Monday, October 27, 2014

Dancing with the wolves (in China)

Chinese businessman Yang Changsheng feeds his wolves at a park in a remote valley in Turfan, in China
Chinese businessman Yang Changsheng feeds his wolves at a park in a remote valley in Turfan, in China

A businessman in China's wild west has the wild creatures literally eating out of his hand

Facing down a pack of snarling wolves - the symbol of the Uighur minority in China's violence-wracked far west - businessman Yang Changsheng offered a sausage in friendship.

"I have a deep feeling for wolves. They will attack other people, but not me," says Yang, who breeds the animals high in the snow-capped Tianshan mountains, in the vast border region of Xinjiang.

The area usually hits the headlines for violent clashes involving Uighurs which have killed hundreds in the past year, and which the government blames on organised separatist groups.

But Yang's breeding park seems a world away from the troubles, in a remote valley where shepherds on horseback trot alongside burbling mountain streams.

"It started as a hobby but now the more wolves I breed the more I want to breed," says Yang, 63, after poking slabs of raw lamb through the bars of his animals' cages.

His parents, from poverty-stricken Henan more than 1,600 kilometres to the east, migrated to Xinjiang in the 1950s, among the millions of China's ethnic Han majority who were resettled in minority border regions.

The process transformed the demographics of Xinjiang, where Uighurs, a mostly-Muslim group with cultural ties to neighbouring central Asia, made up more than 80 per cent of its people in the 1940s and now account for less than half.

The population has quadrupled in the last six decades, threatening the grey wolves which have roamed its grasslands for millennia but increasingly fell victim to hunting as settlement spread.

Unlike the Han, Uighurs traditionally revere the animals, whose skin and bones are still considered to bring good luck.

"For thousands of years, Turkic people have respected the wolf and taken it as a symbol," says Ahmatbarat, a taxi driver in Xinjiang's ethnically-mixed capital Urumqi.

"It is the totemic animal of the Uighurs. That has made the wolf a sensitive symbol in the region, where some Uighurs dream of having their own country and Beijing blames foreign-influenced Islamist separatists for spiralling violence.

But rights groups say that the turmoil is fuelled by heavy-handed local police, government restrictions on Islam and Uighur culture, and economic exploitation.

Yang owns more than 100 wolves, but his plans have stoked controversy.

The businessman, who has an unassuming demeanour but keeps an eagle as a pet, made a considerable fortune in logistics before turning his attention to wolves, collecting specimens from neighbouring Mongolia and Russia.

He plans to breed more than 1,000 wolves and release them into the wild to become the star attraction of an ambitious tourist park, where a guesthouse resembling a medieval castle is under construction.

"I want to tell the government: give me this land, and I will release wolves on it, and people will see what it is like for wolves to run free," says Yang.

The project is loss-making, said the 63-year-old, who bears a faint scar on one cheek from a close encounter of the lupine kind, adding his motives were purely conservationist.

But Yuan Guoying, head of the Xinjiang Ecological Study Society, was sceptical, accusing him of exploiting the animals.

"Wolf bodies and wolf teeth are expensive, their claws and feet are sold as gifts," he says, asking: "The project must be about making money, or why would he invest so much?"

Wolf numbers have bounced back since the late 1980s when China - which tightly controls gun ownership - placed tight limits on hunting in nature reserves.

Instead the animals have become an increasing menace, blamed by state media for an average of 5,000 cattle deaths a year, and in August a pack of wolves crept into a village in the dead of night, attacking six locals.

A villager was quoted as saying that he had tried to hit one of the animals in the head with a bucket before it savaged him.

Yang blames the locals.

"Wolves have a strong sense of revenge," he said. "If they attack people it's usually because they have been targeted."