Beijing philanthropist’s billion-dollar pledge could prove to be a game-changer in the battle to save endangered wildlife

He Qiaonu’s promise to donate US$1.5 billion is the largest sum ever given to conservation groups and may help transform China’s environmental role

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 October, 2017, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 October, 2017, 1:57pm

This Saturday in Monaco, He Qiaonu will announce the first step in a US$1.5 billion plan that may represent the largest-ever personal philanthropic commitment to wildlife conservation. 

He, a Beijing-based former landscape planner, represents a new wave of self-made Chinese philanthropists: her seven-year pledge stands at more than a third of her current US$3.6 billion net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

“[China is] pivoting to a new narrative in record speed,” said Tom Kaplan, founder and chairman of Panthera, the leading wild cat conservation organisation and He’s first international partner.

“Their [global] reputation has suffered by being viewed as the scourge of the elephant and tiger – and they want to reverse this.”

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As part of their partnership, He’s namesake Beijing Qiaonu Foundation (BQF) is pledging US$20 million towards the Chinese snow leopard and other projects at Panthera.

The donation is a significant sum for an organisation with an annual operating budget of about US$14 million.

It is also doubly significant since threatened big cats in China have yet to receive the same global attention as endangered species in other parts of the world such as Africa.

With the emergence of Chinese leadership in this area, Kaplan said He’s pledge stood to change the face of cat conservation forever. “One day this event may be seen as a watershed.”

In China, domestic private conservation work still requires the collaboration of the government, as private land ownership – and therefore, privately managed nature reserves – are not allowed under Chinese law. But under Xi Jinping’s leadership, these private-public partnerships are becoming possible.

Xi has emerged as an unlikely environmental leader after the US dropped out of the Paris climate accord.

Sceptics may think of this as rhetoric aimed at filling a political gap, but he has already made moves by moving to curb the illegal ivory trade by the end of the year, putting forth a long-term proposal to eliminate gasoline-powered cars and creating the country’s first tiger and Amur leopard reserve near the Russian border.

By 2020 the government has promised to create between 30 and 50 new conservation zones.

All this stands in sharp contrast with other realities in China.

Combating air pollution, the most visible sign of China’s environmental problems, continues to be a work in progress.

The country is still a major burner of coal, despite cuts to its overall energy consumption.

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But change is under way. “When the Chinese government decides to do something, they do it,” Kathryn Sheridan, chief executive of a Brussels-based sustainability communications consultancy, said. “It’s not the talking shop that we see in Europe.”

Kaplan likened the moment in Chinese history to 19th century America, when the US was making the move from rural to industrial society.

“The water and air were being polluted in the rush for economic growth, and wildlife was obliterated – we nearly destroyed our own national symbol, the bald eagle,” he said.

“No nation has a monopoly on virtue, but it is also true that we can learn from history. The Chinese are experts at precisely that.”

He said the collaboration of China’s ultra-rich with their government marked a turning point for the country.

“The public awareness of environmental protection is gradually increasing in China,” she said. 

He’s affinity for the environment is what drove her into landscaping and resource management in the first place. But her vision for how she could contribute toward the greater good of the planet has evolved over time.

“At the very beginning, the dream of our business was to build 100 of the most beautiful parks in 100 cities of China,” said He of Beijing Orient Landscape Co, the company she built from scratch and continues to oversee as chairman. What she found along the way were polluted water systems and depleted urban ecology.

In 2012 she founded Beijing Qiaonu Foundation with the goal of resolving some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. Among her priorities were establishing key conservation areas within her home country; identifying native species in the greatest need of protection; and lobbying the government, working with international organisations, and supporting domestic NGOs to create meaningful change that could improve global biodiversity and carbon dioxide levels.

As He put it: “We believe that protecting China is to protect the whole Earth.”

Partnerships with global players such as Kaplan and Bill Gates, who has worked with He through the China Global Philanthropy Institute (CGPI), mean that He’s fundraising commitments are being given extra measures of accountability.

Just as importantly, they are also being given a proven toolkit with which to succeed.

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With 79 projects already under way in 26 provinces – including everything from Asian elephant conservation to wetland protection – BQF does not need international validation or support to start making a difference.

But at last year’s East-West Sustainability Summit in Hawaii, which was convened in partnership with CGPI, He shared a table with some of the world’s biggest players in conservation, including Nicole Mollo, the executive director of environmental philanthropy at the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation, the Panthera founder’s private organisation.

“Things [in China] are changing under the global radar,” said Mollo, who went on to broker the partnership between Panthera and BQF, helping to establish both the financial scope and environmental goals that the partnership would support.

“They have the will and frankly they have the resources – what they are missing is a middle tier of expertise. They don’t know what it means to manage a protected area, to train a ranger, or to work with communities and livestock.”

That is why the partnership with Panthera marks a meaningful shift in He’s work.

With the organisation’s help, BQF will create and staff two protected snow leopard reserves that will serve as pilot areas and can be scaled over time, while simultaneously underwriting a wildlife management training programme for Chinese conservationists.

He also plans to turn her attention to building hundreds of urban classrooms where “hundreds of millions of people can visit and learn” about conservation.

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Even if she accomplishes only a quarter of what she sets out to do with her US$1.5 billion pledge, she stands to make a massive impact.

In some ways, she already has. While the US$20 million contribution to Panthera matches the commitments made by several global figureheads – Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi – a 10-figure pledge is “unheard of”, according to Mollo, who has facilitated some of the largest recorded contributions to conservation organisations while working at the African Parks Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

She said the largest donation she has seen on record was a US$65 million commitment over 10 years. Pledges worth hundreds of millions, such as Gates’s recent US$5 billion pledge to his health care and education foundation, are generally made to universities, hospitals, or cultural institutions with naming opportunities attached to them.

“I would be the first one to bash China for what they’ve done wrong, but that strategy will not get us anywhere,” Mollo said.

“And when they put their money where their mouth is, it is our job to support them.”