From hunter to protector

By Qi Xiao (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-09-08 07:31
Large Medium Small

 From hunter to protector

A march in Hunchun raises awareness for protecting the wild Siberian tiger. Photos provided to China Daily

The man mauled by a rare Siberian tiger and later found responsible for its death, is now a volunteer with a pilot conservation project in Jilin province. Qi Xiao reports

Eight years after being attacked by a wild tiger near his village in Hunchun city of Jilin province, Qu Shuangxi has turned from hunter to protector of wildlife. "My village has been chosen to pilot a wildlife protection initiative by the government," he says.The attack occurred on the afternoon of Jan 29, 2002. "The snow was almost knee high," Qu says. He and another villager were on their way back home after catching a red deer.

They were about 3 kilometers from their village, talking about how they were going to enjoy the game, when a wild Siberian tiger appeared behind them, just a few dozen meters away.

His companion escaped, but Qu was not so lucky. The tiger slammed its paw onto Qu's right shoulder and clawed his right arm.

"I ran like mad, but the tiger was too quick for me even though it was injured and still strapped in a broken snare," says Qu. "I then pretended to be dead."

Fortunately, the red deer saved him as the tiger turned to its meat and walked away after finishing its meal.

The 55-year-old farmer suffered multiple fractures in the right shoulder and a broken bone and torn muscle in the right arm, permanently disabling him. The next day, a woman forest worker was killed by the same tiger before the staff of the nature reserve covering Qu's village managed to move in and captured the animal.

The injured tiger died after eight days despite intensive efforts to save it.

Qu was charged with hunting protected wild animals and handed a two-year jail term. It was only later that it was revealed that the snare which eventually killed the tiger had been laid by Qu.

Siberian tigers, also known as Amur or Manchurian tigers, are one of the world's 10 most endangered species. They are found predominantly in Northeast China and the far eastern parts of Russia.

There are currently an estimated 500 Siberian tigers in the wild, of which only 20 or so can be found live in Northeast China's Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces.

Poaching, deforestation, the general destruction of their natural habitat, and illegal trade are among the biggest threats to the species. Tiger parts are still used in traditional medicine in many places and a tiger's body can sell for as much as $150,000, experts say.

"Hunchun has a very long tradition of hunting that endures to this day," explains Li Zhixing, secretary-general of the Hunchun Tianhe Siberian Tiger Protection Society. "Although many residents never meant to hunt tigers, their activities encroached on the tigers' habitats."

From hunter to protector

"They (the attacks) were an avoidable tragedy," says Wu Zhigang, a researcher with the Jilin Provincial Institute of Forestry Science and one of the foremost scholars in Siberian tiger protection. "Both the tiger and the farmers would have been safe if not for the snares.

"Snares are indiscriminate, which means even if tigers are not the target, they could easily get trapped," says Wu. "Snares also threaten the tiger population by killing their prey."

A tiger will usually not attack humans, Wu says, "Only when it is crippled and its ability to hunt natural prey is significantly impaired will it search for food in nearby villages and resort to attacking livestock and humans."

Qu can easily testify to the pervasiveness of snares as he and his six fellow volunteer-rangers cleared scores of snares and traps during last winter's patrol in the area around his village.

Across the border, neighboring Russia seems to offer a much safer haven for these animals. While only 20 wild Siberian tigers are thought to be living in China, there are 480 in Russia.

"The living area for a single wild tiger usually ranges from 20,000 to 30,000 hectares but the entire nature reserve in Hunchun is only 89,000 hectares," Wu says. "Coupled with anther reserve in Jilin, which is less than 40,000 hectares, we get to see just four to six tigers in the province."

Wild tigers can easily cross the border (into Russia), he says.

"Snares are never used in Russian hunting culture," adds Dr Sergey Aramilev, a bio-diversity conservation coordinator with the Russian office of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). He says that during a field trip along the Russia-China border, he did not see a single snare for more than 200 km on the Russian side.

"That may explain why tigers sometimes come to Russia," he says.

But thanks to a project of the China office of WWF, the big cats are returning.

Qu's village Guandaogou was chosen to pilot the conservation project of the Hunchun Nature Reserve in October 2009.

Since last year, WWF's China branch has sent 12 beehives to seven households - including Qu's - as part of a project to provide an alternative source of income.

"The local government and the villagers are very supportive of the project," says Dr Jiang Guangshun, senior program officer for Amur Tiger of WWF's China branch.

"We hope the chosen households can earn more money through this project," he says. "Whether they hunt for fun, for meat or for trade, we hope raising bees can help them change."

(China Daily 09/08/2010 page20)