After years spent poaching, villagers become protectors

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Forest ranger Liang Feng'en knows exactly how to keep hunters off his turf. He knows because until 15 years ago he was one.

"I was a hunter for many years," said the 59-year-old, one of the volunteers who now guard the wildlife of Suiyang county, a small area in eastern Heilongjiang province that borders Russia. "At the beginning, I didn't see myself as a protector. It took some time before I finally changed my way of thinking."

The work done by forest rangers is fundamental to China's efforts to protect the Amur tiger population. The job is tough, often involving long hours in freezing and dangerous conditions, and for little or no pay.

To improve wildlife protection, authorities began to recruit experienced hunters, changing their focus from destroying habitats to finding and removing snares, as well as monitoring the movements of tigers and raising public awareness about the animals' plight.

"Good hunters enjoyed respect and were idolized in my village," said Liang, a ranger for Nuanquanhe Forestry Farm. Thirty years ago, to stave off starvation in the winter, he went hunting to support his family. He recalled walking more than 50 kilometers a night just to chase wild boars.

The activities of wildlife NGOs, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, and his own experiences had a large influence on him.

"I had a vague idea of ecological protection," he said. "Only later did I get the full picture about the importance of working with wildlife experts."

Liang said his past experience proved vital in his new role. "Hunters, we all know where the wild animals are, such as where the deer like to stay. Hunters know where it's good to set the traps," he said. "When I patrol, I can find the traps easily because I know the habits of wild animals and the poachers.

"Traps reduce the number of prey for tigers and can sometimes hurt the tigers, too."

Forest rangers start work as early as 6 am, and some patrol snow-covered mountains, in temperatures as low as - 40 C. Due to a shortage of help, the job is usually a solitary one.

"It is very hard to find more people who are willing to do the work, especially among younger generations," said Li Gang, a ranger for Chaoyanggou Forestry Farm, under the Dongning forestry bureau. "I have tried to train more rangers. The longest lasted a month, the shortest was half a day. It's exhausting work."

The forestry bureaus of Suiyang and Wangqing are both attempting to increase the number of forest rangers, and they are relocating villagers to provide a safe habitat for Amur tigers and their prey.

"Ever since I was a child, I loved to watch TV shows about animals. Now with the help of the WWF, more people are paying attention to our work, I feel honored." said Li, 35.

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