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

The following article was written by Yuan Yizhu, Wang Chun, Cheng Ming , student fellows at China House Kenya

Over the past few years China has emerged as one of the world’s biggest markets for illegal wildlife products such as ivory. According to a 2017 BBC news report, China currently accounts for up to 70% of the global ivory demand. In addition to ivory, the trade of animal products such as rhino horn, pangolin and shark fin are all part of a booming industry in China. China is therefore viewed as an increasingly important nation for environmental NGOs to focus their work.
With the aim of decreasing the demand for illegal wildlife products in China, many international and Chinese NGOs work tirelessly. This can be seen in the widespread advertising campaigns that aim to educate people about the cruel practices involved in illegal wildlife trade. Examples of such campaigns include messages such as, “No buying, no killing!” as well as, “Rhino horn is similar to your finger nail”.
Spreading awareness to the general public regarding the atrocities involved in illegal wildlife trade is undoubtedly a positive accomplishment. Many however, believe that this alone is insufficient to effectively combat the illegal trade: These campaigns are unsuccessful as they fail to create significant impressions upon the people who actually partake in the illegal trade, the “real buyers”. From our own social networks and an interview process, we were able to identify eight Chinese buyers of illegal wildlife products. Moreover, their families all own illegal wildlife products such as ornaments made of ivory. These are the real buyers and thus, the people that the wildlife conservation campaigns fail to reach. One-fourth of these real buyer interviewees claimed to have never seen any wildlife conservation campaign.

Objects prohibited shown by Chinese Customs at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport

Hu, a graduate from an art institute, claimed that he had never come across any wildlife protection campaigns. In addition, he explained that at his University, art professors would commonly use ivory carvings to show students examples of highly valued art. This, Hu explains, was done without mention of moral issues regarding the trade of ivory. Hu additionally conveyed to us that his teenage brother, a secondary school student, often buys ivory ornaments in order to exhibit his sophisticated taste as well as his own economic capability.
Rong is another Chinese real buyer, who has been a collector of antiques for the past twenty years. He explained to us that he viewed his generation as generally unaware of the significance of wildlife conservation and thus, generally indifferent towards wildlife conservation campaigns. Instead of the raw material, Rong is more concerned with an item’s artistic characteristics, such as the sculptor’s reputation and the products age. By placing importance on these details, Rong explains, collectors are able to claim larger bragging rights for their expensive pieces of art. When asked about the process of obtaining the ivory, Rong answered, “One cuts the tusk of the elephant from the part where it connects with the face.” According to him, the remaining part of ivory inside the elephant’s face is useless because it is hollow and cannot be used for sculptures. Rong therefore believes that the elephant will not be harmed in the removal of the tusks and thus, obtaining ivory from elephants is an acceptable practice which does not involve animal cruelty.
Other Chinese real buyers had a different response when asked about their feelings regarding the wildlife conservation campaigns. These buyers claimed that the awareness brought about from the campaigns encouraged them to reflect and thus, to change their own behavior. Yanbo is a university student, who became informed about the inhumane practices surrounding the illegal wildlife trade. He is now aware that in order to obtain ivory, elephants are slaughtered. Yanbo explained that in his personal view, the trade of wildlife products should not be illegal, however he does believe that it is necessary to maintain a tightly controlled balance between what is sold and which animals are killed for their products. Yanbo does not agree with limitless illegal poaching of animals.
The fox fur coat bought by Liu in 1986

A 75-year-old interviewee, Liu, once purchased a fox fur-skin coat for his wife. Explaining his choice Liu stated, “The animal has already been killed, so if one does not buy the product isn’t it a bit of a waste?” Moreover, Liu expressed confusion when asked about buying wildlife products claiming, “Even if you don’t buy the product, others certainly will.” Years later, Liu bought another mink coat for his wife as a way to express his love for her. “This new coat is more expensive, more fashionable and much softer,” Liu claimed.
“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 boldly stated. For people like him, wildlife is a commodity used to serve mankind, whether it is used for medicine, art or even food. Evoking empathy for these animals is therefore very difficult when people hold these kinds of beliefs.
Wang Li spent some time working in the Mongla area of Myanmar (Burma), where he would often go with the locals who hunt wildlife for a living. Wang Li explained that, “I can kill any wild animal in Myanmar as long as I pay.” Wang Li has seen Yao Ming’s wildlife conservation advertisements but pays little attention, as he firmly believes that rhino horns possess valuable medical properties. When Wang Li first arrived in Myanmar in 2015 he worked in a casino. From his surroundings, Wang Li witnessed a large amount of Chinese people who purchased wildlife products after winning considerable amounts of money in the casino. Wang Li explained that many Chinese tourists would come to Myanmar specifically to buy and eat wildlife products because in China, these practices are illegal. Some of the most popular products include pangolin, tiger-bone and tiger skin. Furthermore, Wang Li explained that Chinese people visiting Myanmar that did not bring wildlife products back to China would be viewed in a regrettable manner, perhaps they would even lose face.
From the above information, it becomes clear that there is a great need for new and innovative approaches regarding animal conservation. Theses current campaigns seem to do little by ways of impacting the perspectives and beliefs of the real buyers. So what then, might be a more effective way to influence the real buyers? These buyers have actually provided us with some candid advice, which we have divided into two parts: channels and content. The channels are the specific areas where advertising campaigns would best be placed, while the context is concerned with the most suitable material to show in the advertisements.
In the fight to raise awareness, many billboards and posters are placed around cities in areas such as airport terminals and subway stations. A suggestion made was to rather place these posters in areas where the wildlife trade actually takes place. Hu, an expert in antiques, claimed that he has never any advertisements that promote the ban on wildlife trade. Hu stated, “The government supervises the antique market, but its focus on wildlife products is far less than that of historic relics stolen from graves.”
Wang is a Chinese engineer who traveled between China and Africa several times between 2009 and 2011. Wang has seen an abundance of wildlife protection campaigns around the trade markets in Ethiopia, which leads him to believe that the Ethiopian wildlife regulations are a lot stricter. Mostly however, Wang became aware of the wildlife campaigns through celebrity-backed advertisements, parades in foreign countries as well as domestic news depicting horrific images of beautiful animals being inhumanely slaughtered. Wang believes that, “When it comes to the content, you have to show images that are brutal and violent in order to impact real buyers.” Moreover, Wang believes that slogans such as, “no buying, no killing” is ineffective in evoking any kind of response from real buyers. “Unfortunately,” states Wang, “in this situation, messages are only effective if their content is bloody and violent.” “Canadians used to kill sea lions, and when they did this terrible action, the blood of sea lions would wash down the coast and dye the ocean a dark red.” This process, Wang explains, was a striking image that he was unable to forget and thus, proposes using a similarly shocking strategy.
Many Chinese businessmen who travel frequently between Africa and China cite the lack of relevant laws and loose customs regulations by the local authorities as the primary reasons for their continuation in bringing these illegal wildlife products back to China. Additionally, Chinese businessmen have communicated their skepticism towards the regulations, as it is often possible for them to pay a bribe to be allowed to bring the products in. The lack of enforcement therefore encourages smugglers to continue bringing illegal wildlife products back to China with little to no consequences.
Jimmy is a project manager for a mobile phone company based in Nigeria and claims that, “I consider ivory as a kind of souvenir.” Jimmy told us that in 2007, ivory was quite cheap. A complete ivory tusk only cost a few thousand RMB, and so because of this cheap price, there was a huge increase in demand for ivory, especially from nations such as China. More importantly, Jimmy cites the phenomenon where “everyone jumps on the bandwagon” to play a significant role in the increasing purchasing of wildlife products. Jimmy explains that many of his friends come to Africa and then take various wildlife products, specifically ivory, back to China.
A possible effective measure in fighting the illegal trade of wildlife might come from fellow family members. Liu (the purchaser of fox-skin coats) recently changed his attitude because of his daughter’s intervention.
Similar to Liu, Qing also received opposition from his daughter. Qing claimed that it was difficult for him to be able to access conservation information. Recently however, the anti-corruption campaign in China has triggered remarkable restrictions towards wildlife dishes. In addition to these official restrictions, 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 a limited effect compared to that of law enforcement”, claims Yanbo. For the younger generation however, education and increased awareness are going to be vital in driving any significant changes. In these interviews, younger interviewees were more open to learning about wildlife conservation. This new and fresh outlook from the younger generation is going to be a key asset in the fight to save the world’s animals. Through the youth we will be able to raise awareness and spark a need to preserve our world and its animals for our future generations.
Edited by Stephanie Ferrand.