When he was a little boy, Guo Wei spent his days on horseback, chasing sheep or deer with his father near his hometown in northwest China's Qinghai Province.
Thirty years later, Guo, 40, is preparing to go hunting again.
"I had earlier applied to hunt with my clients at designated parks but was rejected," said Guo, the manager of an investment company in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan Province.
Now he is optimistic: At the end of this month, Guo hopes to go hunting at Dulan International Park in Qinghai, where for the past two decades only foreign hunters have been allowed.
Dulan will launch its domestic business as soon as it receives permits, according to park manager Da Shelin.
Guo is just one of China's growing number of businessmen who are interested in hunting,
"When people get rich, they want luxury sports, such as golf," Da said. "The difference between golfing and hunting is that the latter is more adventurous. It offers a sense of thrill and helps urban dwellers to strive to get what they want."
Domestic travel agencies are eyeing the potential market for the high-end sport. "I've had calls from travel agents every day who have Chinese businessmen lining up to go hunting," Da said.
Citing Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, as an example, Da said at least 200 top businessmen have inquired about hunting services.
"Eventually, hunting will become something like golfing. Hunting club members are people with money who go hunting for exercise or as a way to meet friends."
Hunting has received qualified government support. To facilitate hunting areas and encourage more domestic hunters, the China Wildlife Conservation Association, an arm of the State Administration of Forestry (MOF), has called for the launch of a national hunting club by the end of this year.
"A national hunting club or a commission would work to further regulate the market, enhance relevant laws and co-ordinate between hunting areas in remote places and customers in the east coast," said Cao Liang, director of the China Wildlife Conservation Association.
However, ecologists are unimpressed, due to concerns over lack of monitoring and enforcement systems.
"Any hunting activities must be carried out with the precondition that wildlife numbers in the park are monitored by experts," said Lu Zhi, world-renowned panda expert and conservationist who teaches at the department of life science at Peking University.
"But I doubt China has enough people who can do this," she said.
What is more, the country's environment is continuing to deteriorate.
Despite protection efforts in recent years, Lu continued, the number of wild animals is still too low.
"Currently China has no single place where you can go hunting without concerns over protection of the environment and animals. I would suggest that local governments do not give the green light easily," she said.
When it comes to law enforcement, the professor was very worried.
"Hunting in China is not a mature concept yet. When hunters raise their guns and take aim, it is hard to guarantee that the targets are not females or young species."
At the same time, government officials and other experts are looking at hunting as something that can actually help wildlife conservation, as well as benefit the local economy.
"Hunting is not poaching. Rather, it can be a form of protection," said Jiang Zhigang, a researcher at the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who in 2006 received a Whitley Award, a British award for outstanding nature conservationists.
Jiang said that although nature has its own ways to control wildlife numbers, such as hunger, migration and disease, they are negative measures. Human intervention can be a better way to balance natural resources.
"Human beings need family planning to a certain extent, so do fast-growing animal populations," he said.
Jiang said the key is what to kill. After decades of hunting being banned, some wildlife species in China have bred too much, such as boars and wild rabbits, which, reports say, destroys crops and hurts humans.
What is more, only targeting old males won't affect the reproduction of the species, Jiang added.
Instead of damaging the species, well-planned hunting will single out weak animals, improve survival rates, reduce the spread of disease and lead to sustainable development, he said.
Apart from contributing to the natural habitat, hunting will bring profits to the local economy and raise awareness of wildlife conservation among local farmers, said Cao Liang, the director.
For instance, in western China's Gansu Province, an argali is a type of wild sheep poached by farmers in the mountains. They sell it for about US$40, but an international hunter would pay more than US$30,000 for it, Cao said.
"The money earned from international hunters has been partly used on local wildlife conservation and partly on the local economy," Cao said. "Farmers are aware of the wildlife's economic value and this reduces poaching,"
Asked how hunting could be supervised, Da Shelin, manager of Dulan, said all hunting parks are asked to employ experts to observe and analyze the distribution and condition of wildlife.
Park evaluations will be the responsibility of the State Forestry Administration (SFA), which issues hunting quotas. For example, a park may have a limit of 10 sheep, 20 boars or 100 wild rabbits that can be killed in a year.
When the first international hunting area was set up in Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province in 1985, things were very different.
"It was painstaking at that time to persuade people who didn't want foreigners killing their animals," recalled Wang Wei, director of the wildlife division of the SFA, who introduced trophy hunting to China with Chinese American hunter Lit Ng.
But two decades later, China has become one of the favorite destinations for foreign hunters.
Last spring and autumn, about 150 international hunters from countries including the United States, Spain and Mexico spent nearly US$4 million hunting at about 30 international hunting parks located mostly in northeast, north and southwest China.
Hunting in China is still a complicated procedure for foreigners. Using foreign hunting agencies, they have to contact one of five government-authorized hunting agencies in China to arrange their trips, hire interpreters, look for guides and send trophy samples back when they finish.
In addition, the agency will help hunters get permits from the SFA concerning where, when and what they can hunt. Hunters can bring their rifles with permission from the Ministry of Public Security.
What makes the procedure worthwhile is the wildlife diversity. "Of 15 subspecies of argali in the world, China has 11," said Cao Liang. "Some wild animals species are only seen in China."
For instance, with its plentiful wildlife and 54,000 hectares, Dulan International Hunting Park is a paradise for hunters.
"Our blue sheep are the most precious," said Da, head of the park. "It is the world largest blue sheep with the biggest horns."
International hunters are mostly wealthy. "They spend on average US$10,000 on a single trip," said Lit Ng, who now lives in California.
"Hunters come from all walks of life. Most big-time hunters are people with money. They are doctors, engineers, politicians, businessmen and lawyers."
Asked whether it is worth spending thousands of dollars, traveling long distances to sleep in shabby tents or riding on rainy days to hunt a sheep, Ng said the enjoyment lies in the hunter's love of a challenge.
"In hunting, everything is tough," Ng said. "The harder it is, the more they like it."
(China Daily August 10, 2006)