Hunter-turned-ranger Liang Feng'en patrols the forests of Suiyang town, Heilongjiang province. Photos by Wu Yong / China Daily
He used to kill animals, but now applies his knowledge to champion wildlife conservation in the country's Northeast, Wu Yong reports in Suiyang, Heilongjiang.
His eyes are shrewd and calm. His green-and-black GPS device dangles from his coat. He works comfortably in camouflage trousers that are faded with repeat washings.
It would be hard to guess his profession at first glance, but 55-year-old Liang Feng'en is a ranger from Suiyang's forestry bureau. His main duty is to find and record tracks of the wild Siberian tiger and its prey, such as deer and boar. This is essential work for big-cat protection.
"Snow is my school bell. Winter is usually the toughest season for the big cats, and poaching tends to be rampant in the three months before Spring Festival," says Liang.
He explains that forests in Northeast China are covered by 50 centimeters of snow on average in winter, making it easy for wildlife experts to carry out fieldwork by following prints that animals leave behind. But the same conditions also make it easy for poachers.
As a well-known hunter in the region 30 years ago, Liang knows all the animals and trees in the mountains. Back then, he didn't understand the magic of this world.
"I had no idea about wildlife protection 12 years ago when I was invited to join the work. And I never imagined that I could give up hunting - my family's way of life for decades," he says.
Suiyang, a small town in eastern Heilongjiang province that borders Russia, is surrounded by richly forested land. The local forestry bureau was one of the biggest timber producers from the 1950s to the '90s.
Liang recalls that most of his friends went hunting in winter 30 years ago, and his father was a very good hunter, too. His family and neighbors were all proud of him because he could bring home wild boar and deer when the whole country was plagued by starvation.
"Good hunters enjoyed respect and were even idolized in the village."
He quickly became an expert hunter himself after finishing his army service in 1982. That fame in the woods even won him a good marriage, as his wife is a meat lover.
However, Liang and the Suiyang forestry bureau became trapped in a crisis in the late 1990s, when almost all virgin forests were chopped down and China implemented intense environmental protection measures in 1998.
Liang says he earned less than 100 yuan (about $12 at that time) for a year, and this dilemma stimulated him to ponder the implications of his old lifestyle.
"I had a vague idea of ecological protection at that time because something must be wrong. And later I got the full picture about the importance of working with wildlife experts."
Many wildlife protection NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, came to Suiyang to carry out research with the help of local forestry officials.
Liang was recommended to work as the ranger for WWF because of his rich hunting experience.
Peng Jianyu, an anti-poaching officer with the WWF's China tiger program, says she helped put together a team made of more than 50 rangers in the region. And Liang is one of the best among them.
The shift from hunter to ranger is both a challenge and an opportunity for Liang.
Liang's wife and son have moved to the town for the modern conveniences - central heating and tap water, the shopping mall and various foods. But Liang insists on living in the mountains and pursues his own way of life.
"I grew up in this forest, and I enjoy the unique trees, grass and river. Staying in the woods makes me joyful," Liang explains.
Liang's history as a hunter has made him a star again in his new wildlife protection profession because he knows every corner of this mountain, the animals living there and all the tricks of the poacher.
Peng praises Liang. "He and his colleagues play a very important role in combating poaching. And we have found evidence of more wild animals here in recent years."
With more university students coming here for field study, Liang even works as a tutor, teaching them how to tell the animal's species via the footprints.
"I feel regret as I find out more about the environmental protection. Both logging and hunting are exploitation of forest resources. I hope to make up for my past."
His experience helps him succeed in his work. But the patrols still pose many challenges, including extreme weather, threats from poachers and predators.
"To patrol in winter is exhausting because the -30C temperature and the thick snow will drain your strength and energy in one hour.
"And you have to struggle with your sore legs all the way because nobody can survive outside. Once you start, you have to stick to it until the end," Liang says, while recording deer hoofprints found on the road.
His data include the animals' number, position, sex and age, as well as their possible whereabouts. It seems they are neighbors of Liang.
"It snowed for three days and animals have to come out for food now. Look at their footprints; they are heading for the cropland at the foot of mountain, where they may find corn and soybeans left by farmers if they are lucky enough."
He's pleased to find the number of animal tracks has increased significantly this year. Logging has been strictly forbidden since last year in the region.
"Wild animals appear rather friendly and safe compared to the weather. Large animals, such as tigers and bears, do not attack human beings - unless they think you pose a threat to their food or young."
After his daily work, Liang usually opens his computer and logs onto his QQ, an instant-message system, to chat with friends from all around the country.
"This is another joy brought by the new job. I like making friends with people of different professions. To talk with them makes me happy," says Liang.
In order to improve communications' speed and quality, Liang even invented a new way of typing. He knows nothing about the 26 letters of the alphabet, and it is too hard for him to remember them. So he glues a corresponding Chinese character next to each of them.
"N" refers to "ni", or you, in English and "p" refers to "po shui" - splashing water in English.
Liang Zhuo, 33, a wildlife protection official from the local forestry bureau, is Liang's nephew and has engaged in the work for almost 12 years.
"He (Liang Feng'en) is an excellent person, who shows outstanding courage and diligence in all of his work. His transition also shows the shift of the nation's focus. Ecology is at the top of the country's agenda," he says.
Liang keeps a package of greeting cards from around the world near his computer.
One of them was posted by Ann Christine from WWF Sweden.
It reads: "Dear ranger, Thank you for your contribution to tiger protection. And we cherish your effort and wish you know we care about what you do."
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