Ex-undercover investigator urges more fellow Chinese to fight ivory trade


Xingi Su, South China Morning Post

Date Published

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Undercover investigator Huang Hongxiang could almost smell the grim consequences when his bag carrying a hidden camera was opened by a villager in Vietnam, where almost everyone in the hamlet had a finger in the pie of the illegal ivory trade. 

Huang, 29, was in the country last year to document how rampant the illegal business was by meeting smugglers and wearing his pinhole camera.

“If he ever looked closer, things could have been very bad,” the avowed animal-lover said as he stacked up three smartphones to illustrate the gadget’s size.

That was the most dangerous of Huang’s encounters during his career in wildlife crime investigation dating to 2013. His exploits took him to more than a dozen countries spanning Africa, Asia and Latin America.

But Huang retired from the field after deciding to show his face in The Ivory Game, a documentary made last year depicting the blood-soaked paths of elephant poaching and ivory trading. The film was co-produced by movie star and UN climate change ambassador Leonardo DiCaprio.

“It is a fact that China is the largest ivory market, but there are many misunderstandings between China and the world,” he said.

The Guangdong province native blew his cover to tell a global audience that not all Chinese are ivory smugglers and that although his homeland was a big part of the problem it could play a bigger part of the solution.

Huang came to Hong Kong as a Legislative Council committee was slated to meet on Tuesday to amend the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants bill, meant to pave the way for wiping out the ivory business by the end of 2021.

He was invited to the city by ADM Capital Foundation, an environmental concern group, to screen The Ivory Game and share his stories with hundreds of local teenagers.

“I am trying to engage more Chinese youth in international investigations, which has long been led by NGOs from America and Europe and seldom seen contributions from China,” he explained.

Huang said he had been in talks with several international NGOs and was looking for funding.

He believed Chinese could be effective in such investigations because traders were often less suspicious of fellow nationals. Chinese are the largest group of ivory product consumers.

“A ringleader I helped trap in Uganda in 2014 believed my fake identity so completely that when police showed up and arrested him when we were supposed to close the ivory deal, he was dumbstruck,” he recalled.

Chinese investigators cost less and work harder, Huang argued. He claimed he had sometimes been paid just several hundred US dollars for a mission and often worked pro bono.

A lack of awareness, he said, prevented more Chinese from joining international efforts against the ivory trade. “Many Western organisations will not come to us because they have no idea who we are.”

Huang added that a deep-rooted communication gap deepened the divide.

“Chinese often mistake international environmental groups pressing China to curb wildlife trading as anti-government organisations smearing their motherland, while foreigners often categorise Chinese tourists and investors as smugglers,” he said.

To narrow the rift, Huang launched China House, his own NGO, operating in Kenya.

Since 2014, China House has taken more than 300 Chinese secondary pupils and university students around Kenya’s vast savannah.

The idea is to show that wildlife products such as ivory carvings and rhino horn crafts are no longer considered exquisite but instead sad relics of large and beautiful animals that once wandered the region in far greater numbers.

“Seeing the elephants and meeting the rangers in person is the best education for these young people and their parents,” he said. “The less they consume, the less incentive there is for smugglers and poachers.”