To combat the illegal trade in African wildlife in China, especially in ivory, basketball player Yao Ming visited Kenya in 2012, while actress Li Bingbing travelled to the country in 2013.
For Grace G. Gabriel, Asia regional director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the visits were mainly fact-finding missions with one aim－to persuade Chinese citizens to say no to products made from elephant ivory and rhino horn in the hope of curbing the demand that fuels poaching in Africa.
While planning the international conservation NGO's China-Africa Wildlife Ambassadors initiative, the Chinese-American conservationist decided to make the project multidimensional.
In addition to showing the "unprecedented crisis of survival for African elephants" to the wildlife ambassadors, "we hope that these Chinese wildlife champions can mobilize Chinese nationals living in Africa to join the endeavour to conserve African elephants," she said.
In September, President Xi Jinping announced that China would take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade in ivory.
"From the destruction of ivory to trade bans, China is determined to contribute to elephant conservation by eliminating the demand for ivory," Gabriel said.
Free ad space The IFAW launched the initiative by taking the first group of 11 Chinese wildlife ambassadors to Kenya between Nov 8 and 16. The delegates came from IFAW media partners, and included leaders of opinion, such as Zhang Yue, a popular anchor on China Central Television, who founded a grassroots animal welfare NGO in Beijing.
The media companies' provision of free goods and services, rather than financial contributions, is valued at tens of millions of dollars, and has helped the campaign penetrate 80 per cent of Chinese cities during an eight-month period, Gabriel said.
The Tianjin branch of outdoor advertising specialist JCDecaux China, which has been cooperating with the IFAW since 2008, helped the NGO's public campaign to cover the local subway.
"As members of the media, we need to not only lead the public to reject wildlife products such as ivory, but also show them the beauty of the wildlife we need to preserve together," said Cheng Fengming, deputy director-general of JCDecaux China's Tianjin branch, during the Kenya trip. "We need them to understand that wildlife is worth more alive than dead."
Since January, Fulong Media, a private advertising agency in Beijing, has provided free space on trains for the anti-ivory campaign.
"People living in lower-tier cities are less knowledgeable about wildlife conservation than those in major cities," Zhao Xuming, Fulong's president, said. "I hope our efforts will alert more people and help them understand that the ivory trade is a really bloody business."
The delegation participated in a wildlife conservation forum during the 40th Africa Travel Association conference in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, from Nov 9 to 14, and interacted with tourism industry representatives.
"We have come to Kenya with good wishes and in good faith to show the African people our determination to stop the illegal wildlife trade. In the future, we hope they will proudly show the world that where there are Chinese people, there is hope for animals," said anchorwoman Zhang Yue in a speech to the forum.
The delegates' efforts to raise public awareness at home impressed Kenyan officials related to wildlife conservation, local rangers and conservationists.
"Information is power. You cannot win this war without the participation of the media," Stephen Manegene, director of wildlife conservation at Kenya's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, told the visiting delegates, adding that Kenya is home to about 30,000 wild elephants.
In the past two years, a programme of stricter punishments and compensation for human-animal conflicts has helped to cut elephant poaching by 40 per cent.
Under the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, which came into force last year, poachers face fines of up to US$120,000 (S$169,000), or jail sentences of 15 years. The act also empowers the courts to deal harshly with convicted elephant and rhino traffickers, and anyone caught dealing in the illegal trade faces a maximum fine of US$233,000 or seven years in jail, Manegene said.
Last year, 302 elephants were poached in Kenya, according to Julius Kimani, deputy director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, a state organisation established in 1990 to conserve and manage the country's wildlife. That number has been cut to 82 elephants so far this year. Meanwhile, two Chinese citizens have been arrested on charges of being involved in poaching and smuggling ivory, a decline from last year when the number was 15, and 2013 when 18 Chinese were caught.
In January last year, a Chinese man was arrested in Nairobi and convicted of ivory smuggling. He became the first person to feel the full force of the new laws when he was ordered to pay a fine of US$233,000, or serve seven years in jail.
The KWS has a team of about 1,800 rangers to guard its 24 national reserves. In the past two years, it has recruited an extra 500 rangers and strengthened night patrols because "a lot of poaching happens at night", Kimani said.
China has also helped the anti-poaching movement, and the cordial relations between the two countries have made it easier to fight elephant and rhino poaching.
"Kenya has received a lot of support from the Chinese government and the private sector; all directed toward wildlife conservation," Manegene said.
In the last four years, Kenya has hosted at least three high-powered Chinese delegations to discuss how to stem the ivory trade and prevent the slaughter of animals for their tusks, he said. The next step will be to develop a platform via a memorandum of understanding to facilitate continuous engagement with China in conservation efforts.
Earlier this month, China donated 18 four-wheel-drive double-cabin vehicles worth more than US$500,000 to the KWS to help combat the illegal wildlife trade and poaching, according to Kimani. The donation was one of a raft of promises made by Premier Li Keqiang during a visit to Kenya last year, when the Chinese Embassy donated US$20,000-worth of anti-poaching equipment.
The 13-strong Chinese delegation was shocked by the sight of ivory piled up in two rooms of a heavily fortified underground storehouse. The 132 metric tons of ivory accounted for 96 per cent of Kenya's entire stock derived from poached elephants, said I. K. Lubia, assistant director of enforcement and compliance affairs at the KWS. "The store has been building up since 1997. We estimate that the ivory came from 12,000 poached elephants," he said.
The wildlife ambassadors were encouraged by Manegene's announcement that the Kenyan government plans to burn its entire stock of ivory and rhino horns before the end of the year. "In Kenya, we don't consider any wildlife product as economically valuable," he said.
The delegates also met Huang Hongxiang, a 28-year-old Chinese who has established a social venture in Nairobi to provide corporate social responsibility training programs for Chinese enterprises in the country. He also organises wildlife conservation outings for the expat Chinese community at weekends.
"Since we started last year, we have organised more than 200 local Chinese to attend conservation activities, such as removing traps in the Nairobi National Park, and have tried to raise environmental awareness among the Chinese community," Huang said.
After visiting Nairobi, the delegation travelled to the Amboseli National Park northwest of Mount Kilimanjaro and on the border with Tanzania. Covering an area of a little more than 390 square km, and with a wild elephant population of more than 1,400, the park is renowned as the best place in the world to see elephants. At the KWS' Amboseli branch, park warden Philip K. Rono told the delegates that no elephants have been poached in the area for the past two years.
James Isiche, the IFAW's regional director for East Africa, said the IFAW has co-operated with Kenyan organisations such as the KWS to protect elephants via habitat conservation, and by improving anti-poaching measures and enforcement. "This visit to Kenya is timely, and I am delighted that the IFAW initiative is building bridges between China and African countries to combine their efforts to save elephants," he said.
During the return flight to China, a member of the delegation received a message from a Chinese volunteer ranger at the Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe, who said seven elephants died recently after being poisoned at a waterhole in the park. "That's why we will further our initiative in other African countries during the next year," said the IFAW's Gabriel when she was informed of the deaths the next day.
First person: An emotional journey into the heart of darkness
As a journalist, I always try to keep an emotional distance with my sources and interviewees. During my recent trip to Kenya with members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare's China-Africa Wildlife Ambassadors initiative, I found maintaining that distance was difficult at times, especially because my focus was not on humans, but an amazing animal－the African elephant.
Early one morning, we spoke with some of the officials responsible for wildlife protection, who presented us with dry facts and figures about the plight of the world's largest land animal as a result of the illegal trade in ivory.
By noon, we were at an "orphanage" for elephant calves in Nairobi, watching dozens of them chase their human nurses for milk and interact with the visitors, unaware that that their situation was the work of human poachers who killed their parents for their tusks. Faced with these adorable animals, it's easy to become emotional.
Another day, we visited the Kenya Wildlife Service's fortified underground storehouse, where the country's stock of illegal ivory is held. The piles of tusks, each one bearing information indicating the date and location it was poached, and weight and length, were truly, horribly impressive.
"The thing that has made the biggest impression on me here is the smell, the bloody smell that fills the rooms," said Zhang Yue, a wildlife ambassador and popular anchor on China Central Television. Her feelings echoed my own.
In the evening of the same day, we met Huang Hongxiang, a Chinese national who has lived in Nairobi for two years. In August, posing as an ivory dealer from Hong Kong, the 28-year-old wore a concealed camera supp-lied by Austrian documentary maker Richard Lakini to shoot secret footage of poachers and the illegal trade in Uganda, East Africa.
It was hard to believe that this rather timid man, who looked like a fresh-faced graduate, had fooled hardened poachers. "You don't look like a cunning businessman. How could the poachers trust you?" I asked.
"Well, they don't know any Chinese who won't buy products made from elephant ivory," he said. "If you are Chinese, they trust you," Huang replied.
It's certainly not easy to control one's emotions when faced with an answer like that.