Fresh eyes: An African’s hope for an end to the Ivory Trade.


Resson Kantai Duff, Projects Officer

Date Published

In the aftermath of the first Environmental Assembly of the UN (UNEA), many reports, resolutions and opinions are flying about on wildlife trade. Just today, I read one on how ivory trade is “big business in China.” I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid about this statement before, but having returned from a trip, which may well be the first China-Africa dialogue on the ivory trade, I would like to speak about what I saw, and perhaps breathe new life and hope into a debate, which is spiralling into hopelessness.

Our trip, undertaken by two Kenyans, Chris Kiarie (WildlifeDirect) and myself, and organized by one Chinese, Yufang Gao, took us through 5 cities, where we gave about a dozen presentations and spoke to media houses, students, local and international NGOs and other interested parties.

I structured my presentation to break the ice on China-Africa relations, using emotive words like “barbaric,” “corrupt,” “inept,” and “always in need of help” to have a laugh about glaring fallacies regular Chinese people – and indeed half the world – probably believe about the African continent. To present them with a new narrative, I separated individual countries out, and introduced parallels between my country and theirs. I also spoke about the value of elephants to Kenyans, culturally, economically, and environmentally – showing what it means to lose each elephant, a species which to us represents our very national pride. In fluent Mandarin, Chris spoke about the work of African NGOs in bolstering legislation, increasing penalties deterring smugglers from engaging in the vice. Gao brought us all together, doing the tough job of convincing the audience that they were the key to unlocking the ivory crisis, and that the whole social process needed to change to give way find a common understanding on elephants and ivory.

The information we gave was assuredly as important as the information we received, helping us form new perceptions, and getting rid of misconceptions about this trade.

Though there were so many passionate appeals to join hands and help, I found that some Chinese may not have an instant connection with elephants. However, they might well connect with the people who are affected by elephant poaching.

In the market, I found hope and despair, entangled by the complexity that kept the “white stone” firmly among all the other stones, but finding hope in something the Chinese have been saying for a long time, that “ivory trade is not such a big thing” in China. It’s true. It is a small trade that has huge implications for many of us, and its end would not mean that much to the people of China.

Speaking to varying audiences through the tour, we teased out the different values underpinning the trade: beauty, investment, religion, culture, prestige…by focusing on the small group that are doing the buying, the Baofahu – the suddenly rich – and on each reason value hold dear, this trade can be brought to a conclusion. Vilification of an entire nation is not the answer. But how do we get to this select group?

There is a silent group among all the noisy voices speaking about this issue, a group whose voice could well be the answer: among all the actors in the ivory trade – those fighting it and those driving it – Chinese civil society has been quiet. In almost every country pushing for a revolution, civil society has been an active participant. In my view, now is the time to engage them. Now is the time for Africans and Chinese to speak honestly to each other and see how we can change things, solve things, end this trade together.

I left China laughing off notions of barbaric dog-eating, ivory consuming “middle class” of Chinese; I left behind the beginnings of a dialogue on this issue, learning that communication is everything; I left knowing that there is an army of Chinese willing and waiting to engage and fight for elephants with the same passion and vigour that I have; I left with hope.

Related Elephant Conservation Tour in China blogs: June 8, 2014    June 9, 2014   June 10, 2014   June 11, 2014   June 12, 2014