Protecting Tigers and People on the China-North Korea Border

May 6, 2009

Nigel Sizer, Rare’s Vice President of Asia Pacific programs, recently traveled to Hunchun, China, located on the border between North Korea and Russia. Hunchun is the home of Jianmin Lang, a Rare Pride campaign manager who works for the Hunchun Nature Reserve and is focusing on conserving Siberian Tigers. Nigel blogs about Lang’s conservation campaign, about the people of this remote region and the challenges of protecting the last few remaining Siberian Tigers.

Following flights to Bangkok, onwards to Beijing, and then another two hours flying north to Yanji, and finally a two hour drive, Rare’s China Director, Shiyang Li, and I arrived in the small town of Hunchun (pop. 250,000). Cool wind blew down from Siberia and low mountains near the Jilin Hunchun Nature Reserve. A very surly receptionist did not greet us on arrival, given we had the rudeness to wake her up in order to check-in.

The reserve covers an area of 108,700 hectares and abuts the border of North Korea in the south and Russia in the north. The target of the Pride campaign, which is in the final stages of planning, is saving the Siberia tigers that live in the reserve. There are thought to be between three and five of this, the largest of the big cats, at the site, about one quarter of China’s entire population of 20 of these huge predators. There are about another 100 tigers on the Russian side and the reserve serves as an important corridor.

The charismatic and incredibly committed campaign manager Jianmin Lang, known as Lang, made a clear and compelling presentation to us. He explained that the northern half of the reserve is the target for the campaign as this is the tiger’s habitat. Tiger activity has been recorded 196 times between 2002 and 2008. Camera traps have captured images of three different tigers, and tiger activities have been moving eastwards out of the reserve into other forest and land. Recently a tiger was caught on video by a military camera surveying the border.

The top threat to the tigers is being accidentally caught in snares, vicious, simple wire traps, set by the hundred, illegally, in the reserve, to catch deer, wild boar and other species. It is thought that roughly one tiger per year comes to a sad, painful, slow death in the traps.

The Pride campaign in this area aims to dramatically reduce the number of snares being set, clean out the old snares, and engage the local communities as partners.

Lang will encourage the community to patrol the vast area of forest and mountainside and keep wayward neighbors from indulging in hunting. Lang is undoubtedly one of the stars of Rare’s first group of Pride campaign managers in China. He works long hours, is well organized and strategic, and has a great team supporting him from the staff of the nature reserve.

Crucially, Lang also counts on tremendous support from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and their local officers, Ms. Liang, who is working with him day-in day-out on the campaign.

The Shocking Case of Ms. Che Junxia

Che Jinxia is an attractive, friendly, 27-year-old mother who met us to share the traumatic tail of being mauled by an adult Siberian tiger. There have been four reported cases of tigers attacking people since the reserve was established. Three of the cases involved tigers wounded by snares. Che’s case is the only one involving a tiger that was apparently unprovoked and seems to have viewed the human being as prey. Below is her shocking account.

“Two years ago, on May 19, 2007, at 5 a.m., together with my husband, I went out to the mountain to collect wild vegetables in the forest. We separated from each other and he went down the hill and I went up, alone. I asked my husband to go with me but he wouldn’t.”

The tiger was watching me for half an hour I am sure, but I did not realize. I was wearing an orange coat and collecting plants under a tree.

Suddenly the tiger made a noise and I saw it about 10 meters away. In one pounce it was right in front of me. Its head was this big (she gestures with her hands held about 50 cm apart) and its hair was all standing on end. I put my hands up in from of me to protect my face and throat. I am sure it wanted to bite my neck. I remember the tiger’s face right in front of mine, just 30 cm away. The tiger bit my hands and arms about six times and scratched my arms. I screamed repeatedly and the tiger suddenly ran away.

My husband heard my screaming and came up the mountain, but when he arrived the tiger had gone. When it ran away I was afraid it would come back, and as soon as it had gone I started walking and then passed out.

I knew tigers live on the mountain but I had always been told they would never attack people, now I know that’s not true. Some people think that because of the clothes I was wearing it mistook me for a cow, but I am sure it watched me for a long time before it attacked, so I am not sure.

I spent two months in the hospital recovering. The bones in my arms and hands were broken. Ever since then I have had nightmares, I will never go into the forest again, and I am even afraid walking around the village. I don’t go out at night. I fight a lot more with my husband now and he says my personality has changed. After this other people also went less to the mountain.

It is very dangerous living here, everywhere I go a tiger might jump out at me. Maybe there are many more tigers than before.

Last week in the next village three cattle were killed and last night one of my relatives heard a tiger on the mountain.”

Che was clearly deeply traumatized. She said that she had wanted to get therapy, but that was not possible in this region — there are no qualified doctors. She talks with her husband and others and that helps. Her daughter hates tigers because one attacked her mother.

This was the only person who made negative references to tigers in all of the conversations over two days we spent in the villages. Our partners explained that tigers are generally viewed as very special, magnificent animals in Chinese culture.

Village Life

The villages around Hunchun and the reserve are tiny, rustic hamlets, with few young people who have headed off for more stimulating life in the towns or even to work in the factories of South Korea. It’s bitterly cold and snow-bound for about four months each winter. We were lucky to be visiting in spring. The trees were in fresh leaf, filling the valleys with a lime green hue, lush and full of life. It was hot in the sun-filled daytime and refreshingly cool at night. Later in the season the mosquitoes and flies will emerge, the valleys will be bursting with the late summer harvest, and huge piles of firewood will be set down in readiness for the winter. I interviewed the heads of two of the villages, two very different men engaged in remarkably different enterprises and making good livings.

Li Yong, Head of Guandaogou Village

Li’s main income is from raising frogs in a valley that he leases from the reserve. He has paid about $30,000 for the ten-year lease and harvests about 60,000 frogs each year, from which frog oil (a medicinal supplement like fish oil made from the frog uterus) is made and sold for about $600 per kg. (Think about processing those frogs, by hand, for a summer job!)

There are 38 households in the village with 102 people, only one other family is in the frog business, the others are involved in bee keeping, cattle-raising, and logging. Several families are active in hunting for local consumption.

Wild boar are a pest and often destroy crops, foraging in groups of 20-40. The government provides compensation.

Li supports plans to set up patrols as he wants to conserve wildlife. He will select responsible villagers to participate in the patrols which will help to prevent other villagers from setting snares (he knows the families that do this), remove old snares, and stop outsiders from setting snares.

Snares are mainly set in winter. A man will set between 30 and 200 snares and inspect them every couple of days. If they are caught they are fined, the last such case was in 2007, with a $400 fine paid. He will select the families most active in setting snares to become part of the patrol.

Mr. Dong Zixan, Head of Xiacaomao Village

Dong Zixan was born in Xiacaomao village 44 years ago. His parents and most of the others in the village came to this site in the 1950s fleeing famine in Shandong Province. When he was born there were 10 families and now there are 60 — with 230 people total. Young people leave because it is boring in the small village. He also complained that life is very dull, and he only has to work about three or four months on the farm and the rest of the time is idle. I told him he looked healthy, strong, and stress free which got a good laugh.

His main income is from cattle. He has 11 of them and sells the calves for fattening. He has four hectares of corn and beans, and also collects wild vegetables in the forest. He earns about $700 a year from the cattle, and about $120 from the forest vegetables, and also sells some of the corn and beans.

There are about 400 cattle in the whole village grazing on about 400 hectares. In summer the cattle move out into the forest and this is when some are killed by tigers. He has never seen or heard a tiger, but his neighbors have.

Last year one of his cows was killed by a tiger and he is waiting for compensation. The government pays compensation, but it takes years and involves approvals at various levels from different agencies. Wild boars also destroy crops around harvest time, and he has been promised compensation for that too.

Two or three people from the village actively set snares, along with some outsiders. He knows who they are but it’s hard to catch them. Those who keep cattle hate the snares because cattle get trapped and die. Every year two to three cattle die like this. If he sees someone setting snares he reports it to the police or army.

Dong likes the idea very much of setting up village patrols to remove snares and prevent trapping. Shiyang asked him if he could show us some snares. He ran outside and came back with two old snares that had caught one of his calves. He also came back with a rusty old “break-leg” trap, now illegal in most countries, which he said was used for trapping wild boar. We set the trap and stuck a stick in it. It snapped shut with a terrifying thud. Dong told as that he has found much larger “break-leg” traps that he believes are intended for catching tigers, and he no longer takes volunteers out on patrols for fear they might step in one and lose a limb.