Volunteer conservationists from the China branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature patrol the Suiyang Siberian tiger protection zone in Heilongjiang on Wednesday. (Wu Yong / China Daily)
Volunteer conservationists have organized a series of mountain patrols to prevent poachers from targeting wild Siberian tigers in Northeast China and make more people aware of the animal's plight.
The three-day project, organized by the China branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, attracted people from across the country, including Shanghai and Fujian province.
"We wanted the volunteers to learn more about the tigers through these activities and to make sure more people know about the importance of conserving wildlife and protecting the environment," said Liu Yi, who is with the fund's China tiger program.
The environmental group is a driving force behind the work being done to research and protect Siberian tigers in the wild. It has opened a branch dedicated to the pursuit of that mission in Changchun, capital of Jilin province.
"I'd only seen tigers in newspapers or the zoo in the past," said Zuo Jian, who traveled from Sichuan province, more than 3,000 kilometers away, to work with the group. "This exercise was a very valuable chance to follow their steps and enable me to have a better understanding of the big cat. Taking care of tigers is a way to protect the environment and ourselves."
The volunteers were divided into three teams and assigned to patrol Lanjia forest in Jilin, and Nuanquanhe and Dongfanghong forests in Heilongjiang province, which are the main habitats of the Siberian tiger in China.
According to wildlife experts, Siberian tigers mainly live in eastern Russia, Northeast China and the mountainous areas of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Fewer than 500 now live in the wild, including the nearly 20 that are in China.
"If we don't take action quickly, these big cats are likely to disappear from China," said Jiang Guangshun, deputy director of the State Forestry Administration Feline Research Center, who led the team in Dongfanghong.
"The border area between China and the far eastern part of Russia is their main habitat. So protection work is also being carried out in this area.
"By doing more to protect these areas, we can build a migration corridor to connect Northeast China and Russia and provide tigers with a larger and more comfortable habitat."
Olga Sass with the World Wide Fund for Nature's Russia Amur branch, praised the work and called for China and Russia to cooperate more closely to protect tigers and leopards.
Experts said poaching and the deterioration of habitats are the main reasons why the predator is endangered.
Winter is usually the toughest season for the big cats and poaching tends to become rampant in the three months before Spring Festival, China's traditional New Year's holiday.
Forests in Northeast China are covered by 50 centimeters of snow on average in the winter, making it easy for wildlife experts to carry out fieldwork by following footprints that animals leave behind. Yet, the same conditions are also advantageous to poachers.
Peng Jianyu, an anti-poaching officer with the World Wide Fund for Nature's China tiger program, said she has helped organize a team that will be composed of more than 50 rangers and will be charged with patrolling 15 reservations in the region.
To catch animals such as roe deer and hares, poachers usually set traps or snares on routes they are known to take, according to Liang Feng'en, a ranger at Nuanquanhe forest, who worked as a hunter 30 years ago.
The traps often make it either impossible for an ensnared animal to escape or wound them so badly that they can no longer hunt.
Two tigers have been caught in traps in recent years - one in 2006 and one in 2011. Both ended up dying of hunger.
The Chinese government has also been doing more to establish protection areas for Siberian tigers, as it tries to restore the predator's habitat and help the various animals it preys on increase their numbers.
Two tiger conservation zones - Wangqing and Nuanquanhe - are applying for national level conservation status, and several other forestry bureaus are also strengthening their efforts to protect wildlife.
"Past exploitation has led to deforestation and a decrease in wildlife numbers," said Liang Zhuo, the nephew of Liang Feng'en and a wildlife protection official who has worked to restore the environment and protect wildlife for more than 10 years.
"It is time for us to repay the debt and strengthen environmental protection. This is not only for ourselves but also for our children and grandchildren."
He said the work has led to more sightings of tigers in the past three years in Suiyang and nearby areas.
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