Why Beijing must export ‘ecological civilization’
By Erik Solheim
China Watch

Editor's note: This article is part of the Preview Policy Report for the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, to be published by China Watch, China Daily's think tank.

Veteran poachers have killed so many elephants that they can often imitate the screams the animals make when speared. They can tell you how other elephants howl in distress when they see one of their own felled. Calves have been known to circle the disfigured body of their mother for days in mourning, even until their own death.

Behind the savagery visited on these magnificent, highly sensitive and intelligent creatures lies greed and a desire for shiny objects – sometimes rooted in trends, and sometimes tradition. It began with the early white settlers, with ivory becoming one of the great prizes of the colonial era. In recent years, however, demand has skyrocketed to match the rise in global consumer wealth, and poaching has reached an industrial scale.

Over the past decade, poachers have slaughtered more than 100,000 African elephants for their ivory – more than one quarter of the population. Many of the tusks ended up in China and other parts of Asia, where they were turned into trinkets and marketed as status symbols.

Elephants are not the only victims. The illegal trade has generated enormous profits that feed corruption and financial criminal cartels, stoking instability around the world.

That is why China’s decision to ban the sale of ivory nationally, to come in line with the international ban that has been in place since 1989, deserves huge praise. The government ban will shut down the legal trade in ivory, and establish a new narrative for China’s worldview: as a leader for environmental action.

Surveys in China’s three largest cities found that 95 percent of people supported the ban because they believed it would protect African elephants. Only a few years ago, similar surveys found that average people did not even realize that an elephant had to die to obtain ivory – as the word for ivory in Chinese means tooth – many people thought it was gathered without harm.

That the ban has such widespread support is a major victory. The fight to end the slaughter, however, is far from over. While the ban sends a strong message that ivory products are now taboo, the legal trade is only a very small part of the problem.

The bigger battle lies in tackling the far larger illegal trade. Reducing demand will be a key weapon in this fight but changing minds takes years of hard work – time that the world’s dwindling population of elephants may not have. It is essential that we also come down hard on the supply chain. This means tackling the booming internet trade, strengthening law enforcement, smashing the criminal cartels running smuggling operations and disrupting the tax havens where they stash their money. Much of this will require improved security cooperation between China and countries in Africa where the slaughter, and initial trafficking, takes place.

China’s influence in Africa is growing, and with the Belt and Road Initiative, it is certain to grow further. There are more than one million Chinese expats living in Africa. Chinese firms have a strong foothold in most of its 54 countries. China’s reputation on the continent is also broadly positive. In attitude surveys, 70 percent of Africans say they view the country positively.

Better intelligence sharing with African countries could seriously disrupt the smuggling rackets and break the cartels. China could also strengthen anti-poaching teams – the embattled first line of defence against poachers – and support institutions that tackle corruption, including police and customs officials at African ports. Africa also needs expertise in eco-tourism and alternative livelihood programs that undermine the financial incentives for poaching.

Chinese businesses can also get involved. I was in South Africa recently for the African Ranger Awards Ceremony, where Jack Ma, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, pledged his support for wildlife conservation. He said rangers should not only be given monetary support, but also the resources and technology they need to carry out their dangerous work. That’s a great example of the positive role Chinese businesses can play.

Such steps could well see China go down in history as the saviour of the African elephant and other precious species – something that would be an incredible legacy.

At home, China has made a series of giant strides toward addressing some of the country’s toughest environmental challenges. It has installed the largest air-quality monitoring systems in the world to combat the smog that shrouds its cities. It is designing better, more energy-efficient cities and investing in cleaner forms of transport. It has pumped tens of billions of dollars into renewable energy – more than any other country, proving strong economic growth does not require high emissions. The transformation is incredible, and one that other countries need to emulate if the world is to reduce resource use while continuing to lift people from poverty.

These advances are part of China’s ambitious vision to build what it calls an “ecological civilization” – an ambition that harks back to its ancient philosophy of harmony with nature. The modern-day plan is to create a resource-efficient, environmentally-friendly society that recognizes the environment for what it is: the bedrock of our economies and our way of life, and therefore fundamental to our survival.

By sharing its phenomenal development journey, China can help Africa leapfrog the rest of the world. That means helping African nations steer a more considered course to industrialization. China, after all, has suffered more from pollution than most nations, and has done more to tackle it. More broadly, it means showing that the old ways of development accompanied by environmental destruction can be broken.

Early human history often follows a sad pattern. Humans arrive in new lands and learn how to hunt the local wildlife for food. Large, plodding megafauna – America’s mastodons and giant beavers, Australia’s two-ton wombats and marsupial lions – tend to disappear first. The African elephant, which has roamed the earth for 60 million years, has so far bucked this trend.

Whether history repeats itself and humans wipe out yet another of the world’s big beasts will depend greatly on how well ecological civilization is married to its development.

(The author is an under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of China Watch.)