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Leonardo DiCaprio, Microsoft’s Paul Allen, and Netflix are bringing Africa’s elephant poaching crisis to wide public attention. The Ivory Game, a feature-length documentary being released on November 4, lays bare the dark underworld of the ivory trade, responsible for the slaughter of more than 30,000 elephants, and numerous park rangers, every year. From Africa to Asia and back again, the film traces the flow of illegal ivory from the time a whole family of elephants is found butchered in Kenya to a shop in China selling intricately carved tusks for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Ivory Game brings together crime fighters risking their lives to save elephants. There’s Ofir Drori, a bold Israeli activist conducting undercover raids in East Africa; Elisifa Ngowi, the laser-focused leader of Tanzania’s anti-trafficking task force on the trail of an ivory kingpin nicknamed “the Devil”; and Andrea Crosta, the Italian founder of WildLeaks, a website for whistle-blowers to anonymously send tip-offs about wildlife crime.
And there’s Hongxiang Huang, a part-time wildlife investigator and former journalist based in Nairobi. As we accompany Huang on several undercover operations, we learn that he’s motivated not only by his love of animals but by his desire to change the world’s perception of China.
“China today is part of many global wildlife trafficking challenges,” Huang told National Geographic. “However, if the world sees all Chinese as bad people, it would fail to see many potential solutions.”
Today, Huang runs China House, a research and consultancy group that helps Chinese invest in sustainable development in Africa. China House runs a project with Humane Society International to engage Chinese communities in Africa on wildlife conservation.
National Geographic’s Wildlife Watch spoke with Huang by email about his work, his goals, and whether he’ll ever be able to go undercover again.
What made you want to be a wildlife investigator?
Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to do what I can to help protect wildlife. In 2013 I realized that, as a Chinese investigator, I could achieve something very unique because in the ivory and rhino horn trades, the traffickers seldom suspect you. I realized this area is where I could make a special contribution to wildlife protection.
When was your first time going undercover?
In 2012 I tried to pose as a buyer in northern Brazil. I was doing my master’s degree internship in there, and I heard about people trafficking parrots and monkeys and so on. I asked my local friend to accompany me to meet those people, as I was very keen on understanding this trade. But I did not go very deep, as my friend said it was too dangerous because those people could be trading drugs and guns as well. But with Ofir [Drori], my undercover work went into another level. We went into serious business talks, transactions, and arrests.
Have you ever felt that your life was in danger?
Of course. But for me personally, I believe we should choose important things to do, not easier things to do. If there is some unique difference I could make to help protect wildlife, I don’t see how I could not do it.
For example, in the village of Vietnam, when we were inside a trafficker’s house filming a real deal that was going on, one trafficker suddenly grabbed our bag and opened it. We had our hidden camera inside, so we were superscared. That whole village is built on the ivory and rhino horn business, and we knew no one could come to rescue us if anything went wrong. Luckily he did not find anything suspicious so he put it down soon. I believe it is because of our strategy—we put some tampons on top.
Why did you agree to be in the film, given that it might make it impossible to go undercover again in the future?
Maybe because I am from a media and communication background, I believe changing the narrative and closing the communication gap is more important than having one single Chinese investigator. In the past few years I’ve seen a huge communication gap between China and the world. This kind of gap has made it a challenge for Chinese people to be engaged on global wildlife conservation. By participating in this film, I hope the world can see Chinese from a different angle—they are part of the solution. And I hope the Chinese people can see that this anti-ivory trade battle is not distant from them. We can be and should be part of it as well.
What do you hope people take away from the movie?
I hope the world will see that China is becoming part of the solution. Yes, China is a big ivory market, but the Chinese who buy ivory are only an extremely small population. There are many Chinese who love animals and are working hard to protect them as well—it is time to put down the stereotype, and that would help. This kind of bias against Chinese people could alienate many Chinese people who could be allies.
What’s next for you?
I still do not want to give up investigations. Other than running China House, I wish to find a way to build a Chinese investigative team to operate in the world in all the China-related wildlife crimes, such as ivory, rhino horn, pangolin, helmeted hornbills, and the shark fin trade. I believe they can make some great and unique contribution.