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Devoted ranger not ready to hang up shoes

Nearing retirement, Li Zhaoma still heads out on patrol regularly to protect Qilian Mountains nature reserve

By Ma Jingna in Lanzhou and Peng Chao | China Daily | Updated: 2024-06-17 09:24

Li Zhaoma walks on one of his regular patrol routes at the Qilian Mountains National Nature Reserve in Gansu province. JIAO FANGNING/FOR CHINA DAILY

Over the past 33 years, Li Zhaoma has worn out countless rubber shoes patrolling the forest around the Gucheng nature protection station.

The 59-year-old is a forest ranger at the station in the Qilian Mountains National Nature Reserve, an important ecological safety barrier straddling the provinces of Gansu and Qinghai in Northwest China.

With less than one month to go before his retirement, Li has been seizing every opportunity to patrol the forest with other rangers, even though he has been assigned a logistics management position by the station's leadership for his convenience.

Li became a forest ranger at age 27, three years after retiring from the military, at a State-owned forest farm that later became part of the Qilian Mountains National Nature Reserve.

"I remember when I first arrived, there were seven forest ranger stations at the farm, each with two or three rangers," he recalled. "But sometimes, when my colleagues needed to exchange shifts or asked for leave, I would end up being the only one on duty at the station."

In the deep mountains where human presence is rare, Li was accompanied only by the rustling sound of the wind blowing through the woods all night. "The conditions at the forest ranger stations used to be extremely harsh," said Sun Guoping, director of the Gucheng station. "A mud-brick house served as both the dormitory, kitchen and office, not to mention the high mountains, strong winds, humidity and inconvenient transportation we endured."

He said few newcomers could handle the loneliness, and many of them would quit in less than six months, but Li stayed.

As a forest ranger, Li's duties include preventing forest fires, stopping illegal logging and hunting, conducting ecological resource surveys, and ensuring pest control and ecological conservation.

He spent approximately 200 days a year patrolling the forest, unwilling to miss a day unless there was heavy rain or snow.

"In the winter, I patrolled for at least six hours a day, while in the summer, I worked for at least eight hours a day. On average, I walked over 15 kilometers each day," he said.

Although his position may not seem very important, Li believes it comes with great responsibility. He knows exactly where forest fires are prone to occur, which part of the forest is susceptible to pests and diseases and where the outsiders are likely to trespass. His knowledge and experience have earned him the nickname "the living map" among the younger rangers.

In the past 33 years, not a single forest fire has occurred in the area he protects.

One day during the winter, as snowflakes fell outside the station, Li, who was on duty alone, received a radio call from the farm office. "Someone is illegally logging trees!"

At that moment, it was impossible for him to call for immediate backup, due to the long distance between stations and the lack of advanced communication devices. Nevertheless, Li quickly put on his rubber shoes and ran all the way to the logging area, where he confronted two axe-wielding illegal loggers.

After several unsuccessful attempts to persuade the burly loggers to stop, Li, drawing on his experience as a soldier, rushed forward and subdued them bare-handed.

When forest police officers arrived at the scene, they expressed their concerns about Li and warned him that his actions had been too reckless.

"It is my duty to safeguard the forest. As long as I am here, not a single seedling shall be harmed," he said.

Thanks to the efforts of the forest rangers, the ecological environment in the reserve has seen notable improvement, resulting in a thriving population of wildlife. "During our patrols, we frequently encounter rare and endangered wild animal species such as alpine musk deer, elk, blue sheep, blue-eared pheasants, Tibetan snowcocks, white-eared pheasants and vultures — especially the elk and blue-eared pheasants, they are like old friends to us," he said.

The nature of forest rangers' work makes it difficult for them to take good care of their families. While regarded as a dependable man by his colleagues, Li's wife once thought of him as an irresponsible husband, and his daughter viewed him as an unqualified father.

But Li said his family developed a newfound respect for him after his daughter discovered something about his past. While cleaning his room one day, she found an old wooden box hidden under the bed. Driven by curiosity, she opened the box and discovered rows of military medals and certificates of honor that she had never known about.

"Dad, why have you never told me the stories behind these things in your box?" she said during a phone call with him, her eyes tearing up.

"Defending the country as a soldier and protecting the forests as a ranger are just ordinary jobs. There is nothing to brag about," Li replied.

Years of patrolling in the damp, chilly forest led Li to develop rheumatoid arthritis, and an old war injury has resurfaced, causing him to walk with a slight limp. "Guarding this forest for half my life has been worth it," Li said, as he gazed out at the snowy mountains in the distance embraced by the dense forest.

Jiao Fangning contributed to this story.

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