Zhong Junde and his peers stood silent and watched them closely as the Argale Lamb wandered through the dense forest before disappearing into the forest.
Had it been 30 years ago, the animal would have faced a different fate. At that time, the 38.8 square kilometer forest area in southwest China’s Sichuan Province was a hunting ground for Zhong and other villagers, where they hunted with bows, rifles, or nooses.
In the 1980s, Xinyi Village, with more than 130 families, was known as the “Fishermen’s Village”. Life was tough in this remote mountain village, people mainly depended on agriculture, but most of the hillside land was barren.
“We lived bitter lives in the past, and hunting could help us earn a few extra dollars and, most importantly, supplement our dining tables with meat that was scarce at the time,” said Du Lin, the 59-year-old party chief. Shini, who used to be a village hunter himself.
Doe recalls one of his terrible hunting expeditions, and said that he once killed nine argales at once, setting a village record.
Villagers also cut down large trees for sale while smaller trees were cut down for firewood. The temperature in the mountain was very low in winter, and each family was burning an average of 7 tons of firewood each year, which meant that one family would deforest about 0.07 hectares of land.
“As we were hunting far in the woods and logging more trees, we could see fewer animals,” Du said.
In 1988, China enacted a wildlife conservation law in an effort to enhance wildlife protection.
But it was not easy for the villagers to bid farewell to their traditional way of life, and at first people were reluctant to change. Chung was sentenced to seven years in prison in the early 1990s for poaching.
Deforestation also peaked around this time, and nature’s revenge soon followed. In 1992, a flood hit the village once in a century, destroying many families.
The natural disaster came as a wake-up call to the locals, prompting them to stop the logging and poaching activities that were wreaking havoc on the environment.
In retrospect, Zhong, now 60, sees his capture as a fluke out of chance as it made him realize the drastic effects of wildlife hunting. “If animals have become extinct because of our hunting, how can our future generations know species like the giant panda or the argali?”
Today, the villagers have embarked on a new mission to preserve nature, after years of laying down their arms.
They have turned to other sources of livelihood such as animal husbandry, beekeeping and herbal cultivation. The village can now get electricity, and people use electric heaters instead of wood for heating.
Zhong becomes a forest ranger and leads a guard squad of 14 people. He also took up beekeeping, earning more than 20,000 yuan (about $3,140 USD) each year.
Wildlife protection efforts are in full swing in Xinyi. The rangers set up infrared cameras in the forest to keep an eye on the wildlife while keeping an eye on any poaching activities.
Thanks to conservation efforts, the forest area is regaining its natural glory. Cameras captured two giant pandas with their cubs earlier this year.
“We used to compete to hunt wild animals, but nowadays we only shoot animals with cameras,” Chung said.