Is China to blame for Africa’s conservation issues, or has the record got stuck? asks Jessica Hatcher
learning about traditional culture

Learning about traditional culture at Sera Wildlife Conservancy.

China is a tiger with Africa in its claws. It has an insatiable appetite – for minerals, oil, and now animals. The Chinese are the new colonisers, hell-bent on the second scramble for the continent. They eat dogs with chopsticks and tortoises with teaspoons. The rescue centre in Nairobi has reported people re-homing mongrels only to return days later, hungry for more.

Many rumours are based on truth. But some are not, such as the belief that China is using prison-labour in Africa. A number of studies have found no evidence to support the claim. Similarly, that rhino-horn is used as an aphrodisiac. This also is not true. Rhino horn has formed a part of the Chinese pharmaceutical repertoire for thousands of years. According to the 16th century medical compendium, the Béncau Gãngmù, it was prescribed for many things, including carbuncles. But never as a passion potion.

It cannot be denied that China is hungry. The country has over 1.3 billion people (more than the entire population of Africa) and the primary objective guiding its foreign policy is to improve the living standards of those people. The Economist’s latest prediction is that China will overtake America as the world’s biggest economy in 2018. European interests in East Africa still dwarf those of China and Britain, according to William Hague, and remains Kenya’s biggest trading partner, but the region is seeing an extraordinary rise in Chinese investment, and high levels of trade; trade between Kenya and China more than doubled in 2009.

China suffers a very poor reputation abroad and is heavily criticised in sub-Saharan countries for causing environmental degradation, notably poaching. “There is a war going on in the bush,” said Charlie Mayhew, CEO of Tusk Trust. Africa’s flagship species – in particular elephant and rhino – are being butchered to feed a lucrative Asian trade in their body parts. An urgent problem and an audacious form of theft, if allowed to continue it will result in extinction.

When I persuaded a group of 50 of China’s elite – billionaire businessmen, their celebrity friends and family – to allow me to join them on safari in Kenya, not for a second did I expect to come away with a lesson in conservation myself.

The Silent War

chinese guests in samburu traditional dance

Chinese guests joined the traditional dance with Samburu warriors at Sera.

While my companions are not the sort to feast on stray dogs, they are, I’m told, likely to have bought ivory before and, almost without exception, are in Africa for the first time. A handful of top-ranking businessmen, one of the world’s most expensive living artists, a TV presenter and the Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar, these people form part of the rising wealthy class in China that is criticised for rampant consumption of everything, from Louis Vuitton to elegant ivory and powdered horn.

Organising this trip is The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a US-headquartered charity that operates in 32 countries worldwide and has worked in China since 1998 to preserve its wildlife and promote a more globalised approach to conservation. Some of the guests are trustees of the charity, others, it is hoped, will be inspired to join the cause.

The New Elite

Arriving at Richard’s Camp, a tented haven in the Masai Mara, it’s like a Chinese episode of “I’m a Celebrity...” Tablet computers, diamanté-studded mobile phones and camera lenses the size of small turrets litter the rustic wooden surfaces.

Shannon Qu, 29, is a Business Development Officer at TNC. She is neat, efficient and direct. “From a Chinese perspective, Africa is where humans came from. The Chinese are not religious – we see life in that light,” she said. “China has been an important business partner with Africa, but people now think it’s important to get to know the culture.”

The Chinese guests are paying for themselves but TNC in China has organised everything down to translations (the Mandarin name for a red-billed buffalo weaver trips off Shannon’s tongue). The staff members have been swotting up on Kenyan wildlife for months to help their guests appreciate it. Jian Ma is a Project Manager at TNC in China.

“The best outcome is to get [the guests] to know the beautiful nature of Africa and the great challenge they’re facing, and that the problems they’re facing relate to Chinese demand. After that we can think about action. This is education.”

A Different Approach

This non-confrontational approach could be instructive to those trying to manage the poaching crisis. As an example, shark fin soup is a billion dollar industry growing at 5% annually in China – the process leaves sharks to die slowly at the bottom of the ocean – that the West disagrees with loudly. The issue has become politicised. The ensuing East versus West debate has done little to resolve the matter and is an illustration of why telling China what to do may not be a prudent or effective plan.

bartering traditional masai craft

Bartering for traditional Maasai crafts in the Mara.

One afternoon I sat under an acacia tree with Karen, a 39-year old financier who lives in Hong Kong. I told Karen that in South Africa alone more than one rhinoceros is being killed for its horn every day. “My goodness,” she said, baffled. Karen had not heard of rhino horn being used as medicine for at least 25 years, around the time it became illegal.

Karen asked why the Kenyan government isn’t doing more. In China, death was the maximum punishment for killing a giant panda until the law was revised in 1997 and rhino horn smuggling carries a sentence of 12 years.

In Kenya, however, sentencing is erratic and bribery endemic – poachers can serve as little as 24-hours. A new wildlife bill may help to rectify this but currently the penalties do not match the crimes and the battles are being fought in the bush.

Zhang Huan, 46, is a world-renowned Chinese contemporary artist based in New York. He is an enthusiastic safari companion whose finger barely leaves the trigger of his camera. When I ask about the state of affairs in China, Huan’s response is candid. “It is good. In China, people can feed themselves now.” Like many of the successful businessmen, Huan knows hardship. The world’s environmental concerns crystallise for him in the memory of not having enough food or clean water as a child. “The living condition was very bad. We lived on potatoes, corns, carrots and cabbage.” He nevertheless described himself as a “wild kid” who was happy, like young boys the world over, catching fish and climbing trees.

For me, this was the crux of understanding China’s position on the world stage. Everyone I spoke to remembers with clarity a time when China had no food security, terrible water sanitation, and disease was prevalent. China is a single-party state. It has the ability to plan policies many years in advance. It is in part for this reason that it has developed at such an astonishing rate.

Growing Green

Jim Zhang is the North Asia Managing Director at TNC and responsible for inviting many of these high-profile guests. Zhang is extremely likeable with an enquiring mind and infectious enthusiasm.

Before turning to conservation, he was CEO of a Nasdaq-listed software company. “The Chinese are reformers, changing themselves,” he said. Jim described his visits to Cairo in 1986 and South Africa in 1992. “There were more cars, highrise buildings, rich people; China was far behind.” On landing in Nairobi this year however, it was clear to him: “China is way ahead.”

According to Zhang, China has realised that it can no longer prioritise economic development at the expense of the environment. The critical moment, he said, was the outbreak of SARS in 2003. “From then people started talking. Something was wrong with our society. We had drought, food security issues, climate change. Can we continue with this economic model, people asked? Everyone said, ‘no’. Now is the turning point.”

In contrast to the West’s failed lobbying of the shark-fin soup industry, Zhang recently launched a ‘cyber conservation’ campaign in Beijing to address the issue. 95% of shark fin in China is imported, so Zhang is working with the government to ban imports. A single blog post of his prompted an immediate response from 30,000 people who voted almost unanimously in support of the ban. Zhang predicts that the Internet will result in an environmental movement in China similar to the rise of the green parties in Europe during the 1980s. “I see the same patterns now,” he continued.

Like Zhang, my safari companion Huan is a living example of the changes taking place. His October exhibition at the Rockefeller Centre in Shanghai asked: “How to develop the world in a sustainable and harmonious way? How to restrain ourselves from rapacious plunder?” It is a forthright approach to tackling problems, and one which I am beginning to see as typically Chinese.

Flying to our second destination, Sera Wildlife Conservancy in the arid north, Zhang pointed to what is known locally as The China Road. It is 2,000 kilometres of tarmac linking Mombasa in southern Kenya to Addis Ababa in central Ethiopia, so-called because of the Chinese construction firms working on it. From the air, it cuts through the bush like a satellite image of the Great Wall of China, a structure built to separate warring states of the Zhao Dynasty, but that following unification came to symbolise= harmony. The China Road on the other hand was commissioned on the altruistic grounds of connecting people, but it is increasingly being seen as a highway for criminals (poachers in particular) and a symbol of disharmony and discord. The China road has become a metaphor for China’s growing influence in Africa – “development”, but at what cost?

Taking Conservation to China

Using wildlife conservation as a means to development is of particular interest to Jim Zhang and his friends. At Zhang’s behest, 16 of them have each put half a million dollars into a pot to buy an area of forest land in the Sizuan Province that will house one fifth of the world’s giant panda population. The Sizuan Nature Protection Fund will form China’s first private wildlife conservancy (until recently, there was no private land ownership in China) and it will be based on a model here in Kenya. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Laikipia is the flagship project of the Northern Rangelands Trust. NRT is an organisation that supports over 60,000 pastoralists in the management of 2.5 million acres of land, on which they use their environment to develop sustainable income streams.

“We will exactly follow what they have done here at Lewa in Sichuan province,” Zhang said. “We will train rangers and educate the local community, set up social enterprises selling organic mushrooms and forest honey.” The Sichuan Nature Reserve provides no solution to China’s consumption of animal parts, but it is another signifier of holistic change. Grace Gabriel, Asia Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is also seeing change. In towns and cities, outbreaks of rabies are dealt with by organised culls, during which people take to the streets with sticks and bats and bludgeon dogs to death. For the first time this year, Gabriel said a civil action group put a stop to an official cull. Gabriel added that people in China are moving on from medicinal rhino horn.

When I asked Shannon whether any of the business leaders here might have used rhino horn to treat illness, she looked appalled. “Seriously? These people got wealthy for a reason,” she responded. In Mandarin, luo hou is a pejorative term levelled against people that are in some way backward. Shannon’s disdain suggests users of medicinal rhino horn fall into that category in modern China.

Tom Milliken is the elephant and rhino expert at Traffic, the world’s largest wildlife trade monitoring network. Milliken confirms that Vietnam, not China, is now the preeminent market destination for illegally sourced rhino horns, following a rumour about a fictitious Vietnamese politician who cured his cancer using rhino horn.

Ivory presents a different story. China is still the world’s largest illegal ivory market, but is not the only offender. Thailand is a new key-player. Experts credit Chinese officials with taking the ivory problem seriously, but have warned that the Thai government is dragging its feet in clamping down on illegal activity. The trade in Thailand meets none of the requirements of a legal domestic ivory market. As Milliken says, “Thailand is running the world’s largest unregulated ivory market with impunity.”

The Lewa Model

When we arrived at Lewa, the third and final destination, I informed Ian Craig, Lewa’s founder, that China’s first ever private nature conservancy will be based on his model. For a modest and softly-spoken man, Ian conveyed a good deal of excitement. It is this model, which relies on the support of local communities, that Ian believes could put a stop to the insensible poaching. “Communities know who the criminals are in their own society. If welfare, education and employment is going to be jeopardised by the outside killing of an animal, they won’t let it happen.”

Ian sees the poaching crisis as a side-effect of globalisation. Despite the butchery, he is optimistic. He appreciates that China might have an impact on the demand for animal parts, but also sees it as a massive economic opportunity. “I notice more and more Chinese tourists,” he noted. “That’s going to make changes, have a positive impact.”

Looking Forward

When the China group arrived in Nairobi and paid a visit to the City Market, the East Africa souvenir seeker’s mecca, they were greeted with cries of “Ní hao” and “huãn yíng.” “China has the biggest tourist economy in the world,” Zhang explained. China forecasts 100 million travellers spending $100 billion by 2015, which will then make it the biggest outbound market in the world. With Kenya Airways flying to Nairobi from Guangzhou in less than 11 hours, Africa is closer than Europe. By 2015, if one in every hundred Chinese tourists came to Kenya, the number of visitors to the country would double. This would doubtless present fresh challenges, but also an opportunity for engagement. “First they see the beauty,” Zhang said of

Chinese visitors to Africa. “Then they think if that beauty in nature disappeared, what a loss that would be for the world.” Charlie Mayhew of Tusk Trust agrees that Africa must engage with China in order to make progress. “It would be great if African governments could stand up to the Chinese and say ‘elephants and rhino are our megafauna, our iconic species in exactly the same way the Giant Panda is yours. We’re appealing to you to recognise and respect these species as a valuable part of our natural heritage,’” he said.

While we were in the Masai Mara, an elephant was found dead just a few miles from camp, its face removed by a chainsaw. Richard Roberts, owner of Richard’s Camp and Director of the Mara Elephant Project, explained to 20 of us over dinner that the poachers must remove the whole face to get at the tusks. We sat in silence around a long trestle table under the stars and watched as he flicked through a slideshow of images from recent poaching incidents on a computer screen.

It was like a macabre drive-in movie and jarred horribly with the Karen Blixen-esque charm of our surroundings. His impromptu presentation was met with horror. Over 70% of people in China don’t realise elephants must die to harvest their ivory. “After this, things will never be the same again,” offered one of the businessmen, speaking of what he had learned. Now that’s engagement.