Recreational hunting is strictly regulated in China, with Beijing having two grounds that permit people to hunt fowl and rabbits in enclosed areas. Photo: CFP
Cui Yue crouches nervously in the undergrowth, her finger loosely on the trigger of a double-barreled shotgun. She steadies her aim on a pheasant scratching the dry ground for insects and worms, blissfully unaware of its nearby audience of seven silent hunters.
With one eye closed and sweat dripping from her brow, Cui takes a breath and fires. The bullet sails harmlessly a few meters above the panicked pheasant, which scurries into tall grass. As smoke gradually clears from the gun's barrels, Cui's companions offer a reassuring pat on her shoulder and words of encouragement.
This isn't a scene from an African safari or North American hunting expedition. This is the Yunxiu Valley Hunting Ground located about 130 kilometers northeast of downtown Beijing in Miyun county. It's one of the few places in China where people can legally hunt recreationally, but anyone expecting big game will be disappointed.
Hunters instead focus their cross hairs on chickens, pheasants, doves and rabbits priced between 50 yuan and 150 yuan ($8.20-$24.60). The relatively tame animals roam around the enclosed two-square-kilometer ground, spooked throughout the day by the constant sound of shots ringing out from shotguns and Beretta pistols.
The Yunxiu Valley Hunting Ground is one of two licensed hunting grounds in Beijing, with the other located in Fangshan district. Management at Yunxiu announced in 2010 their vision to turn the hunting ground into Asia's largest, but pressure from wildlife conservation groups and insufficient investment have hindered development.
Terrain at the Yunxiu Valley Hunting Ground in Miyun county. Photo: Hu Qingyun/GT
Thrill of the kill
On Saturday, 30-year-old Cui was the only woman among a group of hunters at Yunxiu Valley Hunting Ground. She admitted being nervous about firing at animals, even though both of her shots failed to hit their targets.
"I have done trapshooting several times in the past, but this was the first time for me to shoot at a live animal. I like shooting and feel excited when I hit a target, but hunting caused me to feel a bit guilty," Cui said, adding she wouldn't hunt again.
One of Cui's hunting companions was friend Chen Yishen, a veteran hunter at Yunxiu. He said the skill required to succeed at the sport means it isn't for the fainthearted.
"Although these are domestic animals raised by people, they are still on the loose. You need to have a refined shooting technique and determination to hit the target," said Chen, who shot a chicken.
The group's overall tally for the day - three chickens and a pheasant - cost more than 400 yuan. All were cooked and eaten by the hunters for dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Another hunter from the party, who only gave his surname as Wang, admitted the experience of hunting at Yunxiu can't compare to the thrill of killing big game in the wild.
"Hunting domesticated animals at an enclosed ground is boring. It lacks the excitement and sense of achievement of tracking big game, and doesn't require an advanced shooting ability or vast hunting knowledge," he said.
Wang has unsuccessfully tried in the past to hunt argali, a species of mountain sheep native to Central Asia, in Northwest China's Qinghai Province. "They are too fast. I'm just not good enough," he said.
Chickens raised at the hunting ground in a yard before being released for hunting. Photo: Hu Qingyun/GT
Ni Wenhai, manager at the Yunxiu Valley Hunting Ground, poses with a pheasant he hunted. Photo: Courtesy of Yunxiu Valley Hunting Ground
Promising start, poor growth
Wang, aged in his late 40s, said his passion for hunting grew from his fondness for shooting during his army training 20 years ago. "The sound of gunfire and the battle between man and beast has always fascinated me. I always fantasized about safari scenes depicted in Ernest Hemingway novels," said Wang.
Wang also told of hunting pheasants raised by keepers and released in Hebei Province, but echoed his complaint about it failing to match the excitement of hunting in the wild.
Ni Wenhai, one of the managers at Yunxiu, was unable to hide his disappointment when explaining the venue's unfulfilled potential. Management at the ground hoped to allow hunters to kill wild animals during its early years, but opposition from animal welfare groups and tighter laws blocked this move.
Founded in 1994, Yunxiu has always been run by the county government except for between 2000 and 2004 when it was privately operated. Plans to expand its size and build more businesses to boost the local economy were unfulfilled because tens of millions of yuan needed from investors couldn't be secured.
"During winters in our early years, we were hosting five or more groups of hunters each day, including foreigners. These days we're lucky to get one or two group hunters each day," Ni said.
Decline of hunting culture
Signs that Yunxiu has fallen on tough times are all around, with paved trails leading up hills now covered by overgrown scrub.
Yunxiu has six hunting guides, all of whom are local villagers with at least 20 years' experience handling firearms.
"Before gun ownership laws were tightened in 1994, it was common for villagers like me to hunt during winter to put food on our tables. After the laws were tightened, the hunting ground became the only place where we could [legally] fire guns," said a 50-year-old hunting guide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Young people in our villages have no passion for hunting or learning to be guides because business has dropped sharply [at Yunxiu] and hunting culture is gradually disappearing," said the guide, who said he clears land for the local forestry department to boost his income.
But Wang's favored location in Qinghai Province, the Dulan International Hunting Ground, has been hit even harder. The sport has been banned there since 2006 following a public backlash against foreign hunters.
Wildlife conservation efforts
More than 60 percent of the public has a negative view towards hunting, a survey conducted in 2011 by China Tourism News found. Topping complaints are claims that hunting is a cruel pastime that wreaks havoc on local ecosystems.
Jiang Zhigang, a research fellow at the Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, insists hunting can offer a lifeline to endangered animals if revenue generated by the sport is used to fund breeding programs and other conservation efforts.
"Developing and regulating hunting, provided it is limited to areas with significant animal populations, doesn't necessarily have to endanger animals. Hunting can bring economic benefits to locals and money can be invested in wildlife conservation," Jiang said.
Jiang said that revenue generated from hunting argali, which previously fetched 50,000 yuan per head in Qinghai Province, had helped fund the revitalization of local grasslands and launch projects protecting the species.
"Although it might not sound practical, countries such as the US have experience in successfully running such conservation projects. Of course, transparency and supervision is required to ensure money is spent properly," Jiang said.
But a common complaint among locals in Miyun is that hunting has had a detrimental impact on local bird species, many of which can no longer be sighted because they are spooked by the sound of gunfire.
Debate reignited last year about overturning hunting bans in China, but no significant changes have been made yet.
Jiang said it was unlikely that hunting of wild animals would be legalized anytime soon, pointing out that the poor economic condition of hunting grounds like Yunxiu signaled insufficient demand.
"Chinese hunters who can't engage in their sport at home go overseas to Africa or North America to hunt instead. These people are usually wealthy, and think nothing of spending hundreds of thousands of yuan on such tours," Jiang said.
Requests for interviews with staff at the I Love Hunting Club in Beijing were all declined. An employee surnamed Ma from the club, which organizes hunting expeditions overseas for Chinese, said the club had already "received too much negative coverage from the media."
Jiang said hunting grounds such as Yunxiu do more harm than good for the sport in China by reinforcing its stigma as a cruel pastime. He also questioned the future of businesses that organize overseas tours for Chinese hunters.
"I don't know whether such businesses will grow. There is heated criticism from the public, which has urged Chinese not to follow what they view as a cruel custom," Jiang said.