| Tom Hancock |
JIMSAR, China (AFP) – 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,” said 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,” said 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 (1,000 miles) 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,” said 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.
Chinese authorities are in the midst of a “strike hard” anti-terror campaign that has seen more than 20 executions announced in recent months, hundreds of arrests, and prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti sentenced to life in prison.
In his trial on separatism charges last month, prosecutors cited remarks Tohti – seen as a moderate government critic and formerly an economics professor in Beijing – made about wolves during a university lecture.
“He said that Chinese people are called children of the dragon, but the Uighurs’ totem is the wolf. So if we are children of wolves, then we are not Chinese,” according to video footage shown in court, his lawyer Li Fangping said.
Tohti’s sentence sparked an outcry from human rights groups.
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,” said 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.