Africa: Heart of the Matter


Forum on China-Africa Cooperation

Date Published

 Young Chinese professional at the forefront of global campaign to save elephants, end ivory trade
Chen Hao has good reason to prefer Beryl Markham’s West with the Night to the more popular Out of Africa by Karen Blixen. Chen identifies herself with the free spirit embodied by Markham, an adventurer, horse racer and bush pilot who became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west.

Much like her idol, Chen too studied in the UK and then came to Nairobi to take up a job as communications officer at the United Nations Environment Programme.

Two years into her stint in Kenya, Chen, 25, says her interest in Markham was the beginning of a long and memorable association with Africa. “Since childhood, Africa was always a fascination for me. It is still the host of all my darkest fears, the cradle of mysteries always intriguing, but never wholly solved. It is the remembrance of sunlight and green hills, cool water and the yellow warmth of bright mornings. It is as ruthless as any sea, more uncompromising than its own deserts. It is without temperance in its harshness or in its favors. It yields nothing, offering much to men of all races.”

Though her words have a rich poetic feel, Chen’s real fascination for Africa comes from its combination of freedom, loneliness and broadness, as exemplified by its inhabitants’ constant exposure to nature.

Moreover, Chen engages the African history from the perspective of colonization. “Colonizers failed to see the real spirit of Africa – a source of power that has resisted being conquered by outsiders. The African soul has never died out but remained silent. Unfortunately, modern civilization looks at it as nothing, often stamping on its wisdom and purity.”

Pondering over these issues, Chen turns her perception into a contemplative force for her work and her encounters with Africans. For her, it goes beyond a professional commitment to natural environment,  which is the indisputable mandate of UNEP. The key issue lies in nurturing an all-round ecology combining animals, landscape and humans, in which sense she is no longer an outsider from out of Africa but a committed participant.

Chen is pleased that the African life philosophy fits well with the Chinese teaching that human beings are an integral part of nature.

That said, the first priority for Chen at work is to save the African elephants, whose numbers are fast dwindling. With global consumption of ivory products on the rise, UNEP initiated a campaign in 2011 to fight against the trade. Killing elephants is an unpardonable and cruel act, Chen says.

To ensure that ivory is intact, poachers remove the skulls of the elephants altogether. According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are 300,000 African elephants in southern Africa, but less than 20 percent of them are placed under formal protection. More trouble for Chen comes from the fact that ivory smuggling often goes hand in hand with organized crime, anti-government militias and extremist organizations, leaving many vulnerable lives at risk in Africa.

Over the past decade, the African elephant population has dwindled at an alarming speed. Statistics from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora suggest that as many as 17,000 African elephants were killed in 2011. Things started worsening from 2012 onwards. Last year, a 12-member elephant family in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park, which is named Theater of the Wild, were slaughtered. Many elephant inspectors are killed by the poaching gangs every year.

These tragedies propelled Chen and her colleagues to take action. Their main task was that the public must be made aware of the need to protect African elephants as they symbolize nature’s lifeline on the vast continent.

For this purpose, Chen and her team invited leading Chinese actress Li Bingbing, UNEP goodwill ambassador, to travel to Kenya in May last year to shoot a public awareness advertisement. Chen was deeply touched when Li said, “If killing elephants continues, the existence of elephants will diminish rapidly. We need to do everything to put an end to these killings. Only when humans and animals exist together in harmony can the world be a balanced and a beautiful place.”

On the other hand, harmony will not be achieved without showing respect to African people, Chen says.

Chen endeavors to foster a harmonious relationship in her work environment. She appreciates her African colleagues for their initiatives, vision and passion. Even though most of them are more than a decade older than her, they work in a spirit of comradeship. Cultural differences are unavoidable in a multicultural environment such as UNEP, but the more significant task for a global citizen is to bridge the gaps for a maximum benefit, Chen says.

“The United Nations offers a platform in which we garner our skills and background for the common good of mankind,” Chen says.

This is none other than the wisdom imparted by the African spirit.