Join our network

September 21, 2018

China House in Africa: Engaging Chinese communities for wildlife conservation

China House has undertaken wildlife conservation activities among Chinese communities in Africa for four years now. While our task has not been easy, we have learned some valuable lessons from our activities in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia. Getting media coverage for our activities has been important, and we also learned that it is important to get Chinese embassies involved as Chinese communities in Africa can be very fragmented. But beyond this we have learned the importance of reaching down to highly mobile construction workers across the continent. All in all we work day by day and community by community to foster an appreciation of wildlife conservation among Chinese communities, and our work has just begun. The following is a brief summary of lessons learned over the last four years.  

By Huang Hongxiang, Lyu Yanran and Huang Ye

Huang Hongxiang and the founding of China House

After intensively reporting and researching on Chinese engagement in Africa and Latin America between 2011 and 2014, I saw a huge gap between the Chinese communities and the outside world. Due to lack of integration, the Chinese communities know very little about how to communicate with NGOs, local communities and foreign media, and have a lot of misunderstanding about them. The outside world also has a lot of misunderstandings about the Chinese: Are they prisoners? Do they all eat dogs?

In both Africa and Latin America, I saw many NGOs and youth organizations from the west were playing an intermediate role. However, “Chinese NGOs” were almost completely absent at that time.

In 2014 I decided to create a platform to bring young Chinese to Africa and use them to create a bridge between Chinese communities in Africa and foreign NGOs, media, communities and so on. Unlike the old generation, the young generation of Chinese could understand Chinese culture and talk to the Chinese communuties, while at the same time they are more open and could engage with international stakeholders. We started with an empty house in Nairobi where young Chinese could stay, that is why I called it “China House”. If Chinatown is where Chinese isolate themselves from the locals, China House is an open space to create dialogue and exchange between Chinese and the world.

Engaging Chinese communities for wildlife conservation

For the last few decades and now with the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese businesses and migrants have been Going Global. Given that China is a very important market for many illegal wildlife products in the world such as ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales and shark fin, China’s Going Global has had a significant impact on global wildlife conservation.

Read more:
Ivory queen in Tanzania
Abalone trafficking in South Africa
Chinese in Bolivia trafficking jaguar teeth


For one thing, Chinese overseas communities have become an immediate market for local illegal wildlife products, and this stimulates poaching. For another, such communities have become important hubs for illegal wildlife products to be trafficked from Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and so on to China. In some ways China’s outbound investment and communities in Africa have created more challenges for wildlife conservation in the world, especially in places such as Africa and Latin America where poverty and corruption are serious concerns.

However, such Chinese overseas communities have also created opportunities for engaging the Chinese and China in wildlife conservation. Many Chinese nationals back in China will claim that wildlife conservation is something too distant from their lives and they feel very disconnected with the animals. But it’s different for those Chinese living in Africa; they can see wildlife in their natural environment and feel the emotional connection, and they could more likely feel the impact of China’s demand for illegal wildlife products and how this creates a negative image of Chinese people in the African media. Moreover, this image issue could turn into a real challenge of sustainable development of Chinese outbound business.

Over the past few years, more and more NGOs have realized the importance of engaging Chinese communities not only in China but also in places like Africa. Wildlife conservation organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Traffic, and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) have been joining this process of engaging Chinese people in Africa on wildlife conservation. However, the lack of understanding of Chinese communities in Africa and their interaction with the illegal wildlife trade has been the biggest challenge for those NGOs.

A Chinese guy recalled seeing a Chinese billboard at an airport in Africa, saying “The elephant is our national heritage, stop buying ivory.” His immediate reaction was: “National heritage? I should buy more.”

China House has the unique advantage of having the knowledge of and wide networking with Chinese communities in Africa. Not only have we done a lot of research on these communities regarding various aspects, but we have also been providing services for Chinese business communities. They see us as their friend. The nature of China House as a Chinese NGO instead of an international NGO has also helped us reduce Chinese overseas communities’ suspicions of “foreign NGOs”. As China House has garnered more media coverage from CCTV, Xinhua and other Chinese state media, today we have earned the trust of Chinese communities and are in a strong position to create a bridge between Chinese communities in Africa and international organizations.

Thanks to Humane Society International’s support, China House has been running this experimental project of “Engaging Chinese communities in Africa on wildlife conservation” since 2015. We began from scratch and met many challenges as we tried to understand the Chinese in Africa and know how to influence them. As a small and young organization with very limited funding, we were also not able to run high-profile and costly campaigns. However, our project is deeply rooted in Chinese communities in the African countries that we are working in, and we have gradually found some effective ways to reach and influence Chinese people in Africa based on the real and complicated situation we found there over the years.

Kenya: If the Chinese never participated in wildlife conservation before, they do now

Kenya was the first country we worked in after China House was established there in 2014. Back then, not long after Kenya’s new Wildlife Act was passed, Chinese nationals were often arrested at the airport with wildlife products such as ivory. The airport police would call a specific Chinese business association leader to come to “resolve” the situation, which involved translation, going to court, paying the fine and lawyer fees, and bribing some government officers to ensure this process could be done fast enough and without too much intentional “delay”.

Although purchasing ivory has been illegal in Kenya from long before law enforcement became strict and the punishment became a real deterrence to the buyers and traffickers, some Chinese nationals in Kenya would still engage in illegal trafficking of ivory. It does not mean that all of them are professional smugglers or criminals trafficking for profit. In fact, most of the Chinese nationals in Africa are “souvenir-level” buyers, i.e. they would just buy a few ivory products as souvenirs for their friends and family in China. While there are few professional smugglers of large quantities of ivory, if each of the souvenir hunters carries home only a little ivory, the impact on stimulating poaching cannot be underestimated.

Around 2014-2015 when Kenya’s wildlife law became strict, Chinese nationals gradually realized that taking ivory back home was no longer worthwhile. The Chinese people who were arrested in Kenya and whom we saw at the airport, police station or in court were really frightened due to the terrible condition of imprisonment in Kenya.

“If I knew this would be so serious, I would not have bought the ivory at all! It was not worthy to bring such souvenirs!” Many of those arrested Chinese would express their regrets in front of us, although they did not regret their actions out of any sense of pity for the wildlife.

We realized that the behavior of Chinese nationals in Kenya was going through dramatic changes due to the new punishments inherent in enforcement, and this created an opportunity to further engage them. Informing Chinese people in Africa of the legal consequences for getting involved in the wildlife products trade later became one of the main focus areas of our interventions.

Also, we realized there was a huge gap between Chinese communities in Kenya and the wildlife conservation NGOs; they rarely had any interaction and were misunderstanding each other.

Most Chinese in Kenya say they never interact with wildlife conservation at all, and this is the same with Chinese we researched in other African countries, despite that conservation NGOs are locally active.

“Those people talking about ivory are supported by anti-China western people who want to use this to attack us and to destroy the China-Africa friendship,” is something many Chinese in Kenya deeply believe. Yet when I attended wildlife conservation activities of NGOs, I saw how everyone was talking about China despite that I was the only Chinese person there, so misunderstandings on the NGO side are also severe.

“We have heard about that Chinese guy called Simba [the first Chinese to set up wildlife conservation NGO in Kenya], we did not believe that Chinese could do wildlife conservation. Instead, we believed he must be a trafficker doing poaching with this cover,” one Kenya NGO activist said to me.

“We must name and shame the Chinese, this is the way to change them,” said another radical and influential NGO activist to me, before I tried to explain how this may alienate the Chinese communities in Kenya given that they are already skeptical about the motivations of NGOs.

So we decided to do something simple: Use China House to create a bridge and take advantage of us being able to talk to both NGOs and Chinese communities.

In the middle of 2015, working with the Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), we organized a de-snaring volunteering activity for the Chinese in Kenya. What we did was indeed simple: Translate the routine de-snaring activity of ANAW into Chinese, share it through our WeChat account and invite Chinese community members to sign up.

The first activity did not have a great turn out. We had about five Chinese people who attended. However, these Chinese community members found themselves enjoying the process of removing snares on the savanna as an outdoor activity and were deeply moved when they saw how a zebra was injured by a snare and shivered in pain.

“We must stop this cruelty to wildlife. God damn the poachers!” A Chinese participant told us. They told us that in the past, they knew the illegal wildlife trade was bad, but they never really felt it.

“After learning a lot more and feeling it emotionally, I will never buy ivory again,” said a Chinese worker at a real estate company, who in 2013 brought an ivory bangle from Africa to China without being found out at the customs.

See more:
Video: 2016 wildlife project review

We realized that Chinese communities in Africa could be engaged, at least the souvenir type of “smugglers”. Therefore, we partnered with local NGOs and organized more activities in Kenya for the Chinese to join in. Later in other African countries we met Chinese who participated in our 2016 wildlife conservation colour run in Kenya (Chinese communities in Africa often migrate to different countries according to the arrangement of their companies).

Read more:
Chinese nationals back efforts on wildlife conservation


Tanzania: Challenges engaging the Chinese Embassy

At the very beginning of China House we did not find working with Chinese embassies in Africa very easy due to mindset differences.

In our experience many NGOs are under the impression that Chinese embassies in Africa would do a lot of wildlife conservation activities to protect China’s image locally. But in fact like other forms of Chinese aid, this kind of support usually amounts to a donation of equipment and materials but without enough people-to-people communication. Also like other Chinese aid programs in Africa, the mindset of “propaganda” results in less efficient communication.

“We have done a lot of good practical things, but our propaganda is not enough.” Many Chinese in Africa would feel aggrieved that local people see the Chinese as bad people when it comes to wildlife conservation.

What Chinese embassies typically like to do regarding this is to publish an article in local media saying “Chinese people always love wildlife” and so on, without admitting there is a problem, such as China being the biggest market for ivory. When we looked at the social media responses of locals to such articles, we often thought it would have bee better if they were not published at all.

Read more:
Remarks by H.E. Ambassador Lin Songtian of China to South Africa at the Africa-China Wildlife Conservation Conference


The way China House undertakes wildlife conservation projects, and the fact that we would openly admit that China is the largest ivory market in the world, were not well accepted by the Chinese Embassy in Kenya and many Chinese community members. They would say we are “helping the west attack China’s image”. That is why we never worked with the Chinese Embassy in Kenya in the first few years of our project, despite that Kenya was where China House was founded.

A Chinese embassy’s style is usually determined by the style of the ambassador. Some Chinese ambassadors are more open-minded and have realized propaganda is not the way to go, which gave us opportunities to work in a public-private partnership.

In 2016 the Chinese Ambassador in Tanzania was Lv Youqing. He was the first Chinese ambassador in Africa to openly admit to the media and condemn that there were Chinese people smuggling ivory in Africa, while previously Chinese ambassadors would avoid talking about it and simply say “Chinese always love wildlife”. Under such a leadership style, the Chinese Embassy in Tanzania decided to organize a communication campaign to engage the public in a more international way. The primary motivation of the Chinese embassy is to promote China’s positive image in African communities, which is gave us an opportunity to engage the Chinese Embassy.

Due to our previous work in Kenya and CCTV’s coverage of that, China House was introduced to the Embassy in Tanzania to assist us. Together we decided to launch a campaign called Walk for Elephants in which Chinese nationals in Tanzania as well as locals and expats from other countries would walk together from the Chinese Embassy to the Seacliff Hotel in Dar es Salaam to raise awareness for elephant conservation.

Chinese communities in Africa have the appearance of being isolated from their environments, but they are not well integrated internally either. Chinese state-owned companies, private companies, and small business migrants are three segregated groups. When the embassy takes the lead it is much easier to engage the state-owned companies and large private companies, who usually interact in relative close cooperation with the embassy. Small private companies and business migrants are usually not too close to the embassy and in many situations have some dislike for the embassy.

With the support of the Chinese Embassy in Tanzania we went to different state companies and major private companies to raise funds for the events. This is usually the model: The Chinese embassy takes the lead, but the Chinese companies pay for it in return for the embassy’s support in getting projects and so on.

As a result the fundraising in Tanzania became very easy. Companies would just deal straight with us when knowing we are from the Embassy: “How much do you want?” It was never so easy when we approached Chinese companies directly before. Currently many larger Chinese companies in Africa have a budget for corporate social responsibility, however, such funds are usually directed to what the embassy would request.

Oour conservation event in Tanzania had a turnout of over 800 people, with half of them being Chinese in Tanzania, and it became a symbolic case for Africa-China public diplomacy. From then on, we started to work closely with Chinese embassies in Africa.

Read more:
Hundreds march against ivory trade in Tanzania

Zimbabwe and South Africa: Politics within Chinese communities matter

Chinese embassies in different African countries have different styles, but Chinese communities across the continent are in a similar situation. Understanding the internal politics and ecosystems of the Chinese communities in a specific country is vital to engage them successfully.

Zimbabwe is a very interesting case. When Chinese people in Zimbabwe hear about wildlife conservation, they think of one name: Song. Song is a Chinese lady who has been doing business in Zimbabwe for a long time and is one of the most prominent business leaders in the country. Yet what is very unique about Song is that she started a Chinese wildlife conservation foundation in Zimbabwe. However, in the arena of international conservation Song does not have a good reputation: She was accused of being involved in the sale of baby elephants from Zimbabwe to China, as well as some other wildlife trades.

When we first went to Zimbabwe we were not sure how to approach this community as it seemed like Song was the major person to work with on conservation despite her controversial reputation internationally. However, we soon realized this was not a problem.

In Zimbabwe we realized that Chinese business migrants are divided into two major groups: One with chairman Li, one with chairman Zhao. These two groups dislike each other, and they have their own social media platform and activities.

While chairman Zhao is close to Song, chairman Li is not. When we first met chairman Li and his people and talked about wildlife conservation, they were very alert: “Are you with Song?” They dislike Song a lot, and they dislike everything Song is involved in, including wildlife conservation.

This gave us an opportunity, and we realized chairman Li’s group is stronger. We soon worked with chairman Li’s group and organized a lot of wildlife conservation activities in Zimbabwe. People who formerly were not supportive of wildlife conservation because of Song joined our activities.

Not only in Zimbabwe but in every African country we realized it is essential to first understand the ecosystem inside the Chinese communities before doing anything. We realized Chinese community members usually have very complicated politics; many do not like each other and do not work together, some are more popular within the community while others are less so; some are close to the embassy and some are not. If you organize an event and invite two enemies together, you could be in big trouble and the event compromised.

In South Africa, where you have the largest Chinese communy in Africa of between 300,000 and 500,000, you will find such politics to be very severe. In South Africa there are over 100 Chinese business associations and over 200 Chinese “chairmen”. After a detailed look, you would find the Chinese community very segregated from each other. The Chinese state-owned companies and large private companies are concentrated in Sandton in Johannesburg and they rarely even go to Chinatown (i.e. Cyrildene) where the business migrants concentrate, believing those Chinese communities to be poorly educated and problematic. In the business migrant community the two wealthiest business leaders lead two major groups at odds with each other, while many sub-groups still engage in politics towards each other. Nobody is neutral, everyone has chosen their side.

When we were trying to bring Chinese groups in South Africa together for wildlife conservation, it was extremely complicated to adjust our event based on the politics and “hierarchy” within the Chinese community.

We learned that topics like wildlife conservation will not bring Chinese people together who dislike each other. You have to work with these groups separately if you are to engage them on wildlife conservation.

Namibia: Deep into the construction camps

Construction workers are one of the largest Chinese groups in Africa, and they are one of the most important players in the illegal wildlife trade. In Africa they have their own particular characteristics: Usually less educated, rarely speak English, not very law-abiding, highly mobile (after a project or even a sub-project of a few months they would move to another project), often residing in rural areas near wildlife habitats.

This group of Chinese would rarely become large-scale smugglers because they do not have enough network, skills in business as well as capital. However, they are the main constituent of the “souvenir-level” smuggling. Locals would approach them and sell them various wildlife products such as ivory, rhino horn, pangolin scales, snakes, tortoises and so on for decoration, medical use, or food.

This group is very difficult to reach. They usually have only one day for holiday in a month, and therefore would never attend any activities; they have very high mobility, sometimes staying in one project site just for a few months or even weeks, and therefore rarely get to know local knowledge and the legal situation such as on elephant poaching and ivory trade; their educational level is relatively low and therefore educating them is particularly difficult and time-consuming.

The only way is to go to their construction camps. Although they can rarely go out to attend activities, these construction workers usually are bored at night in their camps, playing games or watching TV. Therefore, organizing conservation activities in the construction camps at night is feasible.

It was not easy to obtain permission to organize activities in construction camps unless the company management likes the idea. In Namibia we obtained support due to the fact that some Chinese workers were arrested with ivory and rhino horn products in 2017 and brought trouble to the companies, and therefore they were happy that someone could help them educate their construction workers.

We went to construction sites all over Namibia and organized activities. For this group the activities and the message needed to be simple and interesting. Therefore we played quiz games with the workers, organized film screenings with discussions after the films, and then we asked them to sign a pledge and make a commitment.

These activities turned out to be success stories, and we became the first wildlife conservation campaigners that penetrated into the Chinese construction camps in Africa.

Our efforts have made many Chinese workers change their behavior. A construction worker said to us after a workshop, “Thank goodness you gave us this information, otherwise I would have been preparing to go back to China with a suitcase full of wildlife products, but now I know that is illegal.”

Conclusion: Pangolin and rhino horn consumers can change, but not in the way we expected

Sometimes the real buyers and users of illegal wildlife products do not think the way the NGOs expect them to do. While NGO activists believe we can convince people that rhino horn is just the same as fingernails, in Africa we have had conversations with numerous Chinese nationals who laugh at that idea. These Chinese nationals do consume rhino horn, or they know someone who do.

“Western medical theory cannot explain our great Chinese traditional medicine,” they would tell you in an assertive way. They would tell you vivid cases of how rhino horn actually works, which NGO activists might find unbelievable.

Indeed the Chinese community members are disconnected to global wildlife conservation, knowledge, attitudes and emotional feeling. They always tell us: “Wildlife conservation is too far away from our lives.”

On one occasion a Chinese diplomat in Africa asked me: “Why can’t we keep elephants like pigs, and slaughter them for ivory?” I was shocked to see how disconnected well-educated Chinese in Africa are from the perspective of the global conservation culture and mindset. I was relieved that this person did not say this in front of foreign media. In his mind animals are just natural resources, “moving objects” like in Chinese, instead of living beings.

In 2018 when we tried to convince Chinese managers of state-owned companies in South Africa to donate for pangolin conservation, they were very shocked at the beginning: “They are so ugly, why should we protect them?” They later found it very surprising that pangolins is an important species for conservation.

Sometimes NGO activists will just say that the Chinese are buying ivory, eating pangolin and using rhino horn because they are ignorant. However, we found that to be over-simplified. Today China is a market for many illegal wildlife products in the world. This might have many complicated reasons. First and foremost as many wildlife conservation NGOs have realized, in China many people do not have enough knowledge about the wildlife trade and its consequences; for example, you need to kill elephants to get ivory, or the pangolin is highly endangered.

But this is not enough. The lack of emotional connection is also vital. This could be due to a lack of education on the natural environment in China; people grow up without enough interaction with nature and animals. We have met many Chinese people who know that ivory is from elephants who are killed yet they simply do not care.

“In China maybe some people buy it due to not knowing, but here in Africa Chinese people buying ivory know where the ivory is from,” many Chinese have told us. These same Chinese do not feel pity when putting a living pangolin in boiling water to kill it.

“People stopped buying due to fear of punishment. When law enforcement is strong, we will not do it. But when we could do it without punishment, we will pick it up again,” said a Chinese person in Namibia.

Cultural and mindset differences also play an important role. Some Chinese we interviewed found burning and crushing ivory stupid if it was to stop people from buying. “The more you destroy, the more I feel it is precious, and I should buy if I have a chance.”

Recently, we convinced one Chinese business leader in South Africa to donate for pangolin conservation. He is a very kind person and a well-respected community leader. He contributed this donation because he believes that it is important to build China’s positive image in Africa. However, he was struggling with himself after this event: “I should stop eating pangolin since I have done this wildlife conservation event and have made my commitment. But, um, I am so good at cooking them, and they are delicious...”

This is not surprising to us. Yang Feng Lan, the “ivory queen” in Tanzania, was a well-respected business leader to the Chinese community and said to be a very kind person.

Over the years, we realized that under the current conditions, wildlife product consumers can change, but in a way more connected to their personal emotion or interests, among which legal punishment is the most effective one. But our vision goes beyond that: We want to involve more Chinese people in Africa in proactive wildlife conservation, not just stopping buying wildlife products. Our action continues, and we are expecting more Chinese people to join us.

See also: Chinese in South Africa pledge against rhino horn trade: “We will not buy”
© 2024 Africa-China Reporting Project. All rights reserved. 
Terms & Conditions. 
Privacy Policy.