Guardian of birds

Updated: 2013-03-14 07:44

By Liu Xiangrui (China Daily)

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Guardian of birds

Zhang Houyi patrols the lake with his old-fashioned rifle, which he once used for hunting birds. Below: Zhang rows a boat on Dongting Lake, on his mission to prevent wild birds from being poached and trapped. Photos by Tong Di / China Photo Press

Guardian of birds


A farmer has been protecting migratory birds around Dongting Lake for almost 30 years. He tells Liu Xiangrui he is atoning for his misdeeds, having killed thousands of birds when he was a young man.

Zhang Houyi has taken it upon himself to protect migratory birds around Dongting Lake in Yueyang, Hunan province, for the last 27 years.

Often seen in his tall boots and an axe in hand, the farmer patrols the banks of the lake almost daily, rain or shine. Sometimes the 73-year-old has to wade through thick reed fields to cut the nets used to trap the birds.

"Birds are friends of human beings, and this is the only way I can atone for the wrongs I've done when I was young," says Zhang with a smile that further accentuates the wrinkles on his face.

His strong stand against bird hunting and poaching has made the devoted guardian of birds well-known in the lake area. It is hard to imagine him as a celebrated bird hunting champion in the past.

He learned hunting skills from his father at 16, using a previously popular black-powder rifle, which was primitive and dangerous. Zhang used to hunt birds whenever he was free from farm work and even earned the nickname "marksman" from the locals.

Zhang admits that then, he enjoyed shooting birds and it was his natural instinct to aim his rifle at the fowls whenever he spotted them.

He was so good a shooter that he was invited to work for a State-owned farm and later even head its hunting team in 1967.

Zhang was paid 29.3 yuan ($4.67) a month, a considerably good salary compared with farming. He shot 700 birds on average weekly.

More than 250 migratory species stop by the Dongting Lake region annually, including at least 16 globally threatened species. Most of the birds the employees hunted were wild geese or ducks, mainly for their feathers, which can be used as clothing material.

"The farm director told me that, 'You shoot well and we have plenty of birds here, please hunt as many as you can'," Zhang recalls. Short of hunting tools, the farm made dozens of new rifles for the staff.

Representing his farm, Zhang won first place for two consecutive years in shooting competitions among big farms from all over the country.

Zhang's shooting career reached its peak in December 1979, when he killed about 9,000 birds, weighing 3,000 kilograms, after lurking for two days.

It took three trucks to transport the carcasses, recounts Zhang.

Guardian of birds

But, instead of feeling proud about his "success", Zhang had an epiphany when he saw the piles of dead birds, all somewhat mutilated and bloody.

"It was a terrible scene. Suddenly I felt sorry for the birds," Zhang continues. "They didn't do anything wrong. They did not eat my crops. Why did I kill so many of them?"

He decided to give up hunting and took a step further - he started persuading others not to shoot birds.

When the East Dongting Lake Natural Reserve was founded in the 1980s, Zhang was invited to be an assistant warden for wild birds and was given the responsibility of preventing wild birds from being poached and trapped.

"I don't want to be paid. I'd worked for my conscience and regard it as paying back my debt to the birds," explains Zhang, who now depends on a monthly retirement allowance of 1,100 yuan.

Zhang is especially busy during migratory seasons of spring and winter. He has to frequently check the lake area to ensure the birds' safety.

"I know where they are likely to show up in large population and will pay more attention to the area," Zhang explains, adding his years of experience as a hunter have helped him know the birds' habits.

Still, guarding against poachers and fowlers is a difficult job, especially when he has to look after such a big area alone.

Chatty and amiable, Zhang becomes very serious and strict when it comes to birds' protection, according to his family and neighbors.

Zhang recalls making his rounds along the lakeside one day when he spotted a young man poisoning wild birds. Angry, he reprimanded the man, who pushed Zhang into the water before running off.

Although he was later pulled out of the cold water by passers by, Zhang contracted lung disease and was confined to bed for weeks after the incident.

Zhang says he is fortunate to have the support of his family, who often help him dissuade others from hunting birds.

His wife Li Hairong says: "He's retired and regards protecting birds as his only responsibility, and we'll let him do the work as long as he is healthy." According to Li, Zhang looks for bird traps wherever he goes.

"If he spots any, he will certainly revisit the place to wait for the poachers," Li says, adding that there have been poachers who have tried to bribe Zhang with money but failed.

Zhang has also managed to reduce a local practice of hunting birds shortly after the Spring Festival holidays. He has been visiting his neighbors to extend Lunar New Year greetings and taking the chance to explain to them about bird protection laws and requesting them to report if they know of any poaching cases.

Guardian of birds

Zhang's long commitment toward the meaningful cause has been recognized and he has been awarded a series of honors. He was named one of the annual "Public Law Figures" by the National Office for Law Promotion, the Ministry of Justice and China Central Television in December 2012.

But what pleases him the most these days is having a "disciple". Xu Guorong, a bird lover in his 40s, has joined Zhang as a voluntary bird protector.

"He's getting old and it's not so convenient for him to travel alone. So I've become his companion," says Xu, who lives not far from Zhang.

"He often jokes that he will still make his rounds even if it rains knives," adds Xu, who is impressed by Zhang's dedication.

Despite having someone who shares his passion, Zhang says he's not about to retire.

"I won't stop my work as long as I have enough strength to walk," he says.

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(China Daily 03/14/2013 page20)