Tigers Advance, Farmers Retreat in China’s Northeast

China is taking action to protect its Siberian tigers. But can it do so without endangering the livelihoods of the country’s farmers?

By Wen Xiaoxiao

JILIN, Northeast China — Tigers are costing Zheng Hailun a fortune. The 64-year-old rents acres of pastureland on China’s northeastern border to graze his cattle, but these days he can rarely use it. He keeps his cows locked up for most of the year, spending around 180,000 yuan ($25,000) on extra feed.

Zheng is not doing this to protect his animals from big cats; rather, it’s the other way around. He is one of thousands of farmers in northeastern China forced to remove their cattle from the mountains to preserve the habitats of China’s few remaining Siberian tigers.

Siberian tigers are native to Jilin province, which borders Russia and North Korea, but the species is critically endangered. Years of human encroachment has divided their hunting grounds and cut them off from tiger populations in Siberia.

The Chinese government has been stepping up conservation efforts to prevent the extinction of the felines, and in 2016 it announced plans to create a new national park — the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park — covering swathes of Jilin and neighboring Heilongjiang province.

Li Liansheng, a farmer in Jilin province, has spent decades dealing with barren soil and wild animals hungry for his crops. The greatest challenge he faces now is the creation of a new national park near his home.

Within months, officials in Zheng’s hometown of Hunchun, which is within the boundaries of the park, banned farmers from grazing cattle on local mountainsides. In 2018, they introduced further rules requiring all cattle to be kept inside cowsheds between April and October each year. Anyone found allowing their animals to graze freely would be fined 500 yuan per cow.

The ban is designed to create more grazing areas for wild red deer and Sika deer — the main prey of Siberian tigers and Amur leopards — as well as prevent herders and cattle from disturbing the cats’ natural sleeping habits. But it has provoked pushback from locals, who say the rules are having a huge impact on their livelihoods.

According to Zheng, the extra costs from keeping his animals inside swallow almost all the income he can make from selling cattle. “The main loss is from the feed,” says Zheng. “A cow eats 300 yuan of feed every month, so for 100 cattle that’s 180,000 yuan over six months.”

Zheng used to simply ride his motorcycle to the pastures every other day to check on his herd, but he now spends almost all day feeding the cows and mucking out the pen. He has quickly become the busiest person in his village, unable to pursue any side ventures to supplement his income.

Cattle rest

Cattle rest near Hunchun, Jilin province, April 26, 2019.

By the winter of 2018, the financial pressure on Hunchun’s farmers had become so great, many started selling off their animals. Zheng reduced his herd by 30, leaving around 70. He can’t bring himself to sell any more — after all, he has invested nearly 3 million yuan on cattle farming over the years.

The herders find it hard to understand why the government has suddenly restricted their industry, despite generously supporting it before. Several have released their cattle back onto the hills. According to Zheng, no one has ever been fined.

Gao Dabin, a director at the Hunchun branch of the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Parks Administration, says local officials feel helpless. “Of course this work is harmful to the interests of villagers — the problem has not been thoroughly solved,” says Gao. “It needs to be solved step by step.”

But the problems could soon become more severe. In 2018, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration released a plan to roll out further conservation methods inside the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park. It says that free grazing will eventually be restricted on 95% of the land inside the park, affecting more than 60,000 cattle.

What’s more, Gao adds, restrictions on other activities will gradually be introduced one after the other — including frog farming, gathering wild vegetables, and mining, among others — all of which will impact the local economy.

A villager burns straw in his fields in a village near Hunchun, Jilin province, April 28, 2019.

Dogs play in a field in Guandaogou Village, Jilin province, April 30, 2019.

A family poses for a photo in Guandaogou Village, Jilin province, April 30, 2019.

For the 93,000 people living inside the park, the new rules represent the latest in a series of policies threatening their traditional way of life. Bans on hunting and logging introduced in the ’90s cut off large sources of income, leading many to seek their fortunes in nearby cities or even in South Korea. Of those left behind, those in their 40s are considered young, and most do not even have a junior high school education.

Conservation researchers argue that it should be possible for the villagers and tigers to coexist inside the national park if the government creates detailed and focused policy objectives.

Jiang Guangshun, deputy director of the Feline Research Center at Northeast Forestry University, says that efforts should concentrate on allowing China’s Siberian tigers to link up with larger cat populations in Russia. “It is very important to open up the international ecological corridor,” says Jiang.

Yet government policy documents suggest no such detailed planning is yet in place. Around four-fifths of the land in Hunchun is currently included in the proposed conservation project. If these proposals are implemented, they would severely impact traditional ways of life in the region.

A tiger

A tiger on the prowl in the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park, near the border of Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces, 2017. Courtesy of China State Forestry Administration’s Feline Research Center

A number of researchers have proposed amendments to the zoning plans, reporters have learned, but it is still unclear whether these changes have been put into effect. Zhu Chunquan, China’s representative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, says the plan needs to be more detailed.

“The zoning should be specific to each village and each hill, clarifying which are habitats and ecological corridors,” says Zhu. “It shouldn’t just be a big circle.”

“Priority should be given to protecting habitats and diffusion routes that are higher quality,” says Gu Jiayin, one of Jiang’s colleagues at Northeast Forestry University. “Tigers are very smart and will not run to places with poor habitats.”

Researchers are keen to begin work on a more detailed protection plan. According to Wu Jingcai, a researcher at the Jilin Forestry Research Institute, there is still a lack of basic knowledge about how human activity impacts wildlife in China.

A faded billboard

A faded billboard advertises the national park in Hunchun, Jilin province, April 30, 2019.

The Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park Administration told reporters that its main priority remains protecting the tigers and leopards’ habitats, and that several policies are still being formulated. But the park plans to support local residents in moving toward more eco-friendly farming methods and opening family guesthouses and other tourist venues.

Jiang says that Hunchun may not be able to rely on the mountains as much as before, but cultural tourism and other activities that have less environmental impact than cattle-farming can help make up for this loss of income. His examples include beekeeping, fruit-gathering, and cultural exhibitions highlighting the region’s Korean heritage.

“It’s not easy for the community to understand the value of protecting the Siberian tiger, because that means changing their own lives,” says Fan Zhiyong, chief scientist at the World Wide Fund for Nature. “Don’t be too hard on them.”