Ruthless hunter turns tiger protector

Ruthless hunter turns tiger protector

In the northern mountains bordering Russia, everyone knew the spry Chinese man as a skilled and ruthless hunter -- the kind who once killed a mother black bear as her cubs looked on. But instead of stalking the woods for prey, Liang Fengen now roams the hills without a rifle, working as a ranger to save the area’s endangered Siberian tiger population and protect other wildlife.

“When I think about what I used to do, it seems so cruel,” said 61-year-old Liang, who lives in a small house at the foot of the mountains in northeast Heilongjiang province.

Liang’s conversion is the result of efforts by nonprofits like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Wildlife Conservation Society, which are harnessing the knowledge of local poachers to rescue Siberian (also known as Amur) tigers from extinction. At the crack of dawn every morning, the expert tracker patrols the forested area by foot in search of data for conservation research: a tiger print here, some wild boar faeces there. The plight of the world’s largest cats is reflected in red banners along the trails leading to the dense woods which proclaim: “Siberian tigers are mankind’s friends.”

While Liang has never seen a Siberian tiger -- his targets were wild boars and black bears -- he says he was indifferent to their plight, and even more so to how his own hunting contributed to the depletion of their food sources. “I thought of animals as a prize to be captured,” Liang said, “until I slowly had a change of heart.”

The ranger collects Siberian tiger waste samples for DNA population tracking and uses a GPS device to transmit the coordinates of paw prints and deer carcasses -- evidence of paths the tigers have travelled. It is all familiar terrain for Liang, who traversed the mountains as a precocious kid killing for sport and survival.

Even while food shortages plagued the country during Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule, Liang’s family always had enough to eat because he and his father would bring home wild boars. “It’s known around the country that Liang was ever the practiced poacher,” said Jin Yongchao, an officer in WWF’s northeast China office. “He has influenced many others.”

Liang said, “as long as my body allows and as long as the forestry bureau needs me, I will continue to protect the tigers with my whole heart and soul.”

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