Licence to kill

A group of foreign tourists looks set to get permission to hunt rare animals in western China, provoking mixed reactions among conservationists. Meng Si reports.

An application by a group of American citizens to hunt China’s Bharal and Tibetan gazelle has won approval from a state expert committee, stoking concerns among animal-protection campaigners. While trophy-hunting tourism has largely been out of the news for the past five years – since public anger forced a halt to the first and only auction of international hunting quotas – the debate has been quietly raging on: does allowing select hunting ultimately benefit wildlife, or lead to disaster?

According to an August 8 report in the People’s Daily, seven US citizens have applied to the State Forestry Administration (SFA), via a Chinese “adventure travel” agency, for permits to hunt protected animals at the Dulan International Hunting Ground in China’s far western region of Qinghai. They want permission to shoot six bharals (also known as Himalayan blue sheep) and four Tibetan gazelles this autumn. Under Chinese law, protected species cannot be killed or hunted without a special license.  

A 12-person “Wild Animal Hunting Expert Committee” was asked by the SFA to consider the application. After four hours of discussion on August 5, the committee granted its approval to the request. The SFA said it would use the committee’s findings and the application materials to reach a final decision within 20 working days.  

Zhang Dan, co-founder of the China Animal Protection Media Salon, gave her reaction to chinadialogue: “Who are those 12 experts? Who do they speak for? Were there any representatives of animal-protection groups? That needs to be made public, because citizens beyond the interest groups concerned have a right to know what’s going on.”

Many in the conservation world believe hunting is both cruel and harmful to the environment, and some groups are preparing an open letter to the government questioning the transparency of the approval process. The 26,000 square-kilometre Dulan International Hunting Ground lies in Qinghai’s Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The animals to be hunted, the bharal and Tibetan gazelle, enjoy second-grade state protection. 

Other more “moderate” conservationists say that, when properly managed, hunting can actually help to protect animals. They argue that animal conservation is about more than emotions – a scientific approach is needed. In fact, there is plenty of support for “scientific hunting” among officials, and the hunting world. Supporters believe the activity can promote research and that hunting fees can provide funding for conservation work.

Wang Wei is president of China’s largest international hunting firm, Beijing-based Zheng’an Travel Agency, also known as China Adventure Travel. Speaking at an event organised by Beijing-based NGO Green Beagle, he said that allowing foreigners to hunt – and then passing on the resulting income to locals – can help drive down poaching rates. From 1988 to 2006, the Dulan International Hunting Ground paid 4 million yuan (US$625,000) in taxes on income from “limited hunting”, with 2.8 million yuan (US$437,000) of that channelled into local wildlife protection, according to the People’s Daily

These figures do not impress Zhang Dan. “Over 18 years, that’s hardly worth mentioning,” she said. “And who knows how little of that money actually got spent on protection.” Zhang refuses to accept any of the arguments for hunting. “Wild animals are precious lives that need to be protected, they aren’t ‘resources’ to be exploited, to be used or hunted by humans. Real protection is simple: respect them, don’t encroach on them, don’t take away their habitat and don’t worsen their living conditions. Just quietly appreciate and respect them from afar.” 

Well-known wildlife photographer Xi Zhinong said to chinadialogue: “Using hunting for wildlife conservation has a long history outside of China, showing that – in theory – these methods have scientific basis. But what’s reasonable outside of China is not necessarily reasonable within China.” Xi believes the government and forestry authorities are unlikely to use the majority of the proceeds from hunting to protect animals. He said: “If hunting starts before we can trust the authorities to use the money for protection, then the wild animals will die in vain.”

Anti-hunting sentiments are further fuelled by concerns about China’s standards of environmental and wildlife protection. Guangming Daily reporter and Green Beagle founder Feng Yongfeng wrote on his blog that Chinese officials and wildlife experts simply don’t have sufficient understanding of the state of China’s wildlife to take these kinds of decisions. They don’t know how many wild bharals or Tibetan gazelles there are, yet they have the right to decide the fate of these animals – and, in exchange, gain profit and investment.

In response, Dulan hunting ground has tried to provide figures to justify the activity. A spokesperson told the People’s Daily that, for the year from 2011 to 2012, the ground has proposed a hunt of 520 bharals – 1.22% of the population – and 53 Tibetan gazelles, equal to 3.48% of the population. The figure takes into account local statistics, as well as the international standard of hunting no more than 5% of a population. “The numbers of animals hunted would be far below international norms and have a negligible impact on the populations in question,” the spokesperson said.

Article 16 of China’s wildlife protection law bans the hunting or killing of protected species. But it allows applications to be made for hunting licenses for the capture of protected species for purposes of research, domestication, breeding and exhibition.

As early as August 2006, the SFA tried to hold the first auction of international hunting quotas – but was forced to abandon the plan in the face of fierce public opposition. Since then, the SFA has not approved any international hunting applications.

The hunting industry was badly wounded, but it wasn’t killed. Hunting, both legal and illegal, quietly carries on. Bi Yanying, a member of the Wild Animal Hunting Expert Committee and vice-professor at the University of International Relations’ School of Law, said: “In fact, that kind of hunting is open to Chinese as well as foreigners – it’s just that so far no Chinese people have applied.” Some Chinese are going abroad in search of a hunting adventure, however. Zheng’an Travel Agency reportedly takes dozens of Chinese and foreign hunters to Pakistan, Mongolia, North America and Africa each year.

Recent years have seen frequent calls for the hunting ban to be dropped. In July last year, China Business News carried an article called “Will hunters’ guns sound again?”, which reported on the International Seminar on Wildlife Protection and Sports Hunting, held in the city of Urumqi and attended by hunting grounds managers, local forestry officials, Chinese and foreign experts and animal protection authorities. Many attendees proposed that the animal-protection authorities “on the condition of being aware of existing resources, scientific justification and strict oversight, allow planned and organised hunting.”

The article stated that the head of Beijing Forestry University’s Wildlife Institute, Shi Kun, believes hunting can help control animal populations – if it is done scientifically, hunters act as the top predator, and prevent excessive population growth by playing the role of a natural predator. Shi told chinadialogue that “animals are like crops – you need to harvest one lot to grow the next. If you have detailed population figures, sustainable hunting is reasonable.” He also said that, in China, hunting is still in trial mode: it is restricted to specified hunting grounds, there are clear principles for allocation of benefits and other issues, and the details are still being researched. This is all happening transparently, he said.  

Meng Si is managing editor in chinadialogues Beijing office

Homepage image by whisperwolf shows a bharal.