Ivory smuggling a stain on Sino-African relations

Christopher Lee calls on Hongkongers to do more to help curb the bloody trade in ivory that is decimating Africa's elephant population - first by not buying it, then by doing more to stop the city becoming a node for traffickers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 4:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 4:31am

Energy and serenity. That's what you feel these days when you visit Africa. Urban centres are hives of activity, trade and enthusiasm, while more remote areas - home to elephants, giraffes and mountain gorillas - move at their own quiet pace. Whether you are zipping along in a taxi or bumping along in a safari vehicle, you sense the possibility of this truly unique continent.

I recently returned from a two-part trip to Africa, where I visited Uganda and Kenya. The first half of the trip was spent touring Uganda's amazing wildlife areas. Lions, zebra, elephants and the most exciting of all, mountain gorillas, accompanied us during this part of the journey. The second half of my trip was spent in Nairobi, Kenya's bustling capital city, where I attended my first board meeting as a new trustee of the African Wildlife Foundation, a group whose mission is to ensure that Africa's wildlife and wild lands endure. As so much of Africa undergoes an economic transformation, never will the foundation's conservation work be so important as in the next few decades.

Because of my career in finance and investment banking, I am fascinated by the trade relationship that has developed between my homeland - China - and Africa. It is like watching a giant that awoke 30 years ago shake and stir another, even bigger giant. The billions of dollars in foreign direct investment being poured into Africa from China have been truly transformative. The visage of Africa is changing too, as more than a million Chinese guest workers now work and live there.

This movement isn't all one way, either. African entrepreneurs are frequently meeting their Chinese business partners on Chinese turf and buying Chinese goods for sale back home. Though not without its bumps, the relationship between China and Africa promises to lift populations on both sides of the Indian Ocean out of poverty.

Casting a dark cloud over the relationship is the illegal ivory trade, however. I say "trade", but it's not trade. Really, it is theft; theft and exploitation of Africa's natural resources. More than 35,000 African elephants are now poached for their tusks every year. This type of killing cannot be sustained. Yet so long as demand for ivory remains high in China and other parts of the world, there will be those - terrorist groups, criminal syndicates, impoverished poachers - who will not hesitate to kill every last elephant in Africa and Asia.

This is the disheartening side of the China-Africa relationship. As I write this in my office in Hong Kong, I am reminded that, just three months ago, authorities here seized one of the biggest hauls of smuggled ivory ever. Before that, another large shipment of ivory was discovered hidden in a container from West Africa. And, before that, airport authorities discovered a package of illegal ivory en route to Singapore.

This means Hong Kong is playing a key role as a transit and consumption hub for illegal ivory. As sophisticated, well-educated citizens, do we really want to be associated with the decimation of a species through our buying habits and complacency? It is incumbent on us to help fight this trade. One way to do this is by sending a strong, unambiguous message to ivory traffickers and poachers that Africa's elephants are more valuable alive than dead. How do we send this message? By not buying ivory. Period.

Furthermore, we should eradicate the ivory trade by destroying our stockpile of ivory. This "product" is not sourced in the same way as gold or corn. It comes from dead elephants. Hence, it should not be traded like any other commodity. The US government will soon destroy its stockpile of confiscated ivory, joining a number of other nations - Gabon, Kenya, the Philippines - that have done the same. Hong Kong should follow suit.

The illegal wildlife trade exemplifies the worst kind of industry that benefits neither Africa nor China in the long run. China's growing presence in Africa, and the sheer size of its investments there, will undoubtedly forever change that continent. We must determine now what we value and what is worth preserving and then support industries that protect Africa's wildlife rather than destroy it.

Impact investing - something the African Wildlife Foundation has embraced through its subsidiary, African Wildlife Capital - shows how the right type of thoughtful investment can generate environmental, social and financial returns. Growth, development and trade need not negatively affect wildlife and the environment, just as the start of the China-Africa relationship need not spell the end of Africa's wildlife. We must be thoughtful. We must be sustainable. And, right now, we must be advocates for Africa's elephants.

Christopher Lee, a Hong Kong native, recently retired from Deutsche Bank as the head of Global Markets Investment Products. He is a trustee of the African Wildlife Foundation