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Dialogue with Real Buyers: How to Engage Chinese Against Illegal Wildlife Trade?

Over the past few years, China has emerged to become one of the biggest markets for global illegal wildlife products such as ivory. According to BBC news in 2017, China now accounts for up to 70% of the global demand for ivory. Apart from ivory, the trade of animal products such as rhino horn, pangolin, shark fin and so on, has made China one of the most important countries for environmental NGOs to target.
Multiple NGOs, both international and Chinese, have spent great effort in China to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products. Messages such as “when the buying stops the killing can too” and “rhino horn is similar to fingernails” have been widespread.
However, some are concerned that such measures may not have reached their intended audience, and the impact on those reached may also not be influential enough. We have identified 8 Chinese buyers in our social network who and whose families actually own ivory and other illegal wildlife products, to probe into this question, as they represent the intended audience of wildlife conservation campaigns.
Despite reaching a lot of public, the channels of current awareness-raising may have not yet covered all the real buyers.
One-fourth of our interviewees said that they have never seen wildlife conservation campaigns.
Hu, a graduate from an art institute, states that he has never heard of the publicizing of wildlife protection. In his college, art professors usually use ivory carvings as tools to show students their artistic values, without mentioning the moral considerations of possessing ivory and ivory trade.
Hu’s brother, a teenager in secondary school, used to buy ivory decorations to show his artistic taste and economic capability.
Similarly, Rong, who has been an antique collector for 20 years, states that his generation is generally unacquainted with campaigns about wildlife conservation. Instead of its raw materials, he is more concerned about an item’s artistic implications, such as the sculptor’s reputation and the age of the product. Such knowledge can help collectors learn more about the history of the artwork, or in his word, “easy to brag”.
When asked about the process of getting ivory, Rong answered: “cut their tusk from the part where it connects with the face.” According to him, the remaining part of ivory inside an elephant’s face is useless since it is hollow and cannot be used for sculptures. Rong believes the process of getting ivory is not that cruel.
Additionally, some of the real buyers who have been exposed to conservation messages do not find them to be impactful enough, at least to change their own behavior.
Yanbo, a university student, knowing that you need to kill an elephant in order to get ivory, and aware of the “no buying no killing” phrase, said “yes you need to kill animals, but some people would still ask so what? Selling and buying wildlife products are always acceptable for me,” he says, “if the consumption and protection can reach a balance.”
A 75-year-old interviewee, Liu, once bought a coat made of fox fur for his wife. “The animals have already been killed, so why don’t we buy? Isn’t it a kind of waste?” He feels confusion when asked why he would buy wildlife products. “Even if you don’t, others would.” Years later, he bought another mink for his wife, for it is “more expensive”, “more fashionable”, and “softer”.
“The meat of pangolin can be braised. Its liver can be cooked for soup. And its blood can be used in frying rice”, Wang Li concluded precisely. For people like him, the evocation of empathy is useless, because every part of wildlife is valued as a product be it for medicine, decoration, art or even food.
During working in the Mongla area of Burma, Wang Li had many chances to meet local residents who hunt wildlife for a living. “You can kill any wild animals in Burma, as long as you pay”, Wang Li says. Like other 4 interviewees, although once exposed to Yao Ming’s wildlife conservation advertisements, he still firmly believes that rhino horns possess medical value.
He has worked in a casino since he first came to Burma in 2015. As a result, he was able to see a mass of Chinese people who consumed wildlife products after winning considerable sums of money from gambling. According to information offered by him, most Chinese people choose Burma to buy or eat wildlife products from, because it is illegal in China. Their top choices include pangolin, tiger-bone, and tiger skin. “It is to be regretted if you earn so much money without bringing some wildlife products back to China.”
What might be more effective for the real buyers? They have actually shared some candid advice to us, which can be divided into two parts: channels and content.
As for awareness raising channels, it is suggested that messages be posted where wildlife product trades actually take place, instead of in airports and subways. As an expert in antiques, Hu admits that he has never seen any advertisements that promote the ban on wildlife trade. “The government supervises the antique market,” he says, “but its focus on wildlife products is far less than the historic relics from a robbed grave.”
Wang, an engineer who had traveled between China and Africa several times between 2009 and 2011, says that information calling for the protection of wildlife animals can be seen at the trade market in Ethiopia, which means its regulations are tighter. Mostly, he knows about conservation through celebrity advertisements, parades in foreign countries, and domestic news depicting the image of animals being killed.
“When it comes to the content, you have to show the brutal image in order to touch real buyers, knowing ‘no buying no killing’ is not enough,” said Wang, who suggests that wildlife conservation messages are only effective when they are violent.
“Canadians used to kill sea lions, and whenever they did it, the blood of sea lions dyes the whole coast, turning it to dark red.” Wang describes it as the most impressive news scene in his mind.
For many Chinese businessmen who often travel between Africa and China, the lack of relevant laws and loose regulations in customs authorities are two primary reasons why they continue to bring wildlife products back to China. In addition, Chinese businessmen always doubt the seriousness of regulations, as they can be often be overcome by money. This opinion is strong enough for them to ignore those laws and regulations, and stick to smuggling.
“I consider ivory as a kind of souvenir.” Jimmy, a project manager at a mobile phone company in Nigeria, says, “In 2007, ivory was quite cheap. A complete ivory only cost a few thousand yuan, so the desires of ivory products increasing, especially in China.” More importantly, bandwagoning effects play an important role in the purchase of wildlife products, according to Jimmy, whose friends usually also take some ivory back to China.
Another effective measure might be suggestion from family members. Liu recently changed his attitude because of his daughter’s intervention.
Similar to Liu, Qing also received opposition from his daughter. Ordinarily, he can hardly get access to conservation information. But the anti-corruption campaign in China triggers remarkable restriction towards wildlife dishes. Aside from that, being frequently reminded by family members is also important to him. His daughter often complains about the use of shark fins as a part of special cuisines at government or business dinner parties.
“For the older generation of Chinese, any awareness campaign would have limited effect compared to law enforcement.” said Yanbo. However, with the new generation of Chinese growing up, awareness and education may be the key to fundamental change. In the interviews, younger interviewees had learned more about conservation, reflecting the greater effectiveness that the influence of wildlife protection and awareness raising campaigns have on younger populations.