In June, faciliated by the Humane Society International, I was invited by the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens (CAZG) to attend a two day meeting of 47 Chinese Zoo Directors in Shenzhen, China. My invitation followed the bad press that China received in relation to the importation of baby elephants from Zimbabwe late last year. At least one of these babies died and another became seriously ill. Zimbabwe had earlier given assurances that it would stop the capture of baby elephants for captivity and the news of the shipment and deaths and rumour that more babies were awaiting capture and export, prompted an international outcry.
The CAGZ was eager not to be caught up in such exposure again and I was asked to give a 90 minute presentation on the topic of "The Importance of Animal Behavior in Import Decisions". The trip to China offered an excellent opportunity to also speak about another topic involving elephants and China and Petter and I decided that I should extend my stay to include Hong Kong and Beijing to talk about elephants, poaching and the ivory trade.
I arrived in Hong Kong on the afternoon 14 June and that evening gave a lecture on elephants and the ivory trade at the Royal Geographical Society and an interview with Jennifer Ngo of the South China Morning Post (click for headline). Jennifer’s article was picked up by The Daily Mail and also the New York Times and Asia News.
The following morning, 15 June, I was interviewed by freelance journalist, Kate Whitehead, and by Joyee Chan, who wrote an article for the Young Readers edition of the South China Morning Post published on 2 July.
That afternoon in a Starbucks in Kowloon was the first meeting of a loose group of people who are keen to do something to stop the trafficking of ivory through Hong Kong and into China. In the photographs below from left to right Christian Pilard (Eco-Sys Action Foundation), Joyce Lau and Victoria Chin (both Jane Goodall Institute), Alex Hofford (Conservation Photo journalist), Joyce Poole (ElephantVoices) and Iris Ho (Humane Society International). Alex took some photos while showing me a couple of ivory outlets in Hong Kong - I wasn't amused.
Celia Ho, the "Elephant Girl" arrived soon afterwards and we had a really nice meeting just the two of us, in which she presented me with an origami elephants with the words “Every Tusk Costs a Life, Don’t Buy Ivory” written on it.
The following morning, 16 June, Iris Ho and I took the train to the border and crossed into mainland China and on to the Zoo Director’s meeting in Shenzhen. I spoke to the Directors on 18 June, using the occasion to introduce the audience to elephant society and behavior, why the capture and importation of baby elephants is a very bad idea and why elephants don’t do well in captivity. You'll find my summary slide here. I also asked the Zoo Directors to educate their visitors not to buy ivory - but it is fair to say that they didn't particularly like the Every Tusk Costs a Life campaign artwork I showed them. I was forgiven, one of them said, for not knowing that the artwork spelled China in Mandarin...
On 19th I flew from Shenzhen in southern China to Beijing, where I spent the last four days of my China trip, primarily in the care of IFAW and, most particularly, Qi Zhang, or “Sabrina”. She came to meet me at my hotel that evening and took me on my only real touristic experience, which was a delicious meal at a classic Chinese restaurant, a visit to Tianamen Square and a drive through a hutong by bicycle rickshaw.
On the morning 20th I was met at my hotel by Chunmei Hu, a young Chinese student who has just graduated from Veterinary School and hopes to work in an animal rescue center. I had "met" Chunmei via email earlier in the year when the news of the death of the Zimbabwean baby elephant broke in China and made waves around the world. Chunmei and I have been corresponding since then about the plight of elephants in Chinese Zoos, and she wanted me to speak at a symposium of Zoo Watch China. She took me out to lunch prior to the gathering where I met some of her animal welfare colleagues including Prof. Ping Mang from the Academy of Chinese Culture.
Professor Mang coordinated the symposium which included several presentations on the state of elephants in Chinese Zoos as well as some of the legal problems related to the law - or lack thereof - for animal protection. The photographs and videos that were shown were completely heartbreaking. It may be a good thing that I didn’t see them before I gave my talk to the Zoo Directors. I had been given clear instructions not to mention any Chinese elephant welfare examples, to avoid embarrassing the Directors, but I don’t think I would have been able to keep silent had I seen the images first. The symposium was well attended by journalists and I gave a couple of interviews after the Symposium including with China Daily, also covered in it's US version and the Global Times.
The schedule of 21 June began at 10:00 a.m. with a meeting with the Head of the Department of Wild Animal Protection and the Head and Deputy Head of the Division of Wild Animal Conservation and Management to discuss the ivory trade. It took quite a bit of effort to achieve the meeting and I had been forewarned that this Ministry, which is home to both the CITES Managament Authority and the CAZG, is known for being very conservative on issues related to animal welfare and ivory trade. When I broached the topic of China’s involvement in the illegal ivory trade they responded with a list of arguments that can only be read as denial.
For example, I was told that since 1900 colonials killed 8 million of Africa’s elephants; that some 800 tons of ivory is being traded on the Internet by the United States and other countries masquerading as pre-ban ivory; China has very good law enforcement/regulations and, therefore, it is not China that is at fault, but her neighboring countries; rumors of the hoarding of ivory and rumors of high prices are killing the elephant, not China (i.e. it is rumor-mongering that is leading to escalated poaching not facts); and when I asked how they were going to meet CITES recommendation to reduce demand, I was told that China has good education to restrict people to purchasing just legal stock.
The meeting was useful in that I learned that to change the status quo we cannot rely on bureaucrats associated with China's CITES Management Authority. I was reminded again that CITES is an international body mandated to regulate trade in wildlife products; it is not a wildlife conservation body. These individuals are too pro trade to be able to admit that their Ministry is failing to control the ivory trade, nor to be able to see that that failure is ruining China’s reputation in the eyes of the world.
The meeting was followed by four interviews all organized by IFAW China - the first with CCTV, followed by a radio interview with China Radio International, then another with China Daily and, finally, an unusual and interesting interview with an engaging journalist, Gao Wenxing, of the China Philanthropy Times, which falls under the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
In the meantime, on the same day, far away in the Philippines, the crushing of a five-ton ivory stockpile was underway. This event was covered by the New York Times, which made mention of my trip.
On my last day in Beijing, 22 June, I gave a final lecture which was held in the Auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences. The event was organized by IFAW and their team coordinated by Sabrina did a fantastic job. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up to the Academy of Sciences and there, attached securely to the side of the building, was the most enormous banner announcing the lecture with pictures of elephants and me:-).
As I was speaking to the interpreter in a side room, the air suddenly began to vibrate with the sound of “Ele-Beats”. Sabrina had found it on our website and downloaded it for people to listen to as they registered. There was no need to check the sound system – the woofers were certainly fit for low frequency elephant rumbles! When I walked into the 300-seat auditorium I had my next surprise. The screen was enormous – stretching the entire width of the room and Sabrina and the IFAW team had put together a slide show of elephants and the history of Joyce. I was astonished!
As “Ele-Beats” played on and on (and on!), the auditorium gradually filled up with parents and small children, primary school and secondary school students, teachers, scientists, professors, members of the press and Li Bingbing’s assistant, Eline, whom I had been looking forward to meeting. And then it was time to speak to this vibrant crowd.
Grace Gabriel had organized a panel discussion afterwards and time for Q&A. So when I had finished speaking Grace, Jie Yu of the Nature Conservancy (who co-sponsored the talk with IFAW) and CCTV Host, Yue Zhang, (introduced to me as "China’s Oprah Winfrey" as I was to soon understood why!), joined me on stage. Yue Zhang spoke passionately about elephants and other animals and did a fantastic job of leading the questions and keeping the discussion lively. That hour-long Q&A was my next China surprise. I was blown-away by the caliber of questions from the audience – from both young and old, layman and professional. I have given many talks, but this was the most intelligent and compassionate audience I have ever had the pleasure to engage with.
So what did I learn and ElephantVoices achieve? And what can YOU do? I went to China not knowing what to expect. I, admittedly, went in despair over the elephant poaching horror and China's key role in it confirmed by facts and figures of ivory shipments from well reputed sources. The sad situation simply cannot be denied, even though many government officials are trying to do so. I am more convinced than ever before that ALL trade must be banned, to send the clear signals so much needed.
It is obviously impossible to know if my lectures, meetings and the many headlines that have followed have made any impression on those in power. However, having met so many outward and forward looking, curious people who care deeply about the world they inhabit, I have come away with more optimism.
We all know that the effort to educate people about the connection between the purchase of ivory and the killing of elephants needs to be widespread and massive. And we urgently need the Chinese government to be loud and clear in communicating that it is shameful and embarrassing for China to be seen by the global community as responsible for the buying of body parts that, accumulated, leaves tens of thousands of elephants dead in Africa every year. As a colossal investor in Africa, China has a lot to lose if the death and destruction continues. We can only dare to hope that those behind China's new "soft power" approach will take the lead in turning the fate of elephants around. We will all lose part of our pride, and our soul, if the killing of elephants doesn't stop.
You can be part of the tsunami needed to create change - to save elephants. You may not be able to inspire more diplomatic approaches, but you can write on Facebook, get a friend to post on Weibo, contact your politician, talk to a journalist - and participate in upcoming marches and other arrangements focusing on the ivory trade and what urgently should be done. In any way you can, try to ensure that the message is shared in a medium that can reach someone in China. Please include information that people should know about in that regard in the comment field below this blog post. Your suggestions and thoughts are welcome!
I'd like to send a warm Thank You to all my new friends in Hong Kong and mainland China - the hospitality and kind and efficient efforts by so many made a huge difference to my busy program. A special thank you to Jacqueline and William Furniss for hosting me in Hong Kong, and to the Humane Society International and International Fund for Animal Welfare for inspiration and support.