How to prevent the birth of next Ivory Queen


Huang Hongxiang & Zhang Jiyao, The Global Times

Date Published

See link for illustration.

“Ivory Queen” Yang Fenglan was recently sentenced to 15 years in jail in Tanzania. One of the biggest ivory smugglers in Tanzania’s history, Yang was nailed as part of efforts between China and Africa to crack down on illegal wildlife trade. While people are celebrating the success, we should remember that more needs to be done to prevent the birth of the next Ivory Queen.

There are over one million Chinese in Africa, and Yang is one of them. A survey by International Fund for Animal Welfare in 2007 said that 70 percent of Chinese do not know that elephants are killed to obtain ivory. But that is not the case in Africa: The percentage of Chinese knowing where ivory comes from and having links with illegal wildlife trade is much higher. 

The reason is understandable – compared to China, wildlife products are much more common and their prices lower in Africa. According to reports, people in China need to spend about $2,100 to buy a kilogram of ivory, while in Africa it only costs $100. 

To address the issue, we first need to understand how Chinese in Africa are involved in illegal wildlife trade. Most Chinese nationals in Africa are “souvenir-level” buyers, implying they would just buy a few ivory products as souvenirs for their friends and family in China. 

Some may say it is impossible to get rid of such consumers. However, if one goes behind the reasons for the rise of such consumers, the practice can be challenged. 

First, a lot of them do not understand enough about the nature and consequence of the trade. Unlike the Chinese living in China, those in Africa know you have to kill elephants to get ivory, but they do not understand the larger implications due to a lack of knowledge on wildlife conservation. 

We believe once you show them images or videos detailing the cruelty elephants face, many Chinese in Africa would be shocked, or even driven to tears, and swear never to buy ivory.

Second, many of them do not understand enough about the legal consequences and actual harm the trade causes. Once they do, they would change. In 2014-15, when Kenya’s wildlife authorities started coming down hard on violators, Chinese nationals gradually realized that taking ivory back home was no longer worth it. 

Third, they may have not seen the link between wildlife and the sustainable development of Chinese business and communities in Africa. “They are just animals,” Chinese in Africa would say to me long time ago, thinking that animals are not important. However, nowadays Chinese communities in Africa are learning how vital the issue is. In Namibia, a few Chinese rhino horn smugglers led to resentment developing against the community in 2017. 

It would be easier to engage them once we understand why and how the Chinese community gets involved in the illegal activity. The right messages and methods are needed. 

A Chinese guy recalled seeing a billboard at an airport in Africa, saying in Putonghua, “The elephants are our national heritage, stop buying ivory.” His immediate reaction was: “National heritage? I should buy more.” 

China’s campaign since 2015 to stop the wildlife trade has been making a difference. I have seen a Chinese community leader in South Africa swearing, “I am so good at cooking pangolins but I am not gonna do this again.” 

I have also seen a Chinese person in Kenya trying to report wildlife crime that she saw. Therefore, it is clear that if we engage them in the right way, maybe Chinese in Africa can be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.

The authors are from China House, an organization to integrate China into global sustainable development. [email protected]