In Monaco’s prestigious yacht club, something big is going down. Tom Kaplan, billionaire philanthropist and co-founder of Panthera, an organisation devoted to the preservation of the world’s 40 species of wild cats, is making a speech. He’s introducing someone who he says is one of the most spectacular humans he has ever met; a woman who will become ‘the most important force for wildlife preservation in the world today’.
This, he says, is one of the greatest moments of his life. He Qiaonyu – or Madame He, as she is known (pronounced ‘Her’) – is a diminutive, jolly Chinese philanthropist and entrepreneur who is also a self-made billionaire through her Beijing Oriental Landscape and Ecology Company (‘She’s landscaped China,’ whispers the man next to me).
Over the course of the next 15 years she will be giving $200 million towards the protection of big cats, focusing on 10 of those most at risk. It is an unprecedented figure for Panthera and enormously good news for the 10 species of wild cat, beginning with the snow leopard and the African lion.
Madame He speaks no English, but interpreters are on hand to impart the good news through our headphones. The audience – mostly conservationists and press, plus 35 Chinese billionaires who are trainee philanthropists – erupts in a cheer.
Madame He was one of the founders of the China Global Philanthropy Institute (CGPI) and those billionaires are here on a sort of school trip; they have already visited the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Institute of Government, and will be heading to Oxford for a visit to WildCru (Oxford University’s wildlife conservation research unit), which – along with Panthera – is dictating the course of Madame He’s big-cat investment.
The hope is that they will be inspired and a donating frenzy will ensue. The $200 million investment could make an enormous difference to the future of wild cats, but it is a fraction of the $1.5 billion that Madame He’s organisation, the Beijing Qiaonyu Foundation (BQF), is planning to invest in ecological causes over the next 15 years.
To a backdrop of some poorly translated slides (‘Big cat, precious friend of human!’) and with nodding approval from Kaplan, Madame He outlines her plan to change the world. It is not the first time the 51-year-old has dipped into her personal fortune to help environmental causes.
Since 2012, Madame He’s very active foundation has set up projects to tackle hazardous waste, polluted water systems, disappearing lakes, rivers and wetlands, soil erosion, threatened biodiversity – plus the larger, yet more intractable problem of climate change and disappearing glaciers (at the current rate, two thirds of the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau will be gone by 2050).
To us in the West, the fact that Madame He is from a country notorious for the damage it inflicts upon the environment makes her even more remarkable. China is associated with providing an insatiable market for ivory, and being a consumer of tiger bones, rhinoceros horn and other spurious traditional remedies that threaten African wildlife.
It is also the world’s biggest polluter. But, in recent years, the country has started transforming itself into a green colossus, investing billions in clean energy like solar and wind power and becoming an unlikely figurehead in the battle against climate change.
Thanks to sustained campaigning, there has also been a large drop in the trade in shark fins – once a staple food in nearly every restaurant across China – and earlier this year President Xi Jinping announced a ban on ivory trading.
He Qiaonyu’s affinity for the environment is what drove her success in business. Born in a mountain village in Zhejiang province on China’s east coast to a successful horticultural businessman, He graduated from the Beijing Forestry University, where she studied landscape gardening design, nature conservation and forest management.
After completing her studies, she started her business, the Beijing Oriental Landscape and Ecology Company, with an initial goal to create 100 beautiful parks in 100 cities. Along the way, she landscaped a string of five-star hotels as well as the homes of wealthy individuals, during a period in which China’s economy was growing at breakneck speed.
She worked on several of the venues for the 2008 Beijing games. But as her business flourished, He became more and more concerned about the state of China’s water systems and ecology, and shifted the focus of the company to water management and restoration.
She then broadened into ecological restoration, which in turn revealed the urgency for biodiversity cultivation. Over the course of 27 years she has turned her business into a hugely successful enterprise. It was in May of this year that Kaplan, often dubbed the ‘King of Cats’, first met Madame He (‘and it was like the earthquake that leads to the tsunami’, he says grandly). Their discussion lasted several hours.
Big cats worldwide
‘Big cats are at the apex of the whole ecosystem,’ says Madame He via interpreter Shawn Hu, who is her ‘director of cooperation’, and who looks about 15. ‘And if we are able to conserve big cats then we are able to protect the other species.’ Kaplan inspired her, ‘and I now have a great passion for them myself’.
So how is this going to work? Are millions of dollars enough to save several species from the brink? Kaplan, a born and bred New Yorker, marvels at Madame He’s ability to cut through red tape and implement her ambitious plans. Her success with her landscaping company is a tribute to her ability to get things done.
The action plan she has already embarked on includes establishing conservation areas within cities across her home country, increasing national park areas; focusing on endangered species, flora and fauna; and establishing education centres to train conservationists. There are 79 projects planned, nine of which are already well underway. Madame He credits this to applying the principles of business to the philosophy of conservation.
She must have enormous drive, I note. ‘It’s not a matter of drive, it’s a matter of executive force,’ she says, ‘and the capacity to carry things out. We identify and facilitate the project, and we have a way of actioning things quickly – whether it’s business, philanthropy or nature conservation.’ She acknowledges that this capacity is limited.
‘We have to confess that there is a huge gap between the nature conservation industry and the executive forces. So we operate our philosophy by using the management and wisdom of business.’ There are a lot of men in conservation circles, and a lot of male egos, but she is undeterred. ‘That is not just a phenomenon in the conservation field,’ she says archly.
Kaplan says that one of the challenges he has faced over the past decade has been conscripting other Western philanthropists to the cause. And it is well known that a big problem within the world of conservation is the lack of collaboration, with everybody trying to protect and promote their own brand rather than working together for the greater good.
‘The egotism you experience, particularly among men, is one of the greatest challenges I find in wildlife conservation,’ he says. ‘In no other sphere of my activities have I seen such internecine competition; and one of the things we’ve done with Panthera was to go with the partnership model – we never say we can do everything ourselves – so we have 100 partnerships in 50 countries. If I’m right, we’re going to see an extraordinary phenomenon whereby Chinese philanthropists will join with [Madame He] and take this to a whole other level, and the Chinese will become the most ubiquitous conservationists in the world.’
How will she reduce the demand for wildlife products? There is no getting away from the fact that China’s appetite for ivory and Asia’s demand for materials like rhino horn and tiger bones have been responsible for the destruction of an enormous amount of animals.
China’s massive push into Africa over the past 15 years – Chinese companies now operate gold, copper, iron and cobalt mines all over the continent – has facilitated smuggling of ivory and rhino horn. Tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year.
Kaplan is defensive about China’s record, pointing out that it was India that hunted the tiger almost to extinction, and America that wiped out the passenger pigeon and very nearly the bison, too. But that’s not the point. This is the 21st century and we really should know better.
The plan is to win hearts and minds in China and lead by example. Earlier this year, China began shutting down its commercial ivory trade and it expects to be finished by the close of 2017; several African countries have burned their stockpiles of ivory and last yearPresident Ali Bongo of Gabon made a speech castigating the appetite for ivory.
‘The Chinese don’t particularly like it when the President of Gabon – I mean, Gabon,’ says Kaplan, emphasising the ‘Gabon’ bit, ‘goes on television and lectures the Chinese, and says very poignantly, “Please, my Chinese friends , how would you like it if we came over to China and ate pandas?” China is emerging on so many levels as the most important country in the world, and they don’t like being lectured by Africans on best practices.
‘So what we’re seeing now is the beginning of a transformation where the Chinese will recalibrate, and go from being on the defensive to being on the offensive, because it’s a brilliant example of soft power.’
As far as big cats are concerned, Madame He’s initial focus will be snow leopards – half of the world’s snow leopard population is in China – and African lions, currently under threat to the extent that the population has fallen by over 40 per cent in the past 25 years.
Kaplan is optimistic about the snow leopard. ‘It is in many respects China’s great cat. It’s hard to count the snow leopards out there because it’s hard to find them; and what’s hard to find is hard to kill. I’m bullish about the snow leopard because of their geographical status – they have fewer humans to contend with.
‘For example, Panthera created a jaguar corridor – a genetic corridor [where species can move, safe from human threat] that’s traceable from Mexico all the way through to northern Argentina – which is the entire range of the jaguar. We’ve been able to show that if governments have the will to incorporate the known genetic corridor of the jaguar with development strategies, then the jaguar can make its way even through areas of mining and forestry and human development. And that model is being taken by Madame He’s group for the snow leopard.’
Tigers and lions face different problems – primarily human/animal conflict and habitat fragmentation. ‘The beauty of the big cats is that they breed like rabbits,’ says Kaplan. ‘If you stop the poaching and give them enough land and food, they come back. Cats are delightfully promiscuous, and that’s part of their saving grace. But we have to win the hearts and minds of the government and the hearts and minds of the local people and make it worthwhile for them; so it’s bottom up and top down, simultaneously.’
According to opinion polls, the two most popular animals in the world are the tiger and the elephant, and of the next 10, eight are big cats. ‘It’s not in the national interest – because of a petty few bucks in tiger bones or ivory or shark fin – that China’s prestige is being diminished. It’s the power of example, and that’s what Madame He represents.’ Kaplan believes – optimistically – ‘we are witnessing a transformation moment’.
Madame He has not yet been to Africa, but she has plans to visit next year with Chinese business magnate Jack Ma of Alibaba (estimated worth: $38 billion). That will be some trip. She is an impressive woman, who speaks with great enthusiasm.
Not once did I see her looking at a phone, and she was thoroughly engaged with every speaker who appeared at the conference. Madame He and her young staff are staying at the Novotel in Monaco, not one of the grand hotels. She is a modest woman with ambitious plans, who works 12 hours a day, six days a week.
‘We are aiming to get tenfold investment for the volume of the company in five years. We have a plan over the next 10 years to increase the value of our shares to 100 billion yuan and by that time we will have the capacity to facilitate nature conservation across the whole nation.’
In the next 15 years, the BQF will donate 15 billion yuan and ‘leverage’ 35 billion yuan to support nature conservation projects. That’s 50 billion yuan (about £5.7 billion) in total. Will it be enough?
‘There is nothing like this coming from Western philanthropy,’ says Kaplan, ‘and the government will not leave her standing there alone. When China puts its mind to something, they will own it. This is going to change everything: you will see more Chinese conservationists in the field than all the Western conservationists combined. This is the beginning. This is the cavalry arriving.’