“China’s development will generate huge opportunities and benefits and hold lasting and infinite promise,” President Xi Jinping told business executives gathered in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting late last year.
“As China’s overall national strength grows, China will be both capable and willing to provide more public goods for the Asia-Pacific and the world.”
On a similar occasion, the Chinese leader told China’s neighbors they were welcome “to get on board the train of China’s development”.
China’s phenomenal growth of the last 35 years has created many business opportunities. But it has also had grave negative effects on other countries.
One such negative effect is the rise in demand within a newly rich China for luxury products, such as intricately carved ivory, which is very much a Chinese tradition and which China wants to protect as part of its cultural heritage.
But this has also translated into the rise of criminal gangs involved in slaughtering African elephants, which are in danger of extinction, and of international smuggling rings.
With only about 300,000 elephants left in Africa, about 30,000 are slaughtered each year for their tusks despite a worldwide ban on the ivory trade since 1989.
As Prince William of Britain, a passionate animal conservationist, said in the United States in December, “According to some reports, in China and Southeast Asia the wholesale street price of ivory has increased from US$5 to US$2,100 per kilogram in 25 years. And this is reflected in increases in poaching.”
Not only does China account for the bulk of the demand, but its nationals are also very much involved in the criminal activities as well, in Africa and elsewhere.
Hong Kong plays a key role both as destination and supply hub in this smuggling activity.
In November 2013, three Chinese nationals were arrested in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, and a large quantity of elephant tusks was seized.
The Chinese embassy issued a statement condemning “criminal acts of killing elephants and smuggling ivory” and pledged to support a Tanzanian crackdown.
“China’s national image has been severely undermined by illegal or bad behavior of quite few Chinese,” Ambassador Lu Youqing said.
Lu was unusually frank in discussing the behavior of Chinese operating in Tanzania during an interview with Southern Metropolis newspaper in July, saying that they “steal from each other” and promote infighting within the Tanzanian government by bribing opposing Tanzanian officials to back their interests.
On one occasion, he said, a government department was torn because its head and his deputy had been bribed by rival Chinese companies, and in the end the Tanzanian president had to fire both of them.
The ambassador said Chinese were involved in “ivory smuggling, rhinoceros horn smuggling, illegal mines”, while saying that of course this involved only a small minority of Chinese people.
Of these people, he said, “They don’t have even a single bit of awareness of the law.”
Premier Li Keqiang, during a visit to Kenya last May, announced China would provide US$10 million to support wildlife protection and conservation.
While this is positive, a much more meaningful move would be to ban ivory trading within China.
Last week, a group of 70 high-profile individuals led by British naturalist David Attenborough signed an open letter to Xi urging him to ban the ivory trade.
“The elephants of Africa are dying in their tens of thousands every year to provide ivory for misguided consumers in China and elsewhere,” the letter said.
“Without your help, they will continue to perish and be pushed towards extinction.”
Evidently, much more needs to be done.
As Patrick Omondi, representing the Kenyan government, said at the United Nations: “People in China do not need ivory. They can live without it.
“We need our elephants. We appeal to the Chinese government to ban the legal domestic ivory trade and shut down all ivory markets.”
Next week, Prince William, second in line to the British throne, will be in China and will speak again about wildlife trafficking. His is a simple message: save the elephant.
The world is appealing to China. Africa is appealing to China.
Is China going to listen? Or is it going to blame other people for not doing their part, just as it is now making excuses for the conduct of Chinese tourists abroad by saying that foreign tourists are just as bad?
Elephants are the world’s common heritage. They will not survive unless China takes action because, as President Xi knows well, the lure of the Chinese economy is so strong.
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