implemented.
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