I have heard people talk of poachers who have changed their ways and who now work as rangers – well, back in September I met such a person. I was in Jilin Province in North East China, within the Amur-Heilong Ecoregion, where I met Mr Wu who told me his story.
Mr Wu works for a Forest Farm (a smaller unit under the Jilin Forest Bureau), and his main job was logging. However, he also poached deer.
Around a year ago, the Director of Huangnihe Nature Reserve, Mr Li, a very passionate, caring and energetic man, found him in the forest carrying snares, and started a discussion with him. Mr Li could have turned him into the police, but instead they went back to Mr Wu’s home, where his wife and daughter learnt of his poaching activity.
I spoke to Mr Wu about what happened that day and his feelings towards poaching now. He said “In the past, I was fined if I was caught poaching, and so I just went out to kill more deer so that I could pay back the fine. This system did not change my behaviour. I stopped poaching around a year ago, when Mr Li caught me carrying snares in the forest. I had a heart to heart conversation with Mr Li, who persuaded me not to poach anymore.”
He explained how “morally it was wrong, and actually poaching comes with risks and it only gave me small money – Mr Li offered me an alternative – working for conservation. Now if I see a poacher, I try to persuade them not to poach, as Mr Li had persuaded me a year ago.”
The key here was that Mr Wu had been offered an alternative, sustainable livelihood. Mr Li asked him if he would stop poaching and instead work on conservation activities, such as patrolling and monitoring, where Mr Wu’s tracking skills could be helpful to conservation. Mr Wu agreed.
Mr Wu is also a member of the local bee-keeping cooperative, along with Mr Xu, also an ex-poacher, who showed me around the hives. This provides them with extra income, and WWF are working with them to help them improve the quality of their honey so that they can maximise this income. In the winter, they focus on patrolling and monitoring, and in the summer, they focus on honey.
The logging ban – an opportunity?
The main work of the staff of the Forest Farm used to be logging, until a logging ban in Jilin’s state forests was put in place last year. This was done mainly to assist the recovery of China’s wood resources, and presents opportunities, as well as challenges, for conservation and the return of the tiger.
The pine nuts, acorns, walnuts and a good understorey will provide important food for deer and wild boar (‘ungulates’), and so a healthy forest with Mongolian oak, Korean pine and other species is good habitat for these ungulates, which are important food sources for tigers. A healthy forest also supports local people’s need, providing fuel wood and food (mushrooms, fruit) for example.
However, there are challenges – a logging ban in this province may put extra pressure on forests elsewhere – in Russia, over the border, for example. Also, some people will need to find other income if their main source of income was from logging, and they might think about poaching to earn extra income.
It is important that there are other livelihood options for the local people who have been affected by this logging ban. The Government are providing some support, and WWF is also helping by setting up a cooperative for pine nut harvesting and processing, and bee-keeping cooperative for honey production. If these models work, they could be used in other areas too, to provide a sustainable source of income for local people.
A better life and tigers are returning
Mr Wu explained: “I earned around USD 2,000 per year for hunting, but now I earn around USD 8,000 a year combining my conservation work with bee-keeping and forest frog management.” He said he would not return to poaching, and was so pleased to see tigers returning to the area “In my childhood, I heard about tigers in the area, but I never saw one. Now we see the tiger here in Huangnihe. Last autumn I found a tiger footprint in the mud when out patrolling. I felt so happy. Tigers are returning, as the deer and wild board are increasing”.
Mr Wu and Mr Li led us along the valley within a Korean pine and broadleaf forest. They were so excited as they had seen a tiger pugmark there a few days ago and wanted to show us.
After walking for almost an hour, picking mushrooms on the way to cook for lunch, and snacking on mini Chinese kiwis that we found as we went, we finally found the pugmark in the mud – it looked pretty big to me, but may actually be a sub-adult male, as a male tiger pugmark can be over 10cm wide! In fact we kept walking and managed to track it for a while – the pugmarks were really clear.
I have seen camera images of tigers and a wonderful video of a tiger with cubs in China (see below), but I never thought I would see a tiger pugmark on my short visit – I was so pleased to see the evidence for myself that tigers really are returning to China.
Today, on World Wildlife Day, it’s good to celebrate and thank those people who are working hard to help protect wildlife.
You might also like to read about another ranger’s story from Bhutan.
Also, please visit our Amur-Heilong pages to find out more about our work in this region.