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For the 842m people who live in Chinese cities, the natural world can be a distant presence. Much of the land in China that is flat has either been urbanised, made into roads or is used for farming. Quick access to wildlife that is relatively untouched is impossible for most, and photographer Jonathan Browning has documented this difficult, removed relationship with nature for ten years.
Throughout the twentieth century, under the influence of Chairman Mao Zedong’s slogan “man must conquer nature”, many animals in China were used and abused as humans wished. They were food, or their body parts used in traditional medicines (shark fin) and as luxury status goods (elephant ivory). Being treated as entertainment was the most consistent use of animals during the last century that entailed keeping them alive. That is now changing, with a growing animal welfare community and a younger generation more conscious of animals as living beings in need of protection.
For much of the country’s growing middle class, zoos, part of a booming domestic tourism market, offer the only available access to wildlife. The artificiality of the zoos’ habitats – and sometimes even the animals themselves – reflect the country’s alienation from nature. Enclosures will often be made out of plastics or fibres, most commonly in the form of fake monkey mountains. Statues or figurines of animals enable selfie-taking and the pretence of being up-close with an animal world that, elsewhere in cities, is likely limited to pigeons and rats.
Jonathan Browning lived for much of the last decade in Shanghai, the east coast centre of finance and a city of 25m people. “If you wanted to get away from people and the city,” he said, “you either would have a three hour car journey to make, with lots of traffic, or more easily you would catch a flight somewhere, to experience perhaps a bamboo forest that’s far from home. Otherwise, it’s difficult.”