Wildlife adventurer with a heart of Africa

Huang Hongxiang, a Chinese wildlife researcher, reporter, entrepreneur and founder of China House, shared his legendary experience in developing countries. 
Ti Gong

Freelance journalist and wildlife advocate Huang Hongxiang with wild sea lions in Island Galapagos, Ecuador. He founded Chinese House in 2014 in Kenya to help Chinese people protect environment and promote sustainable development in Africa.

Nostalgia washed over Huang Hongxiang when he returned to Shanghai after years spent abroad as a freelance journalist, scholar, wildlife researcher and entrepreneur.

A native of Shantou in Guangdong Province, Huang, 29, graduated from the School of Journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai and from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York. 

As a freelance journalist for Southern Weekly, The Atlantic and The Mail, Huang frequently traveled to Africa and South America to do research and reported on issues mainly focused on the environment for Chinese overseas investment.

He is founder of China House, which provides advice to Chinese enterprises doing business in Africa. 

But perhaps his work exploring the illegal ivory trade in Africa has brought him the most notoriety. Huang spent three months investigating alleged Chinese links with the ivory trade, publishing tracts outlining the problem and offering suggestions about how to tackle illegal poaching. 

Huang’s career path was initially inspired by schoolmates who did volunteer and research work in developing countries. As a result, he spent university breaks to travel to South America to see for himself first-hand problems and progress of developing countries. 

In 2013, after graduating from Columbia, he received a job offer from the Boston Consulting Group, one of the world’s top consultancies. But he chose to pass up the offer and traveled to Africa as a wild animal investigator and reporter. 

His decision mystified many of his friends and relatives. 

“They said I gave up a well-paid, fancy job to expose myself to danger by working in desolate areas,” he said. “But the experience wasn’t like that. It’s necessary to explore developing countries and dispel mutual misunderstandings. I made my choice out of my love for animals, my desire to change others’ perceptions of China and my goal to enhance dialogue with Africa.”

One of the biggest misperceptions he faced was the belief among foreigners that the Chinese people aren’t interested at all in wildlife protection.

“What really haunts me is the impression of Chinese people in Africa and vice versa,” he said. “For many local people in Africa, the Chinese are bad people who eat wild animals and pollute their environment. And some Chinese working in Africa think all the locals are ignorant. These perceptions create great misunderstandings, and I want to eliminate these stereotypes.” 

Huang has participated in several undercover operations relating to elephant poaching and the ivory trade. 

The Chinese market is the biggest buyer of ivory, but the perception that every Chinese person is somehow involved is wrong, he said. The truth is that less than 0.1 percent of the Chinese population has ever brought ivory, and many Chinese wildlife activists are devoted to wild animal protection, he said. 

A Netflix documentary called “The Ivory Game,” starring Leonardo DeCaprio, focuses on the slaughter of African elephants to feed an insatiable ivory trade and shows how activists are willing to risk their lives to save elephants. 

In the film, Huang shared the experiences of his undercover work in Uganda. He later appeared in another documentary, “Chinese People in Africa,” which was produced by China Central Television.

But it’s a hard job to break down stereotypes of China and the ivory trade, Huang said. 

“Explanation doesn’t always work,” he said. “It’s hard to convince people with set minds. But I think we are making some difference in showing them what we have achieved.” 

The Chinese government has introduced policies banning the sale of ivory, which activists have hailed as a great step forward in wildlife protection. 

Ti Gong

Huang Hongxiang with one of his African “friends”.

Some media called Huang as “China’s James Bond” for his undercover investigative roles.

His investigative roles have been a bit cloak-and-dagger at times, putting him in jeopardy. At one point, Huang impersonated an ivory merchant. He was persecuted by the police in the Congo, was robbed and threatened in South Africa and once nearly shot by poachers in Uganda. 

“It indeed can be dangerous,” he said. “But I like to push myself to do important things. If I can make a difference in wildlife conservation work, danger is no excuse not to.” 

China House, founded by him and his team in 2014 in Kenya, is a social organization dedicated to helping Chinese people protect the environment and promote sustainable development in African and other developing countries.

Its operations are threefold: helping Chinese companies with investment by providing them information such as social issues and labor problems in Africa; designing and operating projects related to localization and community responsibility; and encouraging cultural exchanges and dialogue between China and Africa.  

Wildlife conservation work is more than caring for animals in a physical sense. 

“It has been misunderstood by many people,” Huang said. “It’s actually a very professional industry.”

Scientific studies are conducted to study the habitats of wild animals. Conservation areas are set up. Rangers are hired to protect against poaching. And programs are designed to help local African people survive without the need to kill wildlife for ivory to feed their families. 

“It’s a demanding but rewarding job that requires hard and sophisticated work,” Huang pointed out.

Running China House Kenya has been arduous. The project was built with financial support from a schoolmate’s father and getting it up and running was difficult.

“It was stressing and for six months, I was an insomniac,” said Huang. “But the pressure helped me mature. Now the task is to find a better business model for the project and expand our team to look at perils facing other wildlife in the world, like pangolin, the helmeted hornbill and shark fin.”

Before his lecture in Shanghai, Huang gave some advice to the younger generation: “The world is becoming a smaller place. Don’t restrain yourself to one place. Go out, experience the world and explore your own potential.” 

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