What’s win-win about animals?

As a relative newcomer to China, I do my best to read as much as I can of other people’s perspectives about China. One magazine I often enjoy is “World of Chinese”, a bi-monthly publication, helpfully written in English as my Chinese is just not that good yet!

In one of the past issues I came across a story about a local official who was being told to protect the finless porpoise of the Yangtze River. Trying to work out exactly why this protection was necessary, the official asked, “Is the river porpoise delicious?”. While to many people this might sound like an amusing blunder, as an economist (by training) the sentiment resonated with me. Economists love to put a value on things to try and work out if one action is better than another or what is the real “cost” of doing something. In many ways the hapless official was asking what economists ask all the time: “Why should we want to save the porpoise?”. The question might seem uncomfortable, but it is an important one nonetheless…

My boss Christophe Bahuet, the Country Director for UNDP China, spent two days last week at a workshop also focused on protection of animals – not of the porpoise in China, but of large wild animals in African countries, particularly elephants. The workshop was organized by the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Its hosting in China was significant for two reasons. First, there have been a lot of media reports that China is a major market for on illegal trade of ivory and other products linked to killing of these endangered animals. This short podcast discusses some of these reports. Second, as summarized in this article, celebrities and companies in China are trying raise awareness about the plight of the animals, and the Chinese government has begun to crack down on such illegal trade. In fact, the official word is that the prosecutions are proving effective – seizures in China have fallen dramatically in the past year.

However, what my boss heard from experts at the workshop was that what is also needed, in China but also elsewhere, is to cut the demand for ivory and other products related to illegal trade of wildlife – not just to prosecute the culprits or the middlemen. The experts say that only then will the killing really stop.

Of course, this reasoning makes sense. But there is also something missing from the reasoning, and it goes back to the economically-minded question my hapless official asked: Why? Why should a Chinese person or anyone else for that matter stop wanting a new ivory bracelet or statue? What is the reason for protection that is not just about caring about wildlife but a reason that meets basic human needs and desires for food, shelter and money? That’s what my hapless official was trying to get at with his porpoise question. And it’s what none of the initiatives so far, at least those launched in China, actually address.

One possible “why”, which does meet human economic needs and desires, and especially for the growing middle and upper class in China (who many say could be the potential new consumers of ivory and other illegally trafficked goods) is… tourism.

The fact is, many Chinese tourists now visit Africa for wildlife “safaris”, as well as for beach and other cultural holidays. In 2013, Africa received a record 1.9 million Chinese visitors. And tourists from China and elsewhere provide critical income for countries like Kenya, without which it would be difficult to grow and cut poverty. In 2013, tourism directly contributed almost 5% of Kenya’s GDP. Next door, in Tanzania, a recent World Bank report estimated that tourism directly employed almost ½ a million Tanzanians and contributed almost 20% of total exports in 2013. Tourism is an important industry, and China can help it grow.

China has now become the largest outbound tourist market in the world – with about 97.3 million outbound trips made in 2013. Just tapping more of this to add to the 1.9 million visiting Africa now would be a great boost! As the African Development Bank’s chief economist recently put it: while Africa accounts for about 15% of the world population, it receives only about 3% of world tourism receipts and 5% of tourist arrivals.

It is exactly these positive prospects for growth and development that the illegal killing and trade are harming – prospects that would also bring much enjoyment to Chinese people and others all over the world.

While I doubt this argument will change everyone’s mind, it is at least one that doesn’t just rely on feeling sad for an animal in a far-away land. Instead, it relies on a real, economic argument and reality, that I think most people – especially in China given its own phenomenal path to growth and development – might just engage with. Indeed, even my hapless official might understand the argument. Elephants – like the porpoise – might not be delicious, but they do need protection because people in China can and will pay good money to continue enjoying seeing them alive and well, and this money helps cut poverty in other countries.

Indeed, the argument creates a new and more positive perspective – that protecting the animals – i.e. not buying that ivory bracelet or statue – is a win-win. It’s good for Chinese people who can and want to experience amazing international travel, and it’s good for practical growth and development in poorer countries.

So, if you watch Chinese TV – do look out for the next Public Service Announcement on illegal trafficking of wildlife. It might just surprise you (and have a UNDP logo on it at the end).

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