In China, a culture of environmental awareness is breaking through the smog. And leading the charge is He Qiaonv, one of the country’s wealthiest women and most ardent conservationists.
This Saturday, Oct. 14, in Monaco, He Qiaonv will announce the first step in a $1.5 billion plan that may represent the largest-ever personal philanthropic commitment to wildlife conservation.
The number isn’t the only thing that’s surprising about the announcement. The source might equally raise eyebrows: The donation isn’t coming from a known Western conservationist like Paul Allen, but from a landscape planner-turned-environmental steward who’s based in Beijing.
Madame He represents a new wave of self-made Chinese philanthropists unafraid to spend; her seven-year pledge stands at more than a third of her current $3.6 billion net worth, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
“[China is] pivoting to a new narrative in record speed,” said Tom Kaplan, founder and chairman of Panthera, the leading wild cat conservation organization and He’s first international partner. “Their [global] reputation has suffered by being viewed as the scourge of the elephant and tiger—and they want to reverse this.”
As part of their partnership, He’s namesake Beijing Qiaonv Foundation (BQF) is pledging $20 million toward Chinese snow leopard and other projects at Panthera—significant for an organization whose annual operating budget hovers around $14 million. And doubly significant given that threatened cats in China had yet to be put under such a bright spotlight as, say, lions in Africa.
With the emergence of Chinese leadership in this area, Kaplan says Qiaonv’s pledge stands to change the face of cat conservation forever. “One day this event may be seen as a watershed.”
Private Wealth, Public Commitments
In China, domestic private conservation work still requires the collaboration of the government, as private landownership—and therefore, privately managed nature reserves—are not allowed under Chinese law. But under Xi Jinping’s leadership, these private-public partnerships are becoming possible.
Xi has emerged as an unlikely environmental leader after the U.S. dropped out of the Paris climate accord. Skeptics may think of this as rhetoric aimed at filling a political gap, but he has already made moves by banning the illegal ivory trade by the end of 2017, putting forth a long-term proposal to eliminate gasoline-powered cars, and creating the country’s first tiger and Amur leopard reserve near the Russian border. It’s one of 30 to 50 new conservation zones the government has promised by 2020.
All this stands in sharp contrast with other realities in China: Combating air pollution, the most visible sign of China’s environmental issues, continues to be a work in progress. And the country is still a major proponent of coal, despite cuts to its overall energy consumption.
But change is underway. “When the Chinese government decides to do something, they do it,” Kathryn Sheridan, CEO of a Brussels-based sustainability communications consultancy, told Reuters. “It’s not the talking shop that we see in Europe.”
Kaplan likens this moment in Chinese history to 19th century America, when the U.S. was making the move from rural to industrial society. “The water and air were being polluted in the rush for economic growth, and wildlife was obliterated—we nearly destroyed our own national symbol, the bald eagle,” he explained. “No nation has a monopoly on virtue, but it is also true that we can learn from history. The Chinese are experts at precisely that.”
Madame He agrees that the collaboration of China’s ultra-rich with their government marks a turning point for the country. “The public awareness of environmental protection is gradually increasing in China,” she told Bloomberg.
From Landscaper to Global Conservationist
Madame He’s affinity for the environment is what drove her into landscaping and resource management in the first place. But her vision for how she could contribute toward the greater good of the planet has evolved over time.
“At the very beginning, the dream of our business was to build 100 of the most beautiful parks in 100 cities of China,” said He of Beijing Orient Landscape Co., the company she built from scratch and continues to oversee as chairman. What she found along the way were polluted water systems and depleted urban ecology.
In 2012 she founded Beijing Qiaonv Foundation with the goal of resolving some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. Among her priorities were establishing key conservation areas within her home country; identifying native species in the greatest need of protection; and lobbying the government, partnering with international organizations, and supporting domestic NGOs to create meaningful change that could impact global biodiversity and carbon dioxide levels.
As He put it, “We believe that protecting China is to protect the whole Earth.”
Private investments like hers matter. As we see happening now in the U.S., official Chinese priorities could easily shift, unraveling or putting a halt to progress that was quickly made. Partnerships with global players such as Kaplan and Bill Gates, who has worked with He through the China Global Philanthropy Institute (CGPI), mean that He’s fundraising commitments are being given extra measures of accountability. Just as important, they’re also being given a proven toolkit with which to succeed.
A Training Kit Imported From the West
With 79 projects already underway in 26 provinces—including everything from Asian elephant conservation to wetland protection—BQF didn’t need international validation or support to start making a difference. But at last year’s East-West Sustainability Summit in Honolulu, which was convened in partnership with CGPI, He shared a table with some of the world’s biggest players in conservation, including Nicole Mollo, the executive director of environmental philanthropy at the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation, the Panthera founder’s private organization.
“Things [in China] are changing under the global radar,” said Mollo, who went on to broker the partnership between Panthera and BQF, helping to establish both the financial scope and environmental goals that the partnership would support. “They have the will and frankly they have the resources—what they are missing is a middle tier of expertise. They don’t know what it means to manage a protected area, to train a ranger, or to work with communities and livestock.”
That’s why the partnership with Panthera marks a meaningful shift in He’s work: With the organization’s help, BQF will create and staff two protected snow leopard reserves that will serve as pilot areas and can be scaled over time, while simultaneously underwriting a wildlife management training program for Chinese conservationists. Then she’ll turn her attention to building hundreds of urban classrooms where “hundreds of millions of people can visit and learn” about conservation.
Big Goals, Big Impact
Even if He only accomplishes a quarter of what she sets out to do with her $1.5 billion pledge, she stands to make a massive impact.
In some ways, she already has. While the $20 million contribution to Panthera matches the commitments made by several global figureheads—Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi—a 10-figure pledge is “unheard of.” That’s according to Mollo, who has facilitated some of the largest recorded contributions to conservation organizations over her years at the African Parks Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
She said the largest donation she’s seen on record was a $65 million commitment over 10 years; pledges in the hundreds of millions, like Gates’s recent $5 billion pledge to his health care- and education-focused foundation, are generally made to universities, hospitals, or cultural institutions with naming opportunities attached to them. In the conservation world? It’s not something she’d ever seen before. To wit, a spokesperson for the National Audubon Society confirmed that the organization’s recent “large donations” have rarely reached the seven-figure level—and its largest contributions have come from groups like the MacArthur Foundation rather than individuals.
Added Mollo, “I would be the first one to bash China for what they’ve done wrong, but that strategy will not get us anywhere. And when they put their money where their mouth is, it is our job to support them.”