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BEIJING - He used to spend all day catching birds after he turned 6, when he started to learn how to paint and called himself a bird-hunting master.
Then at the age of 18, he burned all of his bird-catching equipment and cages, and started to save and free every animal he encountered with the money from selling his paintings.
"What I am doing now is partly to repent on my past doings," said Li Li, standing in a large wire net and holding a pheasant that he and colleagues rescued during a patrol four months ago.
Li Li, 29, founder of the Black Leopard Wildlife Conservation Station, a non-governmental organization in Beijing, holds a rescued pheasant at a branch station in Nanhe village, Beijing's Fangshan district, on Feb 15. [Zou Hong / China Daily]
During that patrol, Li found six pheasants that had been electrocuted by a wire laid by villagers, and only one was still alive. Since then this pheasant has been kept in a large wire net.
"Its wound has fully healed and hopefully we will set it free before May, when it can find food easily in the mountains," said the now 29-year-old Li, wrapped in camouflage clothing and black military boots.
Besides the four rescued pheasants, other birds such as turtle doves and wild ducks, and several kinds of rabbits have found a temporary shelter - an 80-square-meter wire net in one of the three sub-stations of the Black Leopard Wildlife Conservation Station.
Li founded the station in the mountainous areas of Beijing's suburban Fangshan district in 2000.
Since then, Li and his colleagues have patrolled the nearby mountains hundreds of times, handing out tens of thousands of copies to the villagers advising them to protect the wildlife, and rescuing and setting free more than 1,700 birds and animals under protection, including swans, black storks, leopard cats and snakes, Li said.
"We have patrolled these areas so many times and saved so many lives that many animals in the mountains are not even afraid of us when we pass by wearing our camouflage coats," laughed Li.
Li's enthusiasm in wildlife protection originated in his childhood interest in painting. Since it is more difficult to paint birds when they are flying in the wild, he would catch and cage them.
However, Li found that the caged birds refused to eat or drink, and soon perished. Later, the village where he lived was leased by the government for industrial use, wiping out the birds' habitat.
Having nowhere to find birds for painting, Li turned to other places, and a visit to a wetland in suburban Beijing proved to have changed the course of his life.
"I found large groups of migrating swans, flying in the sky or roaming along the riverbank. They were stunningly beautiful," said Li.
Touched by the loss of the birds' habitat in his village and the beautiful wetland scenery, Li decided to protect these birds.
"I burned all my equipment for catching birds, as I have found a better way to capture them," he said.
It was not easy to run the organization, though. In the beginning, the only source of financial support came from the income Li got from selling his paintings, mostly of birds.
"You can't imagine how hard the situation was in the first three years," Li said. "We used to wear clothes like poor migrant workers. We also tried to ask for donations, but no one heard us."
In 2003 things took a turn when Li met the United States-based Wildlife Conservation Society, Li said.
"Back then I usually slept in the zoo to observe animals to paint them," Li recalled. "So many staff members in the zoo were familiar to me."
One day a staff member told Li the conservation society was organizing a contest on aquatic bird paintings in the zoo and Li submitted several of his paintings.
"I got a big award in the contest. Later the society contacted me and after they realized we were doing the same thing, they decided to offer help to us," Li said.
With their help, Li and his colleagues learned new ideas and got extensive training, which "really helped us a lot in our future work", as Li said.
As the organization's work has been gaining more attention from the public, its financial burden has been eased as it now can receive donations from volunteers and companies.
Li said a large auto company awarded them 100,000 yuan ($16,000) in 2010 for their effort in wildlife protection.
The government and people are also giving more importance to environmental protection now, which makes Li and his colleagues' work much easier.
"We are thankful for Li's assistance in wildlife protection," said Liang Zhihui, director of the Shangfang Mountain National Forest Park, near Li's station.
"He is a bold guy with ideas," Liang said.
Li's effort also touched many others, who devoted themselves to the same cause.
Li Cheng, an animal lover who helped run a sub-station, met Li Li several years ago when he was trying to buy an injured eagle from a villager who caught it and decided to join him.
"It seemed we were meant to meet, as we have been doing the same thing," Li Cheng said. "Having worked with him for years, I have been really touched by Li Li's perseverance in wildlife protection. He is a bold and sincere guy," he said.
Despite the improving situation, difficulties and uncertainties still lie ahead.
As the money he received from the car company could only sustain their activities for another year, Li just sold some paintings to a Japanese buyer last month for a few thousand yuan.
"With my savings and income from selling paintings, at least there is no problem in keeping the organization running until 2015," he said. "After that, we will think about other ways," he said.
Despite a slight worry, Li remains optimistic and determined.