Original article is in Mandarin. Below is a shortened, English version.
In everyone’s life, there are always some inspiring friends who take a less well-travelled path. Gao is just such a friend to me. Gao has devoted himself to becoming a conservationist, a career that is not desirable in China.
In 2008 he started working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) China Program. In Northern Tibet he investigated the conflict between herders and brown bears, in Northeastern China he participated in the conservation of Amur tiger, in the lower reaches of Yangtze River he facilitated community education campaigns to protect the Chinese alligators. In September 2012, Gao left the Tibetan plateau, and became a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He decided to study ivory trade as his research topic because of a widespread article where China was portrayed as the “greatest villain” for the terrible elephant poaching in Africa.
According to this and many other English news articles, Chinese economy growth has created a burgeoning middle class who are keen on consuming ivory to show off their social status, and this “Chinese insatiable appetite for ivory” creates incentives for illegal poaching, thereby threatening the survival of African elephants. Because of his experience with wildlife conservation in China, Gao immediately realised a great gap between Chinese and Western understandings of the ivory trade. A lot of Chinese, including government officials and experts, accused Western media and NGOs of exaggerating Chinese ivory market and demand.
In the summer of 2013, Gao started his fieldwork in several different countries. In Kenya, while staying with a group of field conservationists in Samburu, he heard gun shots from poachers, saw elephant carcasses, and talked to local people living in close proximity to elephants. In Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, he pretended he was an ivory buyer and collected information by interacting with illegal dealers in the black markets. In Botswana he talked to government officials and conservation practitioners on how to effectively curb the illegal killing. He also returned to Hong Kong and a number of cities in mainland China. He visited the legal and illegal ivory facilities, observed and carried out conversations with ivory sellers and buyers to get first hand information about the market. Furthermore, back in the US, he attended a variety of conferences and events including the ivory crush in Denver.
The work he had done was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Gradually, he put all the messy pieces into an integrated framework that neatly illustrated what was going on with the complicated elephant poaching and ivory trafficking problem. He explained that many people often only saw the first layer of the problem, that is, the obvious phenomena such as poaching and trafficking. He believed that these undesired phenomena surface due to a lack of well-functioned social and decision-making processes. Fundamentally, he said the elephant problem is about the constitutive decision process.
Elephant poaching and international ivory trafficking involves a multitude of actors with diverse interests and values. Different actors essentially have different goals. They often see the problem differently in terms of the trends, drivers, and future projections, and consequently, they propose different solutions. To compound matters, the elephant poaching problem is intimately linked to many other issues, for example, corruption, terrorism, and international relations.
China has long history of ivory carving, but after the CITES ban on international commercial ivory trade in 1989, the ivory carving industry was almost extinct. But with the CITES approval, China imported 62 metric tons of ivory from some Southern African countries in 2009. According to many NGOs and media, this influx of ivory stimulated Chinese demand, and thereby leading to the surge of elephant poaching in Africa.
Gao’s study showed that Chinese society attaches a number of different values to ivory. These values range from cultural and artistic merits, to economic, religious, social, and medicinal benefits.Around 2002 the Chinese government started to put traditional culture preservation on the agenda, and ivory carving hence resurrected in this tide of cultural revival. In 2006 ivory carving was designated as a national intangible cultural heritage, enjoying substantial support from the state. This recognition enhanced the cultural values of ivory carving, making it more precious. Then after 2008 as real estate and stock markets underwent depression, a large amount of capital from individuals and professional investment companies started to enter the art market. Many kinds of antiques and collectibles became extremely popular. Just like the ancient Chinese paintings, porcelains and jades, antique ivory was rapidly promoted as a profitable investment alternative.
During his investigation in China, Gao noticed some traders of legal ivory shops were found to be implicated in laundering illegal ivory by taking advantage of the flawed identification card system. He also noticed that many illegal ivory dealers had started shifting their business to the online forums for example in the Baidu Post Bar, an online discussion group, many ivory traders post photos of raw and worked ivory for sale, usually low-end ivory trinkets. They used the wechat (Chinese version of “whatsapp”) to communicate with potential consumers. Gao said that he had reported the phenomena to relevant authorities, companies, and NGOs, but until now concrete actions have yet to come.
In addition to the legal “white” market and illegal “black” market, Gao found a “grey market” which has so far received little attention from Western organisations and media. He referred the grey market exclusively to the live auction of ivory products. This is a grey market because the current ivory regulation policy does not distinguish between antique and new ivory products. Gao’s quantitative analysis showed that this grey market started to surge around 2006, mushroomed after 2009, and peaked in 2011 – exactly the trend of elephant poaching in Africa. Fortunately, an official intervention by the end of December in 2011 banned the ivory auction and curbed the rising rate of quantity of ivory put on auction. Media coverage about the astronomical prices of auctioned ivory greatly boosted the perceived economic value of ivory products, no matter whether it was new or old, which therefore led to an expansion of ivory demand.
Gao noted that ivory consumption in China is not as popular as many Western and African NGOs and media claim to be. He believed, the perception that “hundreds of millions” of “Chinese middle class” are demanding ivory is definitely an overstatement. According to his estimation, potential ivory buyers are probably less than 1% of the Chinese population. Most Chinese never see ivory in their daily life, not to mention purchasing ivory. However, Gao also noted that given the 1.4 billion Chinese population even a tiny percentage can mean a large demand, and can exert far-reaching impacts.
In Gao’s view, some western NGOs and media know little about China’s domestic ivory trade and use inaccurate information in their advocacy campaigns, as some Chinese officials have pointed out and expressed concerns about. But it is also true that China bears inescapable responsibility for the elephant poaching problem. However, quite often, Chinese actors and the Western and African actors are simply talking past each other, misperceiving the knowledge, views, intentions, and constrains of the other side. The continuing unconstructive polemics reinforce the conflicting differences, creating mistrust, and preventing a broad and effective coalition which is urgently needed.
What is needed, but so far receives little attention, is the creation of new social arenas where these different perspectives can honestly and genuinely interact, compromise, and integrate. It is out of this conviction that Gao decided to launch a multi-cultural trip to the ivory trade centers in China. Two young Kenyan conservation professionals, Resson and Chris, are going to join him in the trip from June 7 to June 17. Resson is an Oxford graduate working for Save The Elephants as project officer overseeing their elephant conservation programs in Samburu. Chris speaks Chinese and he works for the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign initiated by WildlifeDirect. Both of them are going to participate in the trip as concerned individuals.
By bringing passionate African conservationists to China, Gao hopes this trip can help the Chinese become more aware of the elephant poaching problem and what it means to African people. It was also his hope that this trip can create an opportunity for the Chinese civil society groups to engage in global conservation issues relevant to China. He wants to create a China-Africa Conservation Fellowship to sustain the communication and cooperation between conservation NGOs based in China and Africa, and he is eager to work together with like-mined people to make it happen.
After all these wonderful and eye-opening adventures, Gao has become more certain about his inner calling and more confident about his potential to make a difference. He is grateful to the support from many remarkable figures who have a genuine deep love for nature and who have led him by example. With a more clear voice in his heart, he continues his life journey with a non-stop curiosity and a passionate care for nature and human welfare.