Against the serenity of a village silenced by a mountainous landscape, the hunter poised to shoot. And the animal lunged.
Feng En Liang’s grip on guns hadn’t loosened since leaving the army in 1982. His hold on weaponry has only tightened since he turned to hunting to sustain a living. Before the late 1990s, good hunters were respected – even idolised in his village in Suiyang. This was the way of life that passed from generation to generation; his Dad was a hunter, and so was his father before him.
As his fellow villagers struggled to put food on the table, Liang would return with a deer, sometimes a boar. He steadily rose to fame with his hunting skills.
Not too long after, Liang’s hometown came under a bear attack. It was him the villagers depended on to rid the menace. The bear had already injured two of their own. The people feared. How many more will it take?
Liang set off, with his usual calmness of a trained gunman on his mission to seek out the bear and to silence it forever. He ran through his game-plan mentally and rehearsed the kill in his head. He had done this countless times and it was almost routine to him. But he did not expect how this assignment to kill would later inspire an ironic idea so foreign to him – to give up hunting and protect wildlife.
It is not easy to be looking for trouble. Wild animals roam freely in the Suiyang county and do not stay rooted too long. But Liang has a wealth of experience in the wilderness. He knows the terrain like the back of his hand and understood very well where wildlife will be.
Liang covered the distance and put himself face to face with the black bear. Against the serenity of a village silenced by a mountainous landscape, Liang poised to shoot the bear. And the animal lunged.
Bang… Bang bang! Liang lowered his head and fired.
The bear took off at the deadly sound of the first gunshot but barely made it past 4 meters before collapsing. All that was left was the echo of the gunshots ringing in Liang’s ears.
Or so he thought.
The bear was not alone. She was a mother with two cubs. As she breathed her last, the family huddled closely together. There was no mistaking their fear.
The mother bear had acted aggressively out of protection of her babies, just like any human would.
This planted a seed of doubt in Liang’s mind. His mission succeeded. He has protected his village, but in the course of that, he orphaned two helpless cubs. Something felt wrong.
“It was so sad for the bear family, especially for the two scared cubs, hugging each other. “In my heart, I swore to stop poaching.”
But Liang’s transformation only came later when his determination to stop being a hunter coincided with China’s changing attitudes and nod towards environmental protection.
The country was just getting serious about protecting its wildlife.
In the 1990s, the forests of Suiyang started disappearing with mankind’s exploitation. With their homes destroyed, wildlife dwindled.
A small town in the Heilongjiang province that borders Russia, Suiyang is next to the Suiyang Laoyeling National Nature Reserve, which serves as a critical corridor for Amur tigers entering China and helped to establish a survival population.
To save the endangered tigers, the Chinese government began restoring protected areas and started recovering prey population.
It was in this encouraging climate that WWF-China and local forestry bureau approached Liang with an offer to work as a ranger. He accepted readily.
“I sold my two hunting dogs and handed over my shotguns. Some people doubted my sincerity. They thought I wouldn’t be able to live without hunting. But I really did give up hunting and made others understand my determination. Some wondered what I could do as a protector. They thought my biggest contribution was to stop poaching myself.”
But Liang transformed from hunter to ranger easily enough. His vast knowledge of the wild landscapes, animal behaviour, and his hunting instincts were precisely why he was recruited. He knew that deer like to stay on sunny hillsides in the valleys during the winters. He knew where tigers prowl through the snow and he knew all the secrets of the mountains in Suiyang. Most importantly, he understood hunters too. After all, he was one.
He knew that deer like to stay on sunny hillsides in the valleys during the winters. He knew where tigers prowl through the snow and he knew all the secrets of the mountains in Suiyang. Most importantly, he understood hunters too. After all, he was one.
On patrols, he finds and removes snares easily. He undoes his hunting past, one snare at a time…
One day while patrolling, Liang caught his foot in a steel trap by accident. The excruciating pain he experienced allowed him to understand the suffering of animals caught in snares. This strengthened his resolve to give his best as a ranger.
“We are all old and there is no meaning in hunting. People should protect wildlife. Now other people are protecting them as well. It would be a shame if we still poach animals.”
Since the tiger conservation efforts began, wild animals are appearing more and more in Suiyang. As the snow settles on the road, the hoofprints of roe deer are seen all across the field. Tigers are forest protectors too. As top predators, when tigers thrive, the whole ecosystem thrives. As Liang follows the footsteps of the wildlife, he learned the wonders and workings of nature.
Rangers work in isolation most of the time. Each time, Liang patrols at least 15-20km in the mountains, monitoring traces of wildlife resolutely. But he knows he’s not alone in the protection of tigers.
“I really enjoy this work. It’s also my interest. Now, I don’t have other businesses, and my child has grown up. My wife is in Suiyang county. They ask me to go to Suiyang with them, but I didn’t go. I just live here. I find this interesting. It’s nice to live in nature and breathe fresh air. It’s much better than the polluted air in the city, isn’t it?”
Liang was a participant of the Tiger Habitat Ranger Competition for Chinese and Russian rangers to share their experiences in tiger conservation and to support capacity building together. The next event will be held from 7th March to 10th March 2017 in Dongning Forestry Bureau, Heilongjiang, China.
The deployment of insufficiently trained rangers has at times resulted in the failure of operations, serious injuries and even death. A comprehensive resource; ‘Training Guidelines for Field Rangers’ is now available to provide rangers the training they deserve. To view report, click here.
Photos & Video © WWF China / Suiyang Forestry Bureau / Heilongjiang Forest Industry Bureau unless otherwise stated