Public outrage over a hunting reserve offers activists hope for a new awareness of animal rights, writes Dinah Gardner
A grinning man clad in army fatigues brandishes a rifle, a dead boar lies at his feet. Leaves are stuck to his hunting helmet and an ammunition belt stuffed with gun cartridges hugs his portly waist. His image, plastered all over Beijing's subway, is the face of a new hunting reserve, a half day's drive from the capital.
East International Hunting Place, which allows guests to shoot deer, wild boar, foxes, pheasants and endangered leopards, sprawls over a so-called protected primeval forest near Taiyue Mountain in Shanxi province . 'You will find boundless joy in hunting here,' the reserve's website boasts.
While the park's investors are hoping hunting will become the new golf for China's nouveaux riches, a media backlash against the advert may be one of the first signs that mainlanders are slowly gaining a passion for animal welfare.
'It's disgusting,' the Beijing Morning Post quoted one commuter as saying. Another asked: 'What age are we in? Time is running out for the world to save wild animals and then to put such a poster in the subway advertising the killing of animals for entertainment.'
Cao Jieming, an environmental activist and former editor-in-chief of the magazine Greenness, pointed out the irony of setting up a hunting park for the rich to ride around in jeeps and chase animals with dogs, while the country's wildlife was increasingly threatened by urbanisation and population pressures.
'Many of China's environmental protection laws exist only on paper; they are never put into practice,' Mr Cao said. 'So now we have the absurd situation where in a country which has national-level legislation on animal protection you have a hunting park advertised in the subway. Don't you think it is very bold and outrageous?'
The media tongue-lashing against East Hunt is not an isolated case. On Christmas Day, the press was again up in arms after 16 puppies, baby rabbits and hamsters were crushed to death on a Beijing street as police arrested a couple for illegally hawking the pets. The traders and police accuse each other of killing the animals. A few days later, the public was shocked again when a zoo in Hebei province was ordered to close after one of its rare Siberian tigers was found beheaded and skinned.
This media outrage is seen by some animal welfare officials as an encouraging sign that the mainland public is getting behind the idea of protecting wildlife.
'The media is starting to challenge such things [like the hunting reserve],' said Jeff He, communications manager at the Beijing office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
He said the violent tone of the advert really offended some people. It advertised 'genuine guns and real bullets ... so it's not only about animal welfare, it's also about people's security and this [ad] totally goes against President Hu Jintao's message of a harmonious society. It's the most inharmonious thing ever.'
According to some wildlife experts, almost 40 per cent of mammal species in China are endangered, with Tibetan antelope, wild yak, sheep, wolves and tigers topping the list of threatened animals. Last year a similar public outcry - in the press and on the internet - resulted in the State Forestry Administration, which oversees wildlife protection, abandoning a plan to auction off licences to hunt wild animals, some of them endangered.
The hunting licences give the owner the right to kill certain species from a list of more than 200 animals, including many endangered in the remote western provinces and regions of Qinghai, Shaanxi , Gansu , Ningxia and Xinjiang .
Mr He said that last year the administration sold the permits quietly behind the scenes, but the public criticism forced the agency to back down from its initial proposal to hold a public auction. 'It was so spontaneous - the media challenging the administration's plan to auction the hunting licences,' Mr He said.
Such public outcries are not just evidence of a growing support for animal conservation, they also show a rising consciousness of the need to stamp out animal cruelty.
Lu Di, a professor in communications at Tsinghua University, said that urban Chinese had become more supportive of the animal welfare cause in recent years.
'I think there are two main reasons for this,' he said. 'As Chinese society becomes more open, we have more exposure to these ideas through books, movies, documentaries. All this is making a better environment to get people interested in animal welfare.
'Also, the government has been making an effort to develop laws and policies to help protect endangered species - and making more effort to enforce these laws. There are still weak links and areas that need to be improved such as educating people who live in the countryside.'
China has no national-level animal welfare protection law. In 2004, it scrapped draft animal rights legislation, arguing the public wasn't ready - there were concerns over enforcement and the cost to farmers and animal experimental facilities for improving living conditions for livestock.
The country has long been criticised for its appalling animal rights record. Visitors to safari parks such as the Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin , Heilongjiang , can pay to watch tigers tear into goats and cattle dumped live into their pens. Performing animals such as bears are regular entertainment at zoos and parks.
Most notorious is the practice of extracting bile from bears on farms - a painful process which involves carving a hole into the animal's abdomen to 'milk' off the valuable liquid, an ingredient used in traditional Chinese medicine. And while toy-sized pooches are the pets of choice for middle class urbanites, the skinned corpses of dogs and cats at meat markets have shocked foreigners visiting the mainland. But things may be changing.
Two weeks ago, Henan became the first province to test a draft humane slaughter law, mostly involving pigs, which is expected to be launched nationwide this year. State media reported that the central province, which produces about 10 per cent of the country's pork, will require animal traders to ban the use of Tasers on the animals and enforce a faster slaughter time once they are unconscious.
'At the psychological level, Chinese people are ready to embrace an animal welfare law nationwide,' Mr He said.
As well as public anger at such practices as hunting, growing awareness is evident in the number of new animal welfare groups. The Chinese Companion Animals Protection Network, an umbrella organisation for animal welfare bodies in China, said that by last August it had some 40 group members.
'All of these incremental changes indicate that the Chinese public and government agencies are becoming more and more aware how improving the animals' situation would eventually benefit our society,' Mr He said.
Some observers view the nascent animal welfare movement as coming from the increasing popularity of keeping pets as incomes rise.
'People's quality of life is rising and they have time to think about how we treat animals,' said Zhang Ling of the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
Mr Cao said concerns about the deteriorating environment had encouraged more people to take a stand on wildlife protection. 'It is not a slow realisation,' he said. 'It is a panic.'
Mr He said the public's changing sentiment went further than that. 'We are just becoming more connected with the rest of the world and we are beginning to realise there are better choices out there in the way we treat animals.' he said.
In some ways, he added, it's a return to traditional Chinese ethics which stressed harmony and respect in the way humans should treat other living things.
'The cultural revolution crushed that belief system,' Mr He said. 'As society is becoming more open and free we are beginning to retrace what we used to have.'