Chinese activist goes undercover to fight China-Africa ivory smuggling

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/8 5:03:40

Huang Hongxiang dedicates himself to preserving Africa's wildlife. Photo: Courtesy of Huang Hongxiang


Huang Hongxiang remembers the first time he went undercover as a researcher for animal protection NGO Eagle Network, when he pretended to be a merchant from Hong Kong and came face to face with a smuggler in Uganda.

He met the smuggler at a mall for lunch. The man was a neatly dressed middle-aged African, who talked in a civilized manner. Huang, a 30-year-old former reporter, remembered his preparations and the investigation experience the NGO's staff shared with him, and acted tense. He looked around, as if afraid the police might show up, and started questioning the Ugandan smuggler, "How do I know you are not undercover? How do I know whether you are trying to trick me?"

Seeing how nervous Huang was, the smuggler relaxed and started comforting him, "I've done this for many years, and it's always with you Chinese. Don't worry," he said.

They set a date for the cargo pickup. Huang brought money, the smuggler brought ivory and rhinoceros horn, and both met in an alley. Huang felt nervous, not knowing what the smuggler would do when the police showed up. Perhaps he would shoot at the closest target. Seeing how nervous he was, the NGO staff gave Huang a bottle of pepper spray.

But luckily, the smuggler had placed his trust in Huang. He was in a state of shock when the police showed up, and didn't even struggle when he was arrested.

'We need your Chinese face'

In 2011, Huang graduated from Fudan University as a journalism major and went on to study international relations in Columbia University. At school, he realized most of his classmates had been to Africa and South America, some even to multiple countries. They have done many interesting and meaningful projects. Huang felt dumbfounded because he couldn't join the conversation and knew nothing of these countries.

So when he graduated in 2013, he started looking for all sorts of

opportunities in Africa and happened to find a reporting opportunity.

When Eagle Network first approached Huang, they told him, "As soon as the smuggler hears your Chinese accent, he will definitely let down his guard," Huang said. Through his experience working with animal protection groups, Huang found that smuggling of animal products has tarnished Chinese people's image in Africa. This prompted him to later start his own company to help the two sides better communicate.

Huang's connection to Africa started in 2013, when he applied to be a reporter at South Africa's Wits University to carry out investigations into the trade of ivory and rhinoceros horn. At first, he didn't understand why the school specifically recruited Chinese reporters, but when he walked into an ivory market for the first time, he instantly understood.

"The vendors usually keep the merchandise in boxes. They won't sell it publicly. But as soon as they see Chinese walking towards them, they get extra friendly, their eyes light up, as if they have seen a walking wallet going towards them," he said.

Through his experience as a reporter and later doing research with Eagle Network, he gradually got to know about wild animal protection and trade, and learned that Chinese people are the largest consumers of wild animal products, including ivory.

"There are shocking stories, such as when Chinese see a bird they find beautiful, they would go pluck its feathers when it's sleeping and take the feathers home as souvenirs," he said.

It even got to the point where if locals caught a rat, they'd run to Huang and ask him if he or other Chinese people ate it.

Through a series of events, Huang began to realize that the illicit trade in wild animals is one of the main causes of the negative impression people have of the Chinese. On the other hand, Chinese think the Western world is just using these issues to attack them. He gradually developed the idea that instead of carrying out research, it might be more meaningful to help China and Africa to communicate.

Building a Peace Corps

In 2014, Huang and three others started a group called China Going Out. The enterprise mainly provides students in China with opportunities to study in and experience Africa.

A typical example Huang likes to mention is when the organization took many young Chinese to a village near the largest national park in Kenya. Every year, elephants pass the village during their migration and often destroy the villagers' crops. The group of Chinese helped the villagers install fences with solar-charged lights. In the morning, the lights are charged and at night they blink, making the elephants think there are people there and forcing them to take a different route.

When the group discovered that the local villagers made beautiful baskets, they tried to help them sell their goods to China, so they could have some extra income and reduce the motivation to poach.

There are also many projects that China Going Out helps Chinese companies with in Africa, such as how to better fit into local communities, as well as helping workers and unions communicate with Chinese companies.

Huang found that efficiently communicating with both sides can be an arduous process.

"If you tell Chinese people that we've done quite a few bad things in terms of wild animal protection, they think you are trying to smear China's image on behalf of Westerners; if you tell Westerners not all Chinese are bad, they think the Chinese government has given you money for propaganda," he said.

But in the end, the purpose of the process is to get the two sides to understand each other. Huang has found that it's more effective to speak their language and emphasize the things each side wants to hear. For example, he tells the Chinese side that his company works with the embassy and has served many Chinese firms, while to international organizations, he says the company is doing its work for the sake of animal protection.

Right now, China Going Out recruits Chinese students through personal contact and educational agencies and websites.

"One of our goals is that one day, we can be China's Peace Corps. Through us, a large number of young Chinese people can go to developing countries in Africa and bring them something different with our actions," he said.
Newspaper headline: Hunting the smugglers

Posted in: PROFILE

blog comments powered by Disqus