YUQUAN, China (Reuters) - In a frigid forest in northeastern China, sub-zero temperatures and thick snow aren’t enough to dampen tourists’ enthusiasm for firing a few rounds at farm-raised animals let loose in the wild.
Yuquan International Hunting Field in Heilongjiang province draws more than 100,000 domestic tourists a year, many traveling thousands of miles to get their hands on a rifle or shotgun for the first time in a country where gun ownership is strictly controlled.
This is despite temperatures often straining to reach as warm as minus 20 degrees Celsius in the daytime, and snow heavy on the ground for six months of the year.
“Our country has very tight controls on gun ownership,” said Wang Zengyu, Yuquan’s manager.
The controls keep the tourists coming in, but also limit the business’s prospects, the former hotel manager said.
“If we need to buy arms, have our guns fixed or renewed, we need to go to places that are designated by security authorities. It would be illegal for us to go through other channels.”
Yuquan — a 3,000-acre (1,200-hectare) reserve about 50 km (30 miles) from Harbin, Heilongjiang’s provincial capital — is hardly a sprawling wilderness, but it is the largest of China’s few designated hunting parks.
Once common across China’s vast countryside, private gun ownership has been effectively banned since the Communist Party swept to power in 1949, stripping farmers and hunters of weapons.
Three decades of economic reforms, however, have seen private ownership gain pace, from cashed-up enthusiasts willing to negotiate the red tape to legally obtain a firearm, to black market guns fashioned crudely for sale by impoverished villagers.
The quarry at Yuquan is limited to farm-raised rabbits, pheasants and pigeons, while the generally male-dominated shooting parties share a maximum two guns an outing.
The restrictions grate on some of Yuquan’s visitors.
“I think they need to improve their service,” sniffed Chen Shaowei, who was once a crack shooter with the People’s Liberation Army.
“We need more guides and guns. At the very least, two people should share one gun ... There are more than 20 of us today, but all of us are sharing two guns,” Chen said.
With permits to keep only 20 guns on site — a mixture of double-barreled shotguns and low-caliber rifles — Wang, the owner, agrees.
“I hope we can have access to more types of guns ... If we can use other kinds, customers can shoot more types of animals. It would be more fun for them,” Wang said.
A fledgling but growing animal rights movement in China may also crimp Wang’s business fortunes and curtail would-be hunters’ enthusiasm.
In 2006, forestry officials shelved a plan to auction off licenses to hunt game in China’s hinterlands after an outcry from local media and Internet users.
A hunting reserve in China’s northern Shanxi province advertised prominently in Beijing’s subway tunnels in recent months has also drawn fire in local papers.
China’s lamentable animal rights record, including over-crowded zoos and bears farmed for bile for use in traditional Chinese medicine, has long been condemned by wildlife groups.
Officially, China remains ambivalent about pushing forward animal protection, and has flagged lifting a 1993 ban on the trade of tiger bones and parts under pressure from local businesses.
Despite his desire to own a gun and a predilection for the hunt, Qian Ruosong, a frequent visitor to Yuquan, believes gun control should be kept tight.
“I have wished that gun ownership could be loosened. But in reality, it shouldn’t. We need to protect the environment. There were too many guns in this country which led to a massive killing of wild animals,” Qian said.
“Because once guns are available everywhere, many rare breeds of animals will become extinct.”