Hunting grounds

Updated: 2011-08-26 11:52

By Wang Yan and Wu Wencong (China Daily)

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Opinion divided as China debates opening door to international players

Hunting grounds
A blue sheep, one of the rare species on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, makes its home in a wildlife reserve in Guizhou province. China started to prohibit the hunting of endangered or vulnerable animals in 1988. [Provided to China Daily]

Just as Wang Wei clarified the crucial point of his lecture, that hunting can offer a sustainable method of wildlife conservation, the audience started firing accusations.

"Protection is just an excuse," one member of the audience shouted. "You are saying that by killing animals, you are actually protecting them," shouted another. Wang, 49, has hunted for 25 years and knows that regardless of what he says the possible resumption of hunting for wild game in China will always have its critics. "They really need to understand more about hunting and sustainable modes of conservation before attacking the sport so fiercely," he says.

The controversy started in early August after a group of experts approved applications by seven US citizens to hunt nine blue sheep and seven Tibetan gazelles in Northwest China's Qinghai province.

A final decision will be made by the country's top wildlife management authority before Sept 2.

The decision could see China opening its door to international hunters for the first time in five years.

Four of the seven hunters had applied via Wang, who is the general manager of China Adventure Travel. His company usually takes 10 to 15 percent of the total expenditure as a commission.

If the applications are approved, the animals are to be stalked at the Qinghai Dulan Hunting Ground.

Recent attempts to contact the hunting ground failed. Its website lists a local agent office in Xining. A staff member, who provided only the surname Li, hung up the phone three times as a China Daily reporter was explaining the interview request.

"The hunting ground is not doing very well," another staffer said on the phone, without providing a name. "They haven't seen any clients for a very long time."

Wang says there are hunting grounds in almost every province, but how many are operating at all, much less under government regulations, is unknown.

"Dulan is a model of its kind, both in management and profit-making back in the old days, but even the model hasn't been able to sustain itself over the years," he says.

Dulan International Hunting Ground made $2 million from 1988 to 2006. But its debt reached 3 million yuan (324,400 euros) two years after hunting was halted, according to a report by World Vision magazine in 2009.

A mystery

The public knows little about the hunting grounds in China, including who owns them.

For example, Dulan Domestic Hunting and Dulan International Hunting companies were listed on the grounds' website - both established in 2008 after being "approved by the State Forestry Administration and local government" - but further information could not be found and no officials would talk to China Daily.

An interview request sent to the State Forestry Administration was declined. Qinghai Forestry Bureau did not respond to a request for comment.

Hunting grounds
Trophy hunters go after wild game like this Tibetan gazelle and sometimes they take the skin, horns or heads to display as trophies. [Provided to China Daily]

All of that mystery, that lack of transparency, has increased the public's mistrust of trophy hunting programs.

Seventy animal protection organizations presented an open letter to the State Forestry Administration on Aug 13, expressing their "great indignation" when they learned that international hunting might again be allowed. They made a joint request to halt it. They also asked the government to publicize the status of operations at all hunting grounds in China, the number and types of species being hunted every day, the profit they've made, and how the money has been allocated and spent.

There has been no official response.

However, a Dulan staffer named Luo, in a recent interview with Hunan Television, said the operators applied to wildlife management authorities this year for a quota, for both international and domestic hunters, of 520 blue sheep and 53 Tibetan gazelles.

"There are a total of 42,620 blue sheep and 1,525 Tibetan gazelles in the hunting ground," he said during the telephone interview. He did not explain how the numbers were calculated.

About the numbers ...

The numbers "are not well supported and should not form the basis of management", in Richard Harris' opinion. Harris, who holds a PhD, is an adjunct research associate professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Montana, and he started doing research in western China in the late 1980s.

He suggests that any kind of hunting limit "should be considered based on the portion of the population that will be affected by the hunting. Even if there are 40,000 blue sheep in Dulan, the problem is that hunters can only access them in limited places. The animals don't all live together in one big group."

In spring 2008, Harris and his team, prioritizing areas that hunters can get to in Dulan International Hunting Ground, observed "6,392 to 6,688 blue sheep" and "an additional 205 argali, 55 white-lipped deer, 23 red deer, and an undocumented number of Tibetan gazelles" during 16 days of field work.

The survey was based in the Burhan Buda Shan within the Dulan International Hunting Ground, "where all international hunts have occurred". The place constitutes about one-third of Dulan county, he said, making it roughly contain 17,700 square kilometers.

He cautioned against extrapolating his numbers for the whole hunting ground. Yet he believes that Dulan might use the numbers and "still justify a very safe, sustainable and conservative hunt" and "continuing the program at its maximum capacity."

"In reality, there is no way that 520 hunters could come to Dulan in a single year. The most they have ever had is far fewer, I think 60 or 70. There simply is not the staff, facilities or time to host that many hunters." Enough money?

Among supporters' arguments for trophy hunting is the use of hunting income to pay for wildlife protection. Harris thinks that is feasible, but it "would require that much of the funding currently directed toward government offices at the national, provincial and prefectural level be redirected toward the county level".

Fees for hunting in Dulan were listed on a Xining travel agency's website: A blue sheep costs 48,980 yuan with a hunting period of five days, and a Tibetan gazelle costs 35,800 yuan.

In a 2002 research paper, Harris analyzed the flow of money from foreign hunters of argali (a type of sheep) from 1998 to 2000 in Aksai county, Gansu province, in Northwest China. He concluded that the county-level wildlife protection station received "only enough to cover hunting services", not conservation.

The 'anti' tilt

Without official voices or clear information about hunting grounds and programs, the general public seems to have leaned to one side.

In an online survey released by sina.com that drew about 1,000 responses, 97 percent strongly opposed lifting the ban on international hunting. So do animal conservation groups.

Feng Yongfeng is the founder of Da'erwen, a Beijing-based environmental protection group and one of the 70 that submitted the open letter. He said he has no choice but to question the government and the experts' movement toward reopening international hunting, while the degradation of wildlife in China shows no signs of being reversed.

"Do they really want to protect the animals, or do they simply want to restore their economy under such a name?" Feng said.

Hua Ning, China regional project manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, one of the biggest non-governmental organizations dedicated to animal welfare, also urged the government to think twice before lifting the ban. "Support for the hunting ground may end up conveying the idea to the public, especially the kids, that it's OK to hunt wild animals."

No guarantees

Wang, the travel agency manager, majored in animal protection in college and participated in the protection of giant pandas in the 1980s as leader of an observation station in Wolong National Natural Reserve. But he doesn't think banning hunting completely is a good idea.

"No hunting can't guarantee a carefree life for the wild animals in Qinghai province," he said. "The locals have to find a way for living, and other ways to use the natural resources will interfere with the environment even more."

He was talking about what most people have in mind as an alternative - ecological travel.

Dulan International Hunting Ground, for example, is at 3,000 to 5,000 meters above sea level. Local residents, mostly Tibetan and Mongolian, come and go at this altitude freely, riding horses.

Hunters, or other outsiders, rely mainly on off-road vehicles to go deep into the hunting ground, and have to camp for at least two days at 4,500 meters to chase blue sheep.

He said he is not confident the applications will be approved in the end, yet he still tried to persuade people that trophy hunting is valid and rational. "Not all wildlife hunting is prohibited in China."

China's 1988 Wildlife Protection Law prohibits hunting or killing critically endangered or vulnerable animals. However, special needs hunting - for scientific research, domestication and breeding, and exhibitions - is permitted. The law also requires hunters to obtain permits before stepping onto hunting grounds.

The foreign nationality of the seven current applicants also has drawn fire from the public. But Wang said the reason is not that Chinese can't afford to hunt, as some news reports have said. "Chinese hunters are usually keen on common wild animals," he said. They are just less willing to pay the high prices that foreigners do.

'Substantial difference'

Harris, the professor from Montana, thinks China is at the point of embracing international hunters.

"To be sure, international hunting will never be such a large program that it can fund all wildlife conservation activities throughout a province, not to mention all of China. Government must always take the lead role. But in specific areas where trophy hunters can go, funding that they potentially provide can make a substantial difference," he said.

"I favor reform of China's international hunting system, to further empower both county-level managers and local people to better conserve their wildlife. But . . . it makes little sense to try to perfect a system that does not exist."

Cang Wei contributed to this report.


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