Will China's race for new thinking save the elephants?

By Jamie Joseph
Over the weekend I caught up with Eric Olander, founder of the China Africa Project and co-host of the weekly China in Africa Podcast, with hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide. It became clear to me a long time ago that if I was ever going to really get a grip on Africa’s poaching crisis, I’d need to understand the relationship between the Chinese and the various African governments, and what really makes China tick. Based on my initial and future conversations with Eric, I will be launching a China – Africa series shortly, but in the meantime I wanted to bring attention to a brand new China in Africa podcast episode that went live today: The politics of banning ivory in China.

In this interview with Peter Knights, co founder and executive director of WildAid, Eric points out that even during his own research there appears to be a very dramatic generational divide. The older Chinese put real value on ivory, and the under 30 generation think it’s really quite uncool and out of fashion. When we look at the data on the survivability of the elephants in the wild, some estimates say we only have a decade left to save them.
In the race for new Chinese thinking, will the elephants make it?

Peter Knights, WildAid
Says Peter Knights, “It is often the youth that are persuading their parents and grandparents to change their ways. If you view it like an advertising campaign, such as bringing a product to market, change can happen in a rapid time period. We want to create an aspiration to NOT consume these animal products. WildAid has been lucky to work with incredible ambassadors such as Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, and they have helped us to brand conservation as something that is aspirational.”
Knights points out that in Taiwan, for example, in the previous rhino poaching crisis, there was a flip during a two to three year process; the US imposed sanctions, and there was massive media coverage, denial, exposure, denial, exposure. And then society moved on. And now Taiwan isn’t even on the radar for rhino horn consumption.
“We now have tools we never had before, such as media outreach through social media,” continues Knights. “And CCTV, China’s main TV network, just screened an advert with David Beckham, Prince William and Yao Ming 72 times in one day. When these things flip they flip as a society, and we have already seen with our anti shark finning campaigns a 50 to 70% reduction, which nobody would have ever believed possible. The Chinese government has also donated US$200m in media value to our campaigns. We see a pattern of positive action from the Chinese government, and we want to encourage more action. The real winner, and we have talked to the government about this, is if they banned the sales of ivory in China.”
There are a few rumors going around that 2015 will be the year China ban the domestic ivory trade. I mean, why wouldn’t they? It just doesn’t make any sense. If China banned ivory sales the economic impact there would be minuscule, but it would really help Africa – and the boost for China’s image in Africa and globally would be immense.

“It is somewhat frustrating,” agrees Knights in conversation with Eric. “Because I think that the banning of ivory sales would be the best thing ever for Chinese international public relations. It just gets stuck in various levels of bureaucracy, and you do feel that if you could sit down with the President of China and explain the pros and cons, it’s a no brainer decision, at that level. But underneath that level are people in different ministries, such as the state forestry administration which is rigorously set up to produce wildlife, not conserve it. And so there are certain elements internally that very much see their job as creating economic growth, even though the legal ivory trade is tiny.”

The good news is that China’s National People’s Congress, an advisory body, has consecutively proposed the ban, and so it has gone through the system. WildAid ambassador Yao Ming proposed the ban, and others, and now we are just relying on people seeing the big picture and looking past the five tonnes of ivory – which in Chinese economic terms is worth peanuts.
Listen to the full podcast here.