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China in Africa: The Real Story

When China and Africa Dance, the Elephants Get Trampled

Deborah Brautigam
A beautifully written and moving investigative article by Alex Shoumatoff in the August 2011 Vanity Fair, "Agony and the Ivory", fingers the Chinese demand for ivory and the rising presence of Chinese businesses in elephant-rich areas of rural Africa as an insidious pull-push factor in the rise in elephant poaching. I'm sure they are right about this.

The whole article is well worth reading, particularly for those who have been swept up in the honor and wonder of seeing these magnificent, intelligent animals in the wild.

Here are a few excerpts that shed light on the Chinese role:
“Another problem,” Crystal explains, “is that the Chinese word for ivory is elephant’s teeth—xiang ya. We did a survey. Seventy percent thought tusks can fall out and be collected by traders and grow back, that getting ivory did not mean the elephant is killed, and more than 80 percent would reject ivory products and not buy any more if they knew elephants were being killed, so it’s ignorance.”
Of course this ignorance doesn't extend to those on the ground in Africa:
...Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers and other temporary laborers are employed on road, logging, mining, and oil-drilling crews in all of the elephants’ range states. Some manage to make it home with a few pounds of ivory hidden in their suitcases, thus doubling their meager earnings, or they are recruited as carriers for higher-ups. But they are not the real problem. The real problem is the managers, who have the resources to directly commission some local to kill an elephant and bring them the tusks, and diplomats, whose bags are not checked, and the Chinese businessmen, who are taking over the economy of Africa.
Well, it's not necessary to ring that gratuitous alarm "the Chinese are taking over!" when the reality of Chinese engagement in the ivory business -- as consumers, and as middlemen -- has been well-documented. Other Asians are also involved, although from what I can see, the West appears pretty clean in this sector.

Remember the old African saying, "When elephants dance, the grass gets trampled." It seems while China and Africa danced, the elephants are getting trampled. Public education and a strong zero-tolerance stance by the Chinese government on ivory trading by its diplomats and businessmen could do a lot to improve this.

Read more here. A hat tip to Matthew Robertson.