Former hunter protects endangered species, reports Wu Yong from Suiyang, Heilongjiang province.
Liang Feng'en is a wildlife ranger at the Suiyang Forestry Bureau in southeast Heilongjiang province.
Every day Liang, 55, patrols the mountains on the Russian border as he monitors Siberian tigers, and destroys hidden traps.
"I used to be the best hunter in the region when I retired from the army 30 years ago. But now I look after the animals, including tigers, black bears, roe deer and even squirrels," said the deeply tanned Liang, decked out in green camouflage clothing.
The change came in 2004 when Liang was hired as a wildlife protector. His new role coincided with greater efforts by the authorities to save the environment for wildlife in northeast Asia.
Tigers are native to Asia, with many primarily found in southeastern Russia and northern China. There are eight subspecies and China is home to around 50 wild tigers from four of those subspecies.
Around 20 Siberian tigers and 10 to 20 Bengal tigers live in the Heilongjiang River Basin and the Tibet autonomous region, according to the World Wild Fund for Nature.
Ten Indochinese tigers live in Yunnan province.
South China tigers are believed to be extinct in the wild because there have been no sightings for more than 30 years. Globally, the tiger population has plummeted to 3,200 from more than 40,000 some 30 years ago.
Their habitat has been reduced by 40 percent in the past 10 years, according to the WWF.
"The Siberian tiger is more endangered than the giant panda now. It faces extinction without effective protection. And the extinction of this "umbrella species" would be a disaster for the entire ecosystem," said Fan Zhiyong, director of the WWF China's species program.
An umbrella species is one whose survival indirectly protects many other species within its habitat. In China, they include the giant panda, the Siberian tiger and the Asian elephant.
The forest is the most important ecosystem in northeast Asia, according to Fan. Conservation of the Siberian tiger, known in the West as the Amur tiger, is crucial because the animal helps control the region's herbivorous wildlife and preserves the fragile ecobalance between the forests and the grasslands, he added.
"The tiger is the top predator in the food chain. If you protect the tiger, you protect all others in the system," he explained.
Fan is one of the most prominent pioneers of wildlife conservation in China and has been engaged in the work for 30 years. Among his other projects is the construction of a protection zone for the giant panda at the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, Sichuan province.
The prospects for Siberian tigers appear more promising than those of other subspecies because of the large population in Russia. However, the size of the population means that the tigers have reached saturation point and have started to migrate to northeast China, albeit in small numbers.
As part of the Chinese improvements in wildlife protection, many former loggers and hunters like Liang have now become forest rangers. Their daily work has changed from destruction of the local habitat and wildlife to anti-hunting measures, monitoring movements and raising public awareness of the tigers' plight.
Liang's work is the most basic and important part of tiger protection. Determining the number of big cats in the region and pinpointing their migratory corridors is the cornerstone of the protection plan.
To that end, the WWF has proposed forming nine key areas where tiger settlement units can be built. In addition, the foundation plans to implement a raft of pilot conservation projects, including restoration of the food chain, monitoring and anti-hunting programs, said Zhu Jiang, head of WWF China's Northeast office.
"This way we can gain information about the tigers' living habits and provide technical support for future work," he said.
Early stage research by the WWF has discovered the migration corridors used by the Siberian tigers, which run along the borders of China, Russia and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"The focus of next period of work is to promote the establishment of more reserves and reinforcement of the food chain to attract the animals back," said Zhu.
In a bid to re-establish the food chain, more than 30 red and sika deer were released into the wild in Northeast China's Wangqing Nature Reserve on Global Tiger Day in July.
"To protect animals is to protect ourselves because each life has its own unique meaning for the world. Take the boar (another staple food) for example. The Siberian tiger's food chain would break down without it, and that could put the whole forest at risk," said Liang.
Conservation, think tanks
Efforts to protect tigers in China have accelerated during the past decade, after years of ignorance, providing a boost for the prospects of a rise in the global population.
Sources close to the local forestry administration said Liang's Suiyang Forestry Bureau has applied to establish a protection zone. In the past 10 years, China has established a national wild Siberian tiger protected zone in Hunchun city in Jilin province, plus three other projects in Heilongjiang and Jilin.
To integrate the research and protection forces in June, China set up the feline research center at Northeast Forestry University in Harbin, led by a renowned Chinese wildlife expert, Ma Jianzhang. The team includes dozens of experts on felines from home and abroad.
"All our work is aimed at encouraging the return of groups of tigers that moved to other countries decades ago," said Jiang Guangshun, deputy director of the center.
"The tiger's living area is much larger than that of the giant panda. So research and protection require cross-border cooperation," said Jiang. The home range of a tigress is about 350 square km, almost 90 times greater than that of the giant panda, and a male tiger's range is double that of the female.
In addition, the protection needs international cooperation because the animals are multinational, migrating between countries. Construction of the cross-border migration corridor and work to prevent illegal hunting both require the participation of all countries involved.
"We want to build this center into an international cooperation platform and tiger protection think tank for the forestry administration," Jiang added.
Experts say the Sino-Russia cooperation is one of the most important factors in tiger protection and restoration.
On the one hand, Russia has a large tiger population and experience in boosting and restoring the food chain. According to the State Forestry Administration, there were around 30 tigers in the former Soviet Union in the 1950's. That number increased more than tenfold after 50 years of protection and restoration work, but the fragmentation of the former Soviet bloc saw numbers begin to decline again.
However, Russia needs China's support in terms of new blood and fresh territory. According to Jiang, the tiger population in Russia is threatened by poaching, natural disasters, disease and inbreeding. "China and Russia should increase cooperation to protect the animal," he said
The center cooperates with the Russian authorities in monitoring the tigers and studying their prey.
Sources from the WWF said that Vladimir Miklushevsky, governor of Russia's Primorsky province, signed a decree on the creation of the regional Sredneussuriisky Wildlife Refuge on Oct 18. The territory is the only corridor connecting the endangered tiger population in the Wanda Mountains, located in the east of Heilongjiang, with the main population in Russia.
"This refuge is a key part of the Sino-Russian cross-border corridor for Siberian tigers. We could never achieve the recovery target goal in northeastern China and provide support for tigers in Russia without it," said Yury Darman, director of the WWF-Russia Amur branch.
Jiang revealed that in December, China and Russia will conduct a joint study of tiger numbers and distribution. The WWF and local forestry authorities will also play a part in the study.
In spite of the attention from government to academia, the return of the wild Siberian tiger is still uncertain. Experts suggest the challenges include limited funding, devastation of plant species and destruction of the natural habitat.
First of all, many tiger protection zones are under rigid administration and receive no funding from central government. The conservation zones are operated by local forestry bureaus instead of provincial or national environmental protection bureaus, and these low-level bureaus lack funds.
The limited number of plant species is another challenge. The majority of the northeast region is covered by cultivated forest which is unable to provide enough food for large ungulates such as sika and red deer and wild boar, the staple foods of Siberian tigers.
"The local forestry department and WWF are trying to increase the numbers of these animals. But the recovery of the food chain is likely to take a long time, given the high costs and low survival rate," Fan said.
Finally, increased construction of roads and urban expansion are having a negative effect on the tigers' lifestyles and reproductive habits as their natural habitat dwindles.
Experts suggest the promotion of sustainable forests and protected areas has started to reverse the longstanding decline in tiger numbers, but the challenge now is to maintain enough suitable forested habitats.
Liang was pleased to see that his efforts have been rewarded as many hunters now refuse to kill wildlife. Some of his friends and neighbors have changed their opinions on the animals and have even started to offer valuable clues on how to stop illegal hunting.
In recent years, tigers have been spotted frequently in the area around the Suiyang Forestry Bureau, giving Liang and his fellow workers cause to hope that some of the big cats may settle down and produce litters of cubs.
"I'm still working on the front line of tiger protection. I understand that it's not easy to save tigers. But I know I'm not alone because people across the nation have the same belief as me," said Liang.
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Zhou Huiying and Han Junhong contributed to this story.