In 2014, just before the US IPO of his company Alibaba, Jack Ma became caught up in a debate sparked by a hunting trip he took to the UK. I and my colleagues at chinadialogue had an idea: rise above that debate and look at the facts.
The UK media have reported that increasing numbers of China’s new rich are spending heavily on hunting trips in the UK, with Jack Ma among their ranks. Two years ago he spent almost £36,000 on a week-long trip with 11 friends, during which 17 stags were shot.
Ma’s fame meant this news received blanket coverage in the media. The Chinese public are irritated by ostentatious displays of wealth and, with the gap between rich and poor widening, a torrent of online criticism was inevitable. And with environmental awareness, religious faith and the keeping of pets all becoming more common, the Chinese people are starting to care about animal welfare – meaning that hunting is frowned upon.
The Nature Conservancy, which arranged the trip, stated that Ma had been observing the development of nature reserves in Europe and how animal populations are controlled. Ma offered his own explanation, saying that hunting is essential for conservation: many wild animals lack natural predators and hunting is essential to keep populations from running out of control and causing huge environmental damage.
Environmental group Nature University criticised Ma in an open letter, saying that “China’s own hunting grounds, after secretly operating for foreign hunters for 20 years, are now keen to stimulate the domestic market. If China’s rich are allowed to hunt at home, no thought will be given to wildlife protection”
But Nature University stood alone. Compared with earlier debates on hunting, and despite much discussion by the public, the number of environmental groups speaking out was much lower. Some said this was due to Ma’s influential status: his Alibaba Foundation funds environmental groups. Was there a fear critics of Ma would find themselves shut out from funding opportunities?
And privately many environmentalist spoke in support of hunting, describing it as an essential part of nature conservancy, and saying that while ideas about the protection of animals are popular in China, there is little effort to popularise proven scientific methods of doing so.
But the media did not try and find out if Ma’s trip was indeed just a bloodthirsty display of wealth or as he claimed, all about conservation. Why was everyone so keen to argue and point fingers, rather than spending a little time finding out what actually happened?
My colleagues and I decided to rise above that debate and speak to those on the ground in the UK to see what really happened. Perhaps deer do actually run rampant there and Ma, faced with excessive criticism, had been left unable to defend himself. As environmental journalists, we had a duty to provide facts, not just opinions.
The outcome was surprising. Scotland is not engaged in a struggle to save its deer from extinction – it is trying to control their numbers and reduce the environmental damage they cause. For example there were once vast expanses of original forest here – now forest coverage is only 4%. The hillsides are bare, with no extended natural forest coverage – due to grazing by huge numbers of deer. And those forests remaining are shrinking.
The reader at this point may feel enlightened – Ma’s hunting trip was justified. But please, dear reader, read on.
Mike Daniels of the John Muir Trust said that while it may not have been wrong for Ma to go hunting, he chose the wrong method. Scotland’s hunting estates are actually the main reason deer numbers are so high. These large estates offer luxurious accommodation, private stalkers to help with hunting, and a lavish lifestyle. This attracts rich clients from around the world – and Ma was one of them.
Put simply: the powerful local estates deliberately fail to control deer numbers, in order to increase their income, but causing huge environmental damage. Then when hunters pay huge sums to shoot the deer, this is dressed up as deer control and environmental protection. The hunters get to kill deer and claim they are helping the environment. I am sure that Ma and many environmental groups are unaware of these facts.
These findings were unexpected. Even more unexpected was that our report was met with little response. In China there is a constant supply of environmental disasters – the fuss over Ma’s hunting trip was nothing significant. But I have always seen this as one of 2014’s major environmental events. Not the hunting itself, but the psychology of the response: an eagerness to blame and argue, and an ignoring of the facts.