Interview: China’s environmental journalist of the year

We speak to Shi Yi, who won the 'Best Journalist' award at chinadialogue’s 2016 Environmental Press Awards for her investigative reporting
<p>(Image by Laura Lee Moreau)</p>

(Image by Laura Lee Moreau)

Several well-built poachers are held to the floor by the police and swiftly handcuffed.

Shi Yi, sitting in a car about 10 metres away, manages to take two photos before her hands start shaking uncontrollably. As she tries to replace the lens cap it slips from her hand and falls to the floor.

Moments ago she was calmly talking business with the poachers; now her throat muscles are taut with stress and tension. Her driver, delighted to see the poachers brought to justice, teases her but she is unable to respond. For the next half an hour she is silent. Only when a colleague back in China, receiving the photos of the arrests, reminds her to leave quickly does she recover. Yes, it’s time to go.

This is a small town in Namibia. Poaching is rife in the southern African country, and in September 2015 Shi Yi received funding from the Oxpeckers Centre and the China-Africa Reporting project at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa to report on the problem.

But now her cover as an ivory buyer has been blown and her Chinese face is far too prominent here. There’s a danger someone will seek revenge – time to pack up and get out fast.

Shi has been a journalist for many years, but it’s rare for her to put herself in this kind of danger.

She doesn’t see herself as one of those out to change the world through her reporting. Shi didn’t major in journalism and came to the work for the freedom of movement and variety it offered. Her work shows evidence of genuine concern both for people and nature.

See also: China’s environmental journalists shine despite dark times for local media 

As soon as Shi arrived in northern Namibia, she was told the poachers had recently taken an elephant and given contact details for the poachers themselves and a middleman.

She felt nervous about dealing with the poachers directly – would it be better to talk to the intermediary? What if she gave herself away while talking with the poachers?

But how would she write her piece if she didn’t? But then she thought about the ivory she’d be shown, and the elephant killed for it. She had to do something…

Shi went to see the poachers: two strong young men, the doors and windows of their hotel room tightly closed.

She stayed calm and talked business – the supply of ivory, how much it cost. She said she’d like to make a purchase and arranged a time and a place for the exchange. The poachers had no idea the police would be lying in wait.

Experiences like this come through in Shi’s report. It is a long piece, but fast-paced and detailed, backed up with thought-provoking narrative and data the helps explain the scale of the problem. The reporter also threaded her story with multiple sources of evidence and often shocking revelations.

But what others might see as thrilling adventures aren’t important to her. When she talks about that trip she says the most important experience was learning about the different attitudes to poaching the locals hold.

The mainstream opinion today is that wild animals should not be killed. But when Shi asked locals in Namibia what they thought about a ban on hunting they said it would be bad news. Shi was surprised – this was not a view she’d heard before.

She soon understood: Namibia is one of the few countries to still permit hunting. With little rainfall and poor soil hampering agricultural development, hunting has long been a means of survival here. And sometimes these animals approach villages, killing livestock or eating crops – the locals need to protect themselves. It is a traditional rite of passage for young men to kill a lion.

There are annual hunting quotas for lions, elephants and rhinoceros handed out to community conservation stations. Numerous hunters from Europe and the US come here, with 20% of the fees they pay going to the government and the remaining 80% used in the community. Locals also make a living by hunting and selling the meat. Man and animal have long co-existed here in this manner and wildlife populations are generally stable.

The problem is poaching. Maintaining population balance and preventing over-hunting means that quotas are reduced for every animal killed by poachers. That affects the local community, and means the locals hate poaching. An outright ban on hunting doesn’t affect other countries where other economic sectors are more developed so much, but it would have a huge impact here in Namibia.

Although Shi showed support for a hunting ban in her piece – for example pointing out that hunters often choose to shoot young healthy animals, causing more damage to the population – she personally understands and supports the locals. The boundary between right and wrong can be indistinct – perhaps this is why she isn’t trying to change anything, even if her reporting and involvement did have some influence.

For her, the job is about the unique experiences: the chance to see the picturesque rural canals and water markets in the Vietnamese town of Can Tho before the onset of rapid urbanisation; hunkering down in a tent on the Tibetan plateau while waiting for a sudden blizzard to pass; trekking to a well across the dry yellow soil of Ningxia alongside a young boy and an exhausted camel; watching the endangered finless porpoise be removed from the rolling waters of the Yangtze to a reserve, in the hope this will save the species.

Her investigation into how coal mining had spoiled the Kalamely nature reserve in Xinjiang resulted in central government attention and the halting of the more recent plans. But ask her what she thought about the reserve and her eyes light up and she answers immediately: “It’s just so beautiful! I’ll have to show you some photos so you can see.”

Investigative reporting is tough, tiring and dangerous, but Shi Yi can’t give up the experiences it brings. She’s just started work for Sixth Tone, an English language outlet owned by the Shanghai United Media Group. “I’ll still be a journalist though,” she says. “I can’t stand being cooped up in an office.”