The big cats at risk of exhausting their nine lives
In China's northeast, one of nature's most magnificent and critically endangered mammals roams the dense mountainous forests of a wildlife sanctuary.
Hunchun County in Jilin Province hosts the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park. It was established to protect the rare Amur tiger and Amur leopard.
The 60-or-so tigers in the 15,000-square-kilometer park are safeguarded by 3,000-plus rangers. Among them is 33-year-old Liu Guoqing, a Hunchun native. Last month, he and his colleagues won the championship in a ranger competition organized by the World Wildlife Fund.
"Ranger work can be tiresome after a while, and the competition was a boost for all of us," Liu said. "The prize included a trip to the Shanghai Disney Resort, and I have to admit that was very attractive."
From the competition, now in its sixth year, we can get an idea of the daily work of rangers. A field test simulated an actual environment where rangers had to display skills such as setting up infrared cameras in the right place to track animals' movements, surviving the harsh mountain environment, and spotting and removing traps set by poachers.
Furthermore, a writing test demonstrated the knowledge and skills required of a qualified ranger: identifying animal traces such as feces and fur fragments, using navigation tools and understanding relevant animal protection laws.
"The competition is actually more difficult than usual range work because it is time-limited, and also because it's held in summer," Liu said.
In winter, it's much easier to find traces of the tigers in the snow, and sunshine penetrating leafless trees provides better sight.
One of the field tests involved finding simulated hunting tools as quickly as possible. The tools were disguised in camouflage. Liu's team failed to find them all.
"It was a lesson to us, so we collected the props as future teaching tools," he said.
The Amur tiger, also known as the Siberian tiger, is the biggest cat in the world. Its name comes from the river that marks the northeastern border of China and Russia.
There are approximately 500 to 600 Amur tigers left in the wild. They are distributed in eastern Siberia, China's Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces and possibly in the northern region of North Korea.
The Amur tiger is one of four tiger subspecies in China and the only one that holds out hope for restoring numbers of the wild population.
Of the other three subspecies, the Indo-Chinese and Bengal tigers are rarely found in China, and the South China tiger now exists only in zoos.
The fate of the Amur tiger has been adversely affected by human activity. Early in the last century, both Chinese and Russian trappers hunted the cats for the fur and bone trades. At the same time, hunting for deer and other forest denizens depleted the tigers' food supply, and logging destroyed habitat.
"The Amur tiger population is slowly recovering after preservation measures were enacted," said Liu Duo, a senior officer with the World Wildlife Fund. "In 2015, logging in natural forests was banned in China. In 2017, the national park was established, giving Amur tigers a stable and carefully maintained forest ecosystem to live in. This all points to a bright future for the tigers."
Rangers are at the frontline of ecosystem maintenance and the tigers' survival. Their work can be both tedious and dangerous.
Park rangers adjust a monitoring camera in the sanctuary park.Xinhua
Park rangers analyze tiger feces to assess the health of the giant cats.Xinhua
Tiger feces also help rangers track the movements of Siberian tigers in the sanctuary.Xinhua
Park rangers remove traps left by poachers, who are a constant threat to the 60 tigers in the sanctuary.Xinhua
Liu Guoqing had no plans to become a ranger when he graduated from university with a degree in mechanics. After working in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen for three years, his parents urged him to return to Hunchun because he was their only child. But once home, Liu found suitable jobs scarce. Then he learned that the local forestry administration was recruiting rangers.
"The only requirement was a strong physical constitution, which I had," said Liu. "Besides, I have been familiar with the wildlife in Hunchun since childhood, so I applied for the job."
Liu and his colleagues go on 20-kilometer patrols in the forest, equipped with GPS navigation, food and water, a first-aid kit and a fire rocket used to scare beasts away.
The rangers actually see tigers very rarely. Their last encounter was three years ago when Liu and his two other rangers were checking on an infrared camera. They suddenly heard a roar from a nearby hillside.
"We stopped and looked around, trying to spot the tiger's location, but we didn't see it," he recalled. "And then another growl came, and we knew immediately that we had to leave the area."
Facing the direction of the growls, the trio slowly stepped backward and didn't turn around to run until they had retreated for dozens of meters. Only after they were back on the safety of their patrol vehicle did they realize that they were sweating profusely.
The recovery of the wild Amur tiger population, however, has created a new problem: tiger encroachment in areas of human habitation.
Earlier this year, footprints of a big cat were spotted on a tree farm in Jilin. They turned out to belong to a grown male Amur tiger.
Last year in neighboring Heilongjiang Province, a tiger appeared in a village and confronted a woman working in a cornfield. As another villager rushed to the scene, the tiger bit the woman on the shoulder and fled. The tiger was subsequently anesthetized and sent to a center in the province. The woman was sent to hospital and survived the ordeal.
Now in Hunchun and other places near the national park, people are warned to stay away from forested areas if one of the big cats is reported to be in the vicinity.
Rangers are responsible for educating the public about the tigers. Liu Guoqing often visits community groups in Hunchun to advise people what to do if they encounter a wild tiger.
Liu Duo of the World Wildlife Fund said the goal is to promote a harmonious co-existence between humans and Amur tigers.
"Currently the Amur tiger population in Russia is close to saturation, but the habitat in China can hold at least another 320 or more tigers," he said. "A continuous, stable Amur tiger population is yet to be established here, but there is great hope."