China stands accused of playing favorites with the endangered species it supports
While its efforts have boosted panda numbers, Chinese habits have seen other species decline
Educating the Chinese public is key, but getting China's government on board may be even more crucial
Editor’s Note: Kristie Lu Stout hosts “On China,” a monthly talk show on CNN International. June’s episode tackles animal welfare and wildlife conservation and airs for the first time at 4:30pm HKT.
Without a doubt, the giant panda is a political animal.
It is the instantly recognizable global symbol of wildlife conservation. It is the absurdly adorable diplomatic tool used by China to soften relations with other countries.
And it enjoys an abundant supply of bamboo and protection from poachers thanks to a government that plays favorites with the animals it chooses to protect.
“Panda conservation is not an accurate indicator of wildlife protection work in China,” says Dr. Peter Li, China specialist of the Humane Society International.
During a taping of the latest CNN “On China” program, Li tells me that a “disproportionate” amount of money has been invested into China’s panda protection, helping to dramatically boost the number of pandas in the wild by some 17% over the last decade.
“The Chinese government has put so much money and so much effort into preserving pandas,” adds Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
“But there are so many other species that need addressing: the pangolin, the river dolphin, tigers, and elephants.”
A curious creature that looks like a scaly anteater, the pangolin is in huge demand in China and Vietnam for its meat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature warns if demand for the pangolin is not reduced, the animal could soon become extinct.
Tigers have been poached for their body parts for traditional Chinese medicine. There are only around 3,000 left in the wild today, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
And the Chinese freshwater dolphin, or baiji, was declared extinct less than a decade ago. Its demise was brought about by overfishing, pollution and a lack of any meaningful effort to save it.
“I was looking at a list of endangered species, and ten of those animals were taken off the list,” says Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling.
“It was not because they were no longer endangered. It was because they were no longer species. They are gone.”
Insatiable demand from China is also putting the rhino in peril. In one corner of Africa, the last male northern white rhino is left… under 24-hour armed guard.
“When I was in Kenya, where there is the highest concentration of rhino, we had to go out with armed guards,” Pilling tells me.
“They were guarding not us, they were guarding the rhinos because the horn is worth its weight in gold.”
Rhinos have been poached for its horn, which is ground into dust and believed to treat ailments.
But rhino horns have no medicinal value. They are made of keratin, the same protein found in human fingernails.
China’s appetite for another illegal wild animal product, ivory, has led to the unsustainable slaughter of 100,000 elephants in the last few years.
China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory and yet most Chinese don’t have a clue about its true cost.
In 2007, IFAW found that 70% of Mainland Chinese respondents did not know that ivory comes from dead elephants.
“In Chinese, ivory is ‘xiang ya’ or ‘elephant teeth’ so people naturally think teeth can fall off and (animals) don’t die,” says IFAW’s Grace Ge Gabriel.
The same poll revealed that 80% of Chinese consumers would refuse to buy ivory after finding out the truth.
Increased education can help cultivate a distaste for endangered animal butchery. But it is still too easy, and for some too tempting, to buy a chunk of rhino horn or ivory in China today.
Despite China’s one year ban on carved ivory imports, IFAW says dozens of ivory carving factories and over a hundred retail outlets openly sell illegal ivory products in China.
The trade is also active and flourishing on Chinese social media platforms. “WeChat is becoming an area where the illegal wildlife trade is occurring,” says Gabriel.
IFAW has worked with Tencent’s WeChat as well as Alibaba’s TaoBao e-commerce platform to introduce new keyword filtering software to minimize the trade in endangered species.
Animal welfare groups have also enlisted the starpower of Chinese celebrities. NBA legend Yao Ming has been widely commended for his work to raise awareness in China about illegal animal poaching.
His campaign with WildAid has been hailed for helping to bring about a dramatic fall in the sales of shark fin, long strips of tasteless cartilage cooked in soups, that symbolize wealth and prestige.
Government support needed
But the definitive watershed moment for wildlife conservation in China was in 2013, when Chinese President Xi Jinping banned shark fin dishes at official banquets.
“It was the government austerity policy against extravagance that drove shark fin consumption drastically down,” says HSI’s Peter Li.
So how do you get a billion people in China to break with tradition and stop buying pangolins, tiger parts, rhino horns and ivory?
Get the leadership of China fully behind your animal conservation campaign.
“If there is a country where government action means so much that they can reduce shark fin trade in one year by 75%, that would be China,” says Gabriel.
“And if the Chinese government acts, they can turn China from a villain into a hero overnight if they put in place strong laws and very clear laws prohibiting the trade of endangered species, combined with vigorous enforcement.”
Only then will the pangolin be pampered and protected… along with the panda.