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Chinese celebrity on a mission to help conserve Africa’s wildlife through raising awareness
Special Report | ChinAfrica ·2018-12-03

Jiang Yiyan hugs Sudan (COURTESY PHOTO)

On March 20, Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, died in Kenya, leaving behind only two white female species of its kind, Naju, Sudan’s daughter, and Fatu, his granddaughter.

The subspecies have roamed the planet for some 50 million years, and was once abundant on the grasslands of central Africa. Sudan’s death marked the beginning of the subspecies’ extinction, which is constantly being hastened by mankind’s desire for the horns. 

Statistics carried out by an international non-profit wildlife protection organization WildAid revealed that over the past 40 years, 90 percent of rhinos being wiped out were resulted from rampant poaching and destruction of their habitats. This has prompted efforts by wildlife conservationists to take action.  

On April 10, during 2018 Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference, ChinAfrica reporter Hou Weili spoke to Jiang Yiyan, a renowned Chinese entertainment celebrity dedicated to nature and wildlife protection, who shared her experiences with African wildlife, particularly rhinos. 

Jiang began to serve as a volunteer ambassador for WildAid in 2016 and is no stranger to Africa. Prior to this, she made several visits to Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia among other countries. During that year, together with WildAid, they filmed a documentary titled The Last of the Rhino, in an effort to create awareness for the conservation of wildlife.  

ChinAfrica: What inspired you to become a wildlife conservationist and to film the documentary on the white rhinos in Africa?  

Jiang Yiyan: I was chosen by WildAid. I love and respect what nature has offered. Over the past 10 years, I have been to Africa several times when my work permitted. 

I took photos of the savanna, wrote Africa-related stories, and held a photography exhibition to showcase my works, most of which were inspired by the beautiful African wildlife and its hospitable people. I believe they appreciated the fact that we shared the same vision with regard to nature conservation.  

I thought I knew Africa very well before WildAid approached me [to help their cause and film the documentary]. But then I learned the situation of endangered rhinos, and that they are on the edge of extinction. I was shocked. I felt the urge to do something positive. So I took the job without hesitation.  

You mentioned you visited Africa prior to this on several occasions. Can you highlight the differences between being a tourist and a wildlife conservationist?  

Initially, I visited Africa as a tourist and freelance photographer, with enthusiasm for the continent. I wanted to share the beauty of what I saw through my lens with my fellow countrymen in the best way I could. But I had no idea a cruel reality hid behind such beauty. These poor rhino species are constantly facing human brutality. Nevertheless, I’m glad to say ever since I partnered with WildAid for the cause of wildlife conservation, I developed a personal sense of responsibility in preserving nature to fight wildlife extinction. 

Could you describe the experience whilst you were shooting the documentary, The Last of the Rhino, and take us through your personal encounter with Sudan? What impressed you the most during this trip?  

As a foreigner, I suppose when you visit Africa for the first time, you are wowed every day. It’s amazing and filled with daily refreshing experiences. During the documentary shoot, I learned the hands-on experience of the dangers and challenges of being a wildlife ambassador. I was impressed by the way that mankind and animals could live in harmony. I went to see an orphan baby rhino; I call her Little Girl. She was well taken care of by local soldiers who taught her how to use her horn, to bathe, and to claim territory. It was like a father-to-daughter relationship. I was deeply moved by such a beautiful picture. I still sympathize with this orphan rhino as she has to live the rest of her life as an endangered species owing to human perversity. 

Some poachers have a disregard for nature. I would describe their relationship with wildlife as brutal.  

In the case of Sudan, I first met him in 2016, but I was saddened when I learned that he only had three months to live. When I came back to China, I continued to make follow-ups on him via social media. I was devastated when I got the news [of his passing away].  

As a public figure, what can you do to save wildlife?  

[I will do] everything in my capacity. I encourage the public to take immediate action to stop similar tragedies which led to the fate of Sudan and Little Girl. They don’t just belong to Africa and Asia, but the entire planet.  

I will correct the public’s misconception on the value of rhino horns. Scientifically, the components of rhino horns are mainly keratin, which I believe should not be abused as a prescription to cure diseases. I intend to advocate for animal rights and eradication of poaching. In my opinion collectors who want the horns as artifacts should visit the savanna more, perhaps this will change their perceptions toward animals. Once they see how cruel it is to kill an animal just to get the horn, they might feel shame and pity. 

As an actress whose face is her fortune, shooting such a documentary will not earn too much fame or money. Why did you still choose to do it?  

Indeed, the trips were tough. People around me say they’ve never known actresses like me not worrying about their appearance. But what matters to me is what I have done to positively influence people around me, what my value to others is, and what I can offer.  

It is not just about fame and commercial gains. It is about meaning as a person. I hope I can combine the cause with my career, for example, to shoot more movies relating to wildlife protection so that more and more people can learn about nature and wildlife through my films. I am nature-loving. Maybe that is the reason why I want to be a role model who inspires others to enjoy it, too. Actually, we all have the responsibility to protect our planet.  

What is your future plans regarding Africa? 

I plan to revisit Kenyan conservancy soon to check on Little Girl, and work on more wildlife campaigns there. I’d like to promote African nature-tours among the Chinese public. One thing is for sure, once you see wildlife face to face, you will grow to love them more and spontaneously protect them. I believe commercial tours will contribute to local tourism, create jobs and increase tourism revenues so that the host countries can improve people’s livelihood and better protect the wildlife.  

Our future generations should have the chance to see wildlife, such as the northern white rhinos, face to face. It’s our generation’s responsibility to take actions to enable this to happen. Without wildlife, our planet would be an incomplete ecosystem.  

(Reporting from Boao)

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