From hunters to rangers: striving for wildlife protection

"We used to compete to shoot wild animals, but nowadays we only shoot animals with cameras."

Zhong Junde and his peers stood still and watched closely as an argali sheep wandered in the dense forest before disappearing into the woods.

Had it been 30 years ago, the animal would have met a different fate. Back then, the forest area spanning 38.8 square km in southwest China's Sichuan Province was a hunting ground for Zhong and other villagers, where they hunted with crossbows, guns or nooses.

"Hunters' village"

In the 1980s, Xinyi Village, with more than 130 households, was known as a "hunters' village." Life was hard in this remote mountain village, where people mainly relied on farming, but most of the hillside land was barren.

"We lived a bitter life in the past, and hunting could help us earn a few more bucks, and more importantly, supplement our dining tables with meat that was scarce at that time," said 59-year old Du Lin, the Party chief of Xinyi, who used to be a village hunter himself.

Recalling one of his terrible hunting sprees, Du said he once killed nine argalis at one time, setting a record in the village.

The villagers also felled big trees for sales while small ones were chopped for firewood. The temperature in the mountain was quite low in the winter, and each household burned an average of 7 tons of firewood every year, which meant one household would deforest some 0.07 hectare of land.

"As we hunted farther into the forest and logged more, we could see fewer animals," said Du.

In 1988, China enacted a wildlife conservation law in an effort to strengthen wildlife protection.

But it was not easy for the villagers to bid farewell to their traditional way of life, and people were initially reluctant to change. Zhong was sentenced to seven years in prison in the early 1990s for illegal hunting.

Deforestation also peaked around that time, and nature's revenge soon followed. In 1992, a once-in-a-century flood hit the village, ravaging many households.

The natural calamity came as an alarm bell for the locals, and it prompted them to stop logging and poaching activities that were wreaking havoc on the environment.

In retrospect, Zhong, now 60, deems his captivity a fortunate stroke of serendipity as it made him realize the drastic effects of wildlife hunting. "If the animals were extinct due to our hunting, how could our future generations know about the species like giant panda or argali?"

Guarding the nature

Today, the villagers have embarked on a new mission of preserving nature, years after they laid down their guns.

They have switched to other sources of livelihood such as animal breeding, beekeeping and herb cultivation. The village now has access to electricity supply, and people use electric heaters instead of firewood for heating.

Zhong has become a forest ranger and leads a rangers' squad of 14 people. He has also taken up beekeeping, earning more than 20,000 yuan (about US$3,140) every year.

Wildlife protection efforts are on full throttle in Xinyi. The rangers' squad has set up infrared cameras in the forest to monitor the wildlife while keeping an eye on any poaching activities.

Thanks to the conservation efforts, the forest area is regaining its natural glory. Two giant pandas with cubs were captured by cameras earlier this year.

"We used to compete to shoot wild animals, but nowadays we only shoot animals with cameras," Zhong said.

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