My first visit to China, in 1998, was to Shanghai at the invitation the Central East Asia Regional Council of Overseas Schools, where I gave a keynote address. I was thrilled by this opportunity, as it provided a way for me to honor a promise I had made to Greg MacIsaac, who had helped with the start of Roots & Shoots in Dar es Salaam in the early 1990s. He left Tanzania in order to help start a new international school in China – the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) – and soon thereafter wrote inviting me to visit. I said I would only do so if he got R&S going in the new school, and in a local school! When I heard that this had been accomplished with the help of Michael Crook (a Brit who was born and brought up in China and often thinks that he is more Chinese than European!) I wondered how on earth I would find the money for the journey. The invitation from the international school conference was the answer. And what a lot has developed from that one invitation!
For one thing there was a R&S workshop at that conference that sowed the seeds for growing the program in the Shanghai area thanks to the efforts of Tori Zwisler and international school teachers. [Today some 450 groups are registered with the JGI office in Shanghai].
I went from Shanghai to Beijing with Greg to visit the R&S groups in WAB and the Huajiadi School and to make plans for starting others. Back then there were very few people talking about the damage being inflicted on the environment due to industry and development, and public protests against harm to the natural world, such as habitat destruction and pollution of water and air, were rare. But nature was starting to make her own protests, and in the 1990s the authorities were forced to address some of these issues when it became obvious that the severe and economically damaging flooding and soil erosion in the Yangtze River Basin was caused by reckless deforestation in the mountains. And so, finally, logging was banned on steep slopes and a vast program of reforestation was started. And more people dared to voice their concerns regarding the toll on wildlife and habitats due to the rapid development of the country and the massive movement of rural communities into urban centers.
The spread of conservation programs
George Schaller, working for WWF, became the first western scientist to be invited by the government to work in China. He went to the Wolong Reserve on the steep slopes of the Qionglai Mountains to learn about the behaviour of the giant panda, working with a group of Chinese scientists at the government built research center. His research was groundbreaking, but when he left he told me he was pessimistic about the future of the iconic animal in the wild. And, too, for the future of the Tibetan antelope, or Chiru. But Chinese scientists continued to work, with support from the government, for the protection of these animals.
Liang Congjie started “Friends of Nature” to raise awareness about environmental problems and in 1994 this became the very first legally registered environmental NGO in China. During my first 1998 visit I was invited to Liang’s house and we immediately began talking like old friends. He told me about his work to try to protect the Tibetan antelopes or chirus of the Tibetan Plateau. They had been slaughtered in their thousands for their fine undercoat that was in great demand for the making of shatoosh shawls. They were now protected by the government, but poaching in the remote area where they lived continued. And it was very dangerous to fight these poachers, Liang told me. One had recently been killed. But that did not deter others from fighting for the chiru.
During that visit I went to the Deer Park just outside Beijing and met Dr. Guo Geng. He told me how the area had been specially created in 1986 to welcome the return of the milu (Pere David’s deer) from a captive breeding program in the UK. (I wrote about this in Hope for Animals and their World). That visit was filmed by Reuters for CNN. John Liu of the Environmental Education Television Project for China also recorded my visit to the Deer Park. He and his wife Kosima (from Germany) became close friends, and he told me about the amazing efforts to restore the totally degraded Loess Plateau. He had been recording this project year after year as I describe in Hope for Animals and their World. The story was released in the documentary Earth’s Hope.
Just today, as I was searching for some information, I came upon a printed report of that first visit. And I read this sentence “Somewhat to our surprise, it became evident that Jane is very well known in China. One of her books has been translated into Chinese and has sold 80,000 copies. Therefore, there seems to be a good possibility that Jane could represent a rallying point for the environmental concern in China.”
That first visit was followed by others. I was increasingly impressed by the number of young people who were so eager to learn about animals and nature, and so excited to meet me. Some were already taking action to help. One secondary school student risked his life trying to stop hunters who were capturing birds by the horrible method of coating the branches of their roosts with bird lime. He also investigated the cruelty to animals in the markets. He had formed a group of young people as passionate as himself, “The Green Eyes.” Eventually they joined our budding R&S program. An eight year old boy in our R&S group in Huajiadi School rescued an injured bird and looked after it, despite his mother’s protests, until it got well and could be released. Liu Tong (Tony Tiger to us) braved the subzero temperatures in Siberia to volunteer in a program that was trying to protect the last of the Siberian tigers. And I met Xxx who had previously written to me explaining that as a child she had become fascinated by the Giant Panda and wanted to study them in the wild. When she was told this was impossible for a girl, she simply told people how Jane Goodall had been told the same thing. She was the first person to see a panda give birth in her den.
From the 1990s onward concern for the environment was mentioned more and more often in the mainstream media. Roots & Shoots grew rapidly and we established offices in Beijing, Shanghai and subsequently Chengdu. I used to get over there once a year, and R&S ‘festivals’ were organized to coincide with my visits. I remember on in Beijing which was especially inspiring, when students came from many parts of China, even as far away as Inner Mongolia. The festival was attended by representatives of the Chinese media who interviewed students. The event had massive media coverage thus reaching several million Chinese people. This helped Roots & Shoots to grow.
In 1997 the Chinese government established The Arjin Shan Lop Nur Wild Camel Nature Reserve to save the very last of the wild camels (two humped but a distinct species from the domestic Bactrian camel)’ This, along with the protected area established also in Mongolia, and a captive breeding program, has seen numbers gradually increase, all this due to the untiring efforts of my friend John Hare and his Chinese colleagues.
The situation regarding wild pandas has improved to the extent that – it is now classified as ‘vulnerable’ rather than ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. This is due to enforcing bans prohibiting poaching and the government decision, in 2006, to expand and connect the scattered nature reserves in Sichuan and Ansu where half of China’s wild pandas live. I’m told that George Schaller commented how glad he was that things had turned out so much better that he had predicted.
Of course wildlife in China is still threatened in many places, as is the case in almost every country around the world. But at least concerns are voiced and problems increasingly addressed. In 2006 a 1,215 mile long railway across the Tibetan Plateau, linking Beijing with Tibet, was inaugurated. And this, it was feared, would have a devastating effect on the chiru. Thanks to the efforts of Chinese conservation and the enforcement of hunting bans the number of these antelopes has increased since the terrible massacres at the end of the last century but this railroad cuts right across their annual migration path. And so, at considerable expense, 33 tunnels were constructed under the railway to enable the chiru to follow their traditional migrations in safety.
Another cause for concern: development along the shores of China’s Yellow Sea has resulted in the loss of many of the traditional stopover places for migrating birds that use the major Arctic Asian/Australasian Flyway. And this has led to rapid decline in the populations of many species of water birds. So it was exciting to hear about plans for the development of the world’s first “Bird Airport.” This is a huge project to transform a landfill into a major stopover for many different species of migratory birds. It will include a variety of habitats, a world class education facility and walkways to enable visitors to observe the birds. It is scheduled by be completed by the end of next year. Let us hope that other similar projects will follow.
If anyone doubts that the Chinese are truly concerned about their wildlife, just check on the Facebook of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF). This foundation has initiated and supported countless programs to protect many wild places and wildlife of numerous species. It also works on legislation to protect the environment and has initiated law suits against those violating existing legislation. The foundation also conducts training workshops and conferences for business leaders and Chinese entrepreneurs about the need to consider the environment and future generations when planning new developments
During my last visit to Beijing, before Christmas, I was able to meet the Secretary General of this Foundation, the impressive Professor Jingfeng Zhou. We discussed the milu restoration program, which is a major focus of his NGO. Some of the deer that were moved from the Deer Park to a wilder location escaped, swimming across a river. There are now several herds living completely wild, revered and protected by local villagers.
We talked of any other topics of mutual interest, and Dr. Zhou expressed interest in collaborating with Roots & Shoots. He represents Chinese environmental interests at conferences around the world and that evening he was flying out to a conference in Berlin to discuss protecting the flyways of migrating birds.
During that same visit several people told me that their attitudes towards the environment and animals had been shaped when they were members of a R&S group in primary school, or had watched the early National Geographic documentaries about Jane and the chimpanzees as young children, or read In the Shadow of Man (The first Chinese edition was translated from the Russian, but checked with the English original! It was very slender, and the photos so grainy you could hardly see who was chimp and who was human!).
There is no doubt that more and more Chinese have become aware of environmental problems and the risk of the extinction of many species due to human activity. The support of celebrities, especially NBA legend Yao Ming and actress Li Bing Bing, has been invaluable. More people now have a greater understanding of animal nature and realize that many animals experience human-like emotions of depression, fear and pain. (Something that was disputed by mainstream science in Europe and America as recently as the 1960s).
Our R&S youth, along with other environmental and animal welfare groups, have been working to spread awareness about the suffering of elephants, rhinos, moon bears, tigers, sharks, and other animals used for food or body parts.
Recently the government banned the serving of shark’s fin soup at its banquets and last year Air China banned the transport of shark’s fins on its planes. And, most exciting, at the end of last year President Xi Jinping announced that China would ban all trading in ivory by the end of 2017. And already, by March, 67 ivory carving factories and retail shops – roughly one-third of the total – had been shut down.
The organization Save the Elephants said the price of ivory in China had decreased from $2,100 per kilogram in early 2014 to $730 in February this year. Amongst many of the younger Chinese it is simply not “cool” to buy ivory. And partly this is because they are becoming aware of the suffering inflicted on elephants as a result of the demand for ivory. When a Chinese woman living in Tanzania and dubbed The Ivory Queen due to her successful illegal trading of tusks was finally arrested, some members of the Chinese community suggested a good punishment would be to have her teeth removed!
My good friend Richard Ladkani (who filmed Jane’s Journey), with Co-director Kief Davidson spent three years filming a comprehensive theatre documentary The Ivory Game. It is a fast action and dramatic revelation of the extent of the ivory trade, following the trail from several African countries to the US and Europe, as well as China and other Asian countries. There are scenes showing a very courageous young Chinese, Hongxiang Huang, pretending to be interested in buying ivory in Africa, Hong Kong and Vietnam. When asked why he agreed to play a role in the film, knowing full well that his life could be endangered, he replied that he wants to be the voice for the millions of Chinese who care deeply and passionately for animals and the environment.
Professor Jinfeng Zhou promised to try to get permission for the film to be shown in China, and it was recently shown in cinemas across Beijing. Richard and Kief were awarded a CBCGDF Wildlife Protection Certificate “to commend their effort on such an educative and inspirational documentary movie on the fight against ivory trade.”
The Chinese in Africa.
Hong (as we call him) is one of my heroes, and I have got to know him as a friend.
One of his goals is to try to raise awareness about conservation in the Chinese communities in Africa. He helped to organize a march for the elephants in Dar es Salaam early this year. This was mainly for the Chinese community, and was strongly supported by the Chinese ambassador, Lu Youqing, who walked the whole distance (unlike some other ambassadors who turned up for the last hundred yards or so ready to be photographed as they crossed the line!). With them were 30 Tanzanian Roots & Shoots members, for we have agreed to collaborate. Along with Freddy Kimaro and Tony Collins I met with Ambassador Lu early this year to wish him happy Chinese New Year (the year of the rooster).
We talked about the need to raise awareness among the local Chinese community, the role China could play in protecting the environment in Africa and how important it is to educate the Chinese who are sent out to build roads and factories and hospitals (as payment to the Tanzanian government for permission to harvest the country’s natural resources – timber and minerals). For they have never been educated about wildlife and the environment. In this regard we discussed collaboration between the Chinese embassy, Hong and JGI/Roots & shoots.
We had planned 10 to 15 minutes courtesy call, but it ended up as more than an hour discussing how we could collaborate to make the world a better place. Ambassador Lu agreed to reach out to some of the Chinese Ambassadors in other chimp range states, suggesting that they might like to collaborate with JGI/Roots & Shoots in raising awareness. Already we have had warm responses from the Chinese Embassy’s in DRC, the Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) and Cameroon.
A few days later, thanks to an introduction from Hong, I met the Minister-Councilor from the Chinese Embassy Mr. Gou Gong, and he was, if anything, even more excited to collaborate with us.
Recently he went on leave to China, and on his return wrote to me: “I was very much impressed to see in Beijing that more and more young Chinese are involved in environment and wildlife protection, thanks to immense awareness-raising efforts done by the shining examples like you.”
It is, of course, true that China has caused great harm to the environment, at home and overseas. But, it has done no more than European colonialism and many of the international corporations. This was my message when I was in China at the end of the last year when I said, repeatedly, that if she so wished China could lead the way in eliminating the need for fossil fuels and create a more sustainable future. And now, in March, President Xi Jinping announced that China would not back away from the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions, and in view of the Trump administration’s decision to back away from it, China would take the lead in creating a brighter future.