Bridging the gap


Gao Yufang, international Intern

Date Published

Ni Hao!

My name is GAO Yufang. I am a Chinese graduate student from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Currently I am doing fieldwork in Kenya for my master’s research project which looks into the highly contentious issue of the international ivory trade. In this project, I aim to understand how China’s domestic ivory market and the increasing Chinese presence in Africa impacts the conservation of African elephants. A special focus is placed on how different participants think of these impacts.

Prior to my arrival at Yale, I had acquired diverse experience with wildlife conservation in China. I received my bachelor’s degree in Biology from Peking University, and since 2008 I have had the privilege of working with some of the most renowned conservation groups in China and the world:  the Wildlife Conservation Society; the Shanshui Conservation Center (a national Chinese NGO); the Nyant Yutse Conservation Association (grassroots NGO on the Tibetan Plateau). This experience of working at different levels in different regions has helped me understand the reality of wildlife conservation in China.

As a Chinese national bilingual in English and Mandarin, I am able to see the different cultural outlooks prevalent in the issue of international ivory trade. The problem of elephant poaching and ivory trafficking, in my view, is fundamentally a conflict between people’s different values. Many individuals, organizations, governments, and others are involved, either directly or indirectly. They hold very diverse and sometimes conflicting views with respect to “how we are going to use the African elephants and who gets to decide”.

The wide diversity of values and interests lead to a variety of problem definitions which reflect in the different goals desired, situations described, causes identified, and solutions proposed. As is suggested by a content analysis of Chinese and English online discourse I conducted last year, the Chinese and western societies are divided on their understanding about the scale and scope of ivory black market in China, the major ivory consumers and the reasons for buying ivory. Even within the same group, there are different perspectives about some of the key variables.

Similar to many of my Chinese compatriots, I have a lot of questions about the “facts”. The clandestine nature of poaching and illegal ivory trade makes it hardly realistic to obtain genuine and comprehensive data about the problem. The boundaries between the East, the West and Africa, in terms of language, culture and ideology, further complicate the problem. The call for more data alone cannot resolve the uncertainties of facts. It is equally, if not more, important to understand different participants’ perspectives – who they are, what they want, and how they define the problem, because the uncertainties are actually the symptom of conflicting values ingrained in the different participants.

This summer, I will be doing my fieldwork in Kenya, Hong Kong and mainland China. By talking to authorities, conservationists, and citizens, I hope that stakeholders on both the supply and demand sides can share their insights and help me understand their concerns. In this way, I attempt to help all participants to achieve a more comprehensive and contextual understanding of the problem. I hope I can help clarify the common interests, and that I can facilitate the search for solutions that are logically rational, politically feasible and morally justified.

From a personal point of view I would like to hone my skills and gain experience of problem solving in a world full of sophisticated conservation issues, which will hopefully help me be more effective in future. My dear friends, I can also share with you the initial and primary reason that motivated me to undertake the research project – I wanted to come to Africa! I love travelling!

So far I have been in Kenya for about one month. I stayed in Samburu for three weeks with the lovely team from Save the Elephants. I participated in the “Ivory belongs to Elephants” campaign. I talked to Samburu warriors, officials, rangers, hotel managers, teachers, and students. I also visited a Chinese road construction camp and talked with my Chinese compatriots. At the moment I am in Nairobi, visiting different government agencies and conservation groups. Developing the genuine willingness to understand different perspectives and values is, I believe, the essential first step we need to take if we are to find common ground and save the elephants.

If there is anything I can help with or that you’d like to share with me, please don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected]. Thanks!

studying an elephant carcass