What Do Chinese in South Africa Think of the Ivory Trade?


Zander Rounds, Hongxiang Huang, Ruirui Gu, Foreign Policy

Date Published

JOHANNESBURG — Ms. Zhu does not seem particularly villainous. In her breezy Johannesburg office, encircled by neat stacks of newspapers, the petite 30-year-old from the southern Chinese province of Fujian is warm, chatty, and disarmingly honest. A long-time resident of South Africa, she is an active participant in overseas Chinese circles and runs a small Chinese-language daily paper. She’s even attended a conservation event on the plight of South Africa’s rhinos, which she described as “quite moving.”

So it came as a surprise when Zhu readily admitted that she would have no qualms about purchasing elephant tusk or rhinoceros horn — both largely illegal international trades that have devastated Africa’s elephant and rhino populations. “If you were to offer me ivory or rhino horn at a reasonable price, I might buy it,” said Zhu, who, like the rest of the respondents, agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of the subject. “I wouldn’t think much of it. I would just think, ‘I am buying a thing.’” (Ms. Zhu is a pseudonym; she would not give her name due to the potential legal ramifications.)

Zhu’s nonchalance is not unusual among overseas Chinese in South Africa. South Africa is home to the continent’s largest communities of overseas Chinese, and for decades has been a crucial hub in the formal and informal international exchange of both rhino horn and elephant ivory. The involvement of Chinese nationals in the international ivory and rhino horn trades, and by extension in Africa’s poaching crisis, is widely evoked — particularly in criticisms by Western media and NGOs — but little explored.

In early September 2016, with support from global animal welfare NGO Humane Society International, China House, a Chinese-led organization based in Nairobi which focuses on China-Africa issues (and for which this article’s authors work) conducted a survey of South Africa’s Chinese population to determine their attitudes towards the trade of ivory and rhino horn. China House surveyed 428 Chinese residents of Johannesburg — 283 in person, and the rest over Chinese mobile app WeChat — and conducted 23 in-depth interviews. (The names of all survey respondents in this article are pseudonyms.) The survey found that as individuals, Chinese are increasingly aware of the harsh realities underpinning the sale of ivory and rhino horn. But they feel removed from complicity, and not interested in taking a stand against it.

To be sure, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international treaty to protect wildlife signed by 183 countries including China and South Africa, banned international ivory trade in 1989; it did the same for rhino horn in 1977. But illegal trade of both products has continued. Worldwide, somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 elephants are poached each year, a rate that exceeds the elephant birthrate. As a result of complex, underground trade networks linking Sub-Saharan African savannahs with large East Asian markets, Central Africa’s elephant population has been devastated, and Africa’s rhino population, a majority of which is in South Africa, are also critically endangered.

China plays a major role in this destruction. It’s the largest market for ivory in the world, with 70 percent or more of all illegal ivory ending up there. (The United States ranks second.) Investigations have identified Chinese intermediaries in sophisticated international trafficking networks and criminal syndicates behind the illegal ivory and rhino horn trades acrossEastern and Southern Africa.

Demand for elephant ivory has skyrocketed, driven by collectors, investors, and increasingly affluent Chinese consumers.

Demand for elephant ivory has skyrocketed, driven by collectors, investors, and increasingly affluent Chinese consumers. China is also a primary market for rhino horn, which is widely and fallaciously believed to have curative properties for cancer, headaches, and other ailments.

Our survey shows that knowledge of, or personal experience with, the ivory and rhino horn trade remains common among Chinese in South Africa. Only 16 percent of those surveyed claim to have never witnessed the sale of ivory products in Africa. “Buying ivory is pretty common, because ivory is loosely regulated,” Mr. Zhang explained. “Around 80 percent of the people onTangren Street [a street in Johannesburg’s Chinatown] have all bought ivory products.” 54 percent of respondents stated that “ivory is bought with the intention” of bringing “some, most, or all of it” back to China. (The survey did not ask who exactly did the buying, to avoid asking respondents if they had committed a crime.) While respondents reported comparatively less exposure to the rhino horn trade — 51 percent of respondents claimed never to have encountered it — in the course of our investigation, one young Chinese shop owner eagerly exhibited rhino horn that he had purchased.

Local sellers target this strong interest, learning a few Chinese words to help advertise their wares in a bustling flea market a few hundred meters from Derrick Avenue, the backbone of Johannesburg’s Chinatown. Traders surround Chinese-looking people as they enter, shouting, “What do you want? We have xiangya [ivory] and xiniujiao [rhino horn]!”

But times are changing. Only 29 percent of respondents who have been in South Africa for less than two years reported in-person exposure to the buying or selling of ivory, compared to 51 among those who have resided longer. A series of outreach campaigns targeting ivory and rhino horn consumers in China, involving figures like NBA star Yao Ming and movie star Jackie Chan, have contributed to a growing awareness within China of the consequences of both trades. But less attention has been devoted to overseas Chinese in Africa, despite their close proximity to — and involvement in — the trades at their roots. As such, an information gap remains; for example, while 55 percent of respondents knew that ivory comes from animals that have been killed for that purpose, nearly a quarter of those surveyed in South Africa claimed to believe, erroneously, that ivory is removed without harm, or removed only from elephants that have died of natural causes.

Respondents weren’t naïve about the impact the trades have had on China’s image. In response to an open question about the impact of the ivory trade, nearly half of those who responded commented on how it’s shaped perceptions of China, both within Africa and on the world’s stage.

One wrote that the ivory and rhino horn trades mean “others will think that Chinese people do not have any reverence for life.”

One wrote that the ivory and rhino horn trades mean “others will think that Chinese people do not have any reverence for life.”

Nevertheless, the large majority of respondents and interviewees made clear they didn’t see consuming ivory or rhino horn as immoral. Despite their relatively close physical proximity to wildlife, Chinese residents of South Africa feel far from it. “This thing, wildlife conservation, for us its still relatively remote, because we have not really had any contact with it,” suggested Mr. Qiao, 40s, another long-time South Africa resident.

Even Zhu, a Buddhist, said she goes hunting with friends, “on farms owned by white people.” Zhu insisted she will “just stand on the side and watch. I cannot bear pointing a gun at an animal. But give me a dead animal to do something with; I wouldn’t have any problem with it.” Her response lays bare the current challenge facing the fight against the trade of ivory and rhino horn. Many Chinese in South Africa regularly encounter the forbidden trades, and are now increasingly aware of their consequences. But they have no real motivation to try to stop them.