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Tibet -- Walk on the wild side

February 10, 2010

By Liang Chen
Global Times (People's Republic of China)
February 8, 2010

It is getting darker and darker in the middle of
the afternoon, night comes early in the Tibetan
wilderness. Eight forest rangers pitch camps in
the vast wildlife habitat of the Naqu plateau,
home to Tibetan antelopes, snow leopards, wild
yaks, Tibetan donkeys, black-necked cranes and
other rare and endangered species.

As darkness falls, some of the men gather cow
droppings to light a campfire. Others make beds
to sleep through the freezing night.

These guardians of the Tibetan wilderness, armed
with antique pistols to warn off game poachers,
are on an annual month-long patrol for the Forest
Public Security Bureau of the Naqu Region.

"Life is boring and tough when you see only the
same eight faces over 30 days on patrol," says
Jigme, deputy director of the bureau, who, like
many Tibetans, is called by a single name.

Actually, he sees other faces at night. Tibetan
antelopes, wild donkeys and eagles will show
their faces around the campfire, which always
cheers up Jigme and his fellow guardians of nature.

Their usual food is zanba, traditional Tibetan
noodles made from roasted highland barley flour.
Jigme says he gets so sick of eating the same
noodles in the wilderness that when he returns
home from patrol, even the aroma of zanba gives him a stomach ache.

"Most of us get stomach diseases on patrol,
without enough nutritio or a fixed dining time,"
says Jigme, a short but muscular 27-year-old man.

To prepare him for patrol duty, his 29-year old
wife, Kelsang Rum, gives him a box of medicine,
mostly to cure stomach ailments.

Kelsang is quite supportive of Jigme's work, but
she never stops worrying about him and the danger
that lurks when he is on wildlife patrol.

Rangers outgunned

In Tibet, hunting wild animals is both an ancient
tradition and a threat to the survival of rare
species. Tibetans believe that wild animals have
no owners and they belong to the hunters who
stalk them. Tibetan game poachers often go
hunting in groups. Antelope horns and tiger pelts
frequently decorate their homes.

"Most of their guns are aimed at shooting the
Tibetan antelope," says another forest ranger,
Bama Zegdyu. "Just one strip of raw antelope of
leather can be sold for over 800 yuan in winter.
But if the leather has been processed into
finished goods, it will be worth thousands of
dollars. There is a lucrative industry behind the hunters."

"The hunters are bloodless. They will shoot and
skin an antelope in two minutes while the animal
is still alive and suffering from shock," Jigme says.

In the battle of game poachers against game
wardens, Jigme and his fellow rangers are outnumbered and outgunned.

They carry old PLA pistols manufactured in 1964
and 1977. That's not much firepower against game
smugglers armed with hunting rifles.

"It is quite dangerous for us to run after the
hunters, since most of them are local villagers
who are familiar with the area. They know every
road and corner. It's more dangerous when
patrolling in the unpopulated zones. The hunters
can attack us easily," says Zegdyu, still in his
50s, but a game warden in the bureau for more than 10 years.

His friends call Zegdyu "the human map" because
he knows the topography and can find his way out
of any tight spot. He admits that "fewer people
risk poaching in the district nowadays. Most of
the poachers are local villagers and the people from Qinghai and Sichuan."

Zegdyu used to fight the game hunters face-to-face.

He and his fellow rangers have done a brilliant
job protecting wildlife in the sparsely populated
Naqu zone, also known as North Tibet, 4,500
meters above sea level, where wild animals live
and multiply in valley forests and on grassland prairies.

The hard work of the game wardens and their
dedication to the preservation of nature has
allowed the number of antelope in China to
multiply from 50,000 to 120,000 in recent years.

In the Naqu district alone, more than 50,000
antelopes were spotted during a 20-day
investigation jointly conducted by the Naqu
forest police and a research center.

Eight game wardens patrolling 400,000 square
kilometers in North Tibet might seem impossible to most people.

But the Forest Public Security Bureau of Naqu
Region has achieved success year after year.

Wildlife heroes

In recognition of their dedication to protecting
the environment, Jigme, and other guardian angels
of wild animals came to Beijing on January 25 to
accept the second annual China Border Wildlife
Conservation Award. The glittering ceremony
honoring individuals and groups who have made the
biggest contributions to the protection of
wildlife was held at the National Science Library
of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Customs police, border guards, and forest rangers
marched on stage in their uniforms and saluted as
they accepted their awards, garlands of flowers
and many accolades as the heroes of wildlife.

Jigme is a man of few words who only speaks when
he has something important to say. He graduated
from the Jiangsu Police Institute. He is a highly
decorated officer, but was quite modest in his
acceptance speech as a representative of his bureau.

"I myself do not have much to be proud of, but it
is not surprising that our patrol station is
being honored as the Gold Award winner," Jigme
told the Global Times. "We work hard in a
terrible environment, but do not complain about
the lack of modern equipment, vehicles, or weapons."

The award sponsors lavished praise on the wildlife keepers.

"We are all aware that Naqu is extremely unfit
for human habitation. But the Forest Public
Security Bureau of Naqu Region has been fighting
over the years to protect wildlife on the
plateau. If they are not our heroes, who will
be?" asked Su Ming, deputy director of the
International Forestry Cooperation Center, State
Forestry Administration, speaking to the reporters.

Unlike other regions of China, visitors to Naqu
can stand 300 meters away from a Tibetan
antelope, even though the animals are extremely skittish around human beings.

In areas outside Naqu, the antelopes run away
when they see a human being 1 kilometer away.

"Sometimes, it seems that the protection of
wildlife is a mission impossible in China," said
Xie Yan, the country program director of the
Wildlife Conservation Society, speaking to
reporters at the awards ceremony, sponsored by the society's China program.

"I was so delighted to get so close with the
Tibetan antelope in Naqu, which shows that fewer
injuries are being inflicted on wild animals by
human beings. I believe the harmony between the
human beings and wild animals is being fostered
by the hard work of the bureau."

Tigers in peril

The world's wild animal population has decreased
sharply over the past 20 years as a result of
human activities, such as hunting, encroachment
on wildlife habitat, the expansion of industrialization and urbanization.

Apart from this, huge profits derived from the
illegal smuggling of animal pelts, teeth, and
antlers have brought death to countless wild animals.

The number of tigers around the world dropped by
95 percent over the past century. Smugglers and
poachers have accelerated the decline over the past 25 years.

China has 2,531 nature reserves, more than any other country on earth.

Yet China is believed to be the world's largest
importer of turtle shells, ivory tusks,
pangolins, and tiger skins. Many preservationists
suspect that China is the biggest smuggling market for many other species.

The illegal consumption of wild animal meat and
the trading of animal teeth and pelts are thought
to be the biggest hurdle in the struggle to protect China's biodiversity.

Amur tigers, called Siberian tigers in the West,
are among the most endangered species in China,
but they are hunted down to satisfy an increasing
demand on the black market., according to Xie.

Traditional Chinese medicine holds that various
organs of the tiger, plus its skin and bones,
build a strong body, although modern scientific
research has proven tiger organs provide no special health benefits.

Tiger hunting has resulted in fewer than 20 Amur
tigers alive in Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces
in Northeast China, the country's only Amur tiger habitat.

Today it is believed that only about 4000 wild
tigers still inhabit the earth, while 40 years
ago at least 4000 tigers lived in China.

"2010 is China's Year of the Tiger. Each of us
should take steps to protect tigers and refuse to
purchase any products made from tigers," said Xu
Hongfa, director of the China Project of TRAFFIC,
established in 1976 to protect the biodiversity
of wild animals. The project is run under the
auspices of the World Wide Fund for Nature(WWF)
and The International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN).

The group's research found that 44 percent of
Chinese people admit to eating wild animal meat.
The Cantonese top the list of people who enjoy
wildlife dishes, followed by residents of Kunming, Chengdu and Harbin.

The belief that eating wild animal meat can build
a strong body has spurred consumption, according to the survey.

Xu said he is worried that these culinary
traditions will continue during the Spring
Festival period. He called on all orders of
society to reduce the consumption of endangered
wild animals and boost awareness of wilderness protection.

Education needed

With a lengthy border of 21,000 kilometers
adjoining 14 countries, it is difficult for China
to control the smuggling and poaching of wild animals.

"The implementation and enforcement of protection
in China is quite low, even though they devote
really large amounts of money and resources to
it," Spike Millington, chief technical advisor of
the EU-China Biodiversity Program, told the Global Times.

More money and manpower for conservation programs is needed, Spike said.

"To improve the protection work it would be much
better if China had better reporting, more
funding and transparency in its protection programs."

Consumer demand remains strong worldwide as
wildlife has been smuggled across the borders of
neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Laos and
Myanmar, endangering wild animals beyond China's borders.

"In 2009, our customs agents handled 76 cases
involving the smuggling of rare species and
seized 100 suspects, which shows the great
progress made in recent years," said Cao, press
officer with the General Administration of
Customs of China. He refused to divulge his full
name during an interview with the Global Times.

A large number of monitor lizards, antelope
horns, pangolin and other endangered wild animals
and their by-products have been confiscated, Cao said.

Apart from a government crackdown and harsher
penalties, experts say education is the key to protecting wildlife in China.

"We have 1.3 billion people in China. If just one
in ten thousand eats wild animal meat, one in
10,000 wears real fur and one in 100,000 hang a
tiger pelt on the wall, then countless species will go extinct," Xie Yan said.

"This isn't only about environmental protection.
It's about the salvation of the human soul," said
the awards spokesperson Feng Xiaoning, the
film-maker who directed the eco-friendly movies
Purple Sunset, Super-Typhoon and The Ozone Layer Vanishes.

China Border Wildlife Conservation Award

Five Gold Award winners
1. Dong Jianchuan of Dehong Forest Public Security Bureau, Yunnan
2. Anti-smuggling Sub-bureau of Kashi Customs of Urumqi Customs, Xinjiang
3. Forest Public Security Bureau of Naqu Region, Tibet
4. Xiao Yanfeng from the No.65811 Border Army of People's Liberation Army
5. Public Security Sub-bureau of Dalaihu National
Nature Reserve of Hulun Buir Public Security Bureau

Five Silver Award winners
1. Li Guoyou from Yunnan Forest Public Security Bureau
2. The No.1 Inspection Division of Huanggang Customs of Shenzhen Customs
3. Li Huadong from Shenyang Forest Public Bureau
4. The Administration Bureau of Dalaihu National Nature Reserve, Inner Mongolia
5. Anti-smuggling Sub-bureau of Baiyun Airport Customs of Guangzhou Customs
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