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A poacher converted into a ranger to the rescue of the last Chinese tigers

Ⓒ AFP/Archives – Nicolas ASFOURI – | A Siberian tiger in Hengdaohezi Park, where tigers are raised, in northeastern China on August 23, 2017

He was an unscrupulous hunter who did not hesitate to kill a bear in front of his cubs. Today, he rides the mountains of northeast China without a rifle with a mission: to protect the last tigers of Siberia still free in the most populous country in the world.

Liang Fengen has not crossed the famous tiger he’s supposed to protect since he put his rifle 13 years ago.

And for good reason: only 540 would remain in the wild in an immense area distributed between the north-east of China, the Russian Far East and possibly even North Korea.

Mr. Liang, 61, has been content to track down droppings and traces of legs of the Siberian tiger, the largest cat listed on the surface of the globe. A male can be more than 3.5 meters long, have a height of 1.20 meters at the withers and weigh up to 350 kilos.

“When I think back to what I was doing, it was really cruel,” admits the former poacher who lives in a small house at the foot of the mountains of Heilongjiang Province, a Russian border.

Its conversion has been made possible by the efforts of associations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which seek to make use of the knowledge of the land of former poachers.

Every morning at dawn, the ranger begins his daily hike in search of clues that will allow zoologists to estimate where the last tigers and especially their prey are: a carcass of roe deer devoured here, boar dung there …

– Poacher of night –

The Siberian tiger almost disappeared in the 1940s, when there were only about forty people left. This colossal feline remains “in great danger of extinction”, threatened by poachers who seek to sell its bones – prized of the traditional pharmacopoeia – and take the other animals from which the tiger feeds.

Liang Fengen walks through the forest in camouflage uniforms. In the winter, he has to brave a temperature that goes down cheerfully under -30 degrees.

The tiger droppings it collects are used to detect the DNA of the animals. Mr. Liang is equipped with a GPS that allows him to indicate exactly where the various clues he found are located – a way to track the journeys traveled by the fauves.

The terrain has no secrets for this new friend of the tigers, who had traveled the mountain from childhood, hunting the bear and the wild boar for fun but especially to survive. During the food shortages of the Maoist era, his family still had enough to eat thanks to the wild boars that Liang and his father brought home.

“For me, the animals were there to be slaughtered,” he said. “And then, little by little, I changed.”

The change was certainly very gradual: recruited as a guard in 2004 by the Suiyang Forestry Bureau, he surreptitiously took over at night his former poacher’s job …

But his reconversion did not go unnoticed.

“Everyone knew in the country that Liang was the best poacher,” said Jin Yongchao, an official of the WWF office in north-eastern China. When he changed his job, “it influenced a lot of people”.

According to Mr. Jin, in Heilongjiang Province alone, about thirty hunters traded the rifle for the ranger’s uniform.

As for Liang Fengen, he has the faith of the convert. “As long as my legs carry me and the Forestry Bureau needs me, I will continue to protect the tigers with all my strength,” promises the 60-year-old.

– Tiger Bone Alcohol –

There are also some 200 Siberian tigers in China, many of which are controversial.

Like the Hengdaohezi Park, where a live duck is brought by cable over a tiger pool. When the cable releases the unfortunate volatile, the latter lands in the mouth of a hungry tiger, to the delight of the visitors who grab the stage with their smartphones.

“We are the world’s best specialists in the reproduction of Siberian tigers,” said Liu Changhai, the patron of the park, who welcomed the birth of 50 children in April.

But its park and other Chinese farms are criticized by ecologists, who see in it only vulgar “tiger farms” exploiting the cats for mercantile purposes, without worrying about releasing them in the wild.

In Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, another park boasts the world’s largest menagerie of Siberian tigers, with more than 500 animals. The tigers are presented during dressage shows and the visitors pass the little ones from hand to hand.

Environmental activists suspect the farms sell the furs and bones of the tigers after their death. Tiger bone-based alcohol is being sought in Asia for its alleged medicinal virtues, although the trade in tiger bones has been banned since 1993.

Liu Changhai denies that his breeding has any other purpose than the release of the animals. “This is our most cherished wish,” he says.

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