By Xinhua Writer Luan Xiang
BEIJING, Feb. 2 (Xinhua) -- Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, which is busy decorating their houses with couplets of rhymed wishes for the upcoming Spring Festival, at 11 p.m. Friday, Song Keming, a mild man with a strong build and pleasant features, put on his coat and began his inspection along the vast and extensive wetlands along the Yellow River.
This is his plan for Chinese New Year's Eve, as it has been for every day and night for the past 20 years.
Enduring temperature below the freezing point, Song tries to curb his coughs caused by chronic bronchitis as he and others patrol along the wetland. It is the winter habitat for tens of thousands of migratory birds, including Asian great bustard (Otis tarda dybowskii, "dabao" in Chinese), a critically endangered species that has been spending winters here for thousands of years.
There are only about 800 specimens of the great bustard's Asian subspecies left in China, from where it gets the nickname "the giant panda of the birds." With striped plumage and known to be the heaviest flying terrestrial bird, the Asian subspecies migrates over 10,000 kilometers across Eurasia every year, which is one of the longest migration ranges of any threatened species.
For 20 years, Song has been guarding Changyuan wetland reserve bordering Shandong and Henan provinces in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. The wetlands have been an important wintering home for the bustard and many other wildlife species that form the rich biosphere of the "Mother River of China."
During the day, Song and other members of the "Green Future" environmental protection association - a non-profit volunteer team founded and led by Song Keming - search along hundreds of miles along the riverbanks to remove poisoned bait placed by poachers and to rescue any surviving wildlife from threats such as deadly toxins, nets or gunshots or properly dispose of dead bodies.
At night, from 11 p.m. till dawn, the volunteers drive along the wetland that stretches 3,000 kilometers from Shaanxi, Hebei, Henan to Shandong provinces, to fend off poachers, who usually come with hunting rifles and hounds, with the help of local public security organs.
Song has been hit by poachers' vehicles, shot by their rifles and beaten with bricks and fists, but none of these had frightened him enough to cause him to step away from the battlefield.
Every autumn and winter, as migratory birds return from the northern Mongolian Plateau or the Siberian Arctic tundra, poaching happens more often, especially around the Spring Festival holidays. While criminals continue to break the law in an effort to make a fortune, Song and his team are actively trying to make it more and more impossible for these poachers to succeed.
Last year, the "Green Future" team caught four suspected poachers and helped the local police open three criminal cases. The volunteers scattered a dozen poachers from the reserve, including some well-equipped poaching gang members.
In recent years, more and more like-minded local residents have gathered around Song. Now the team has more than 300 volunteers. More and more people, as well as public departments, have been joining the cause to fight hard against poaching.
To Song's joy, Chinese society is growing in awareness of the importance of species and habitat protection, while those who choose to eat wildlife to show off their wealth have become a rare minority.
Song was delighted to find that China's building of an ecological civilization as a national strategy and the protection of species have been obtaining positive results.
This winter, a record number of migratory birds flew back to the Changyuan Wetland Reserve, including grey cranes, taiga bean geese, greylags, etc.
"About 180 great bustards have been observed wintering at the reserve, and by spring when they are about to head north, we expect the total number to be around 200," Song confirmed with Xinhua reporter over the phone on Saturday.
The nicknamed "Bustard Guardian" firmly believes that as long as the Yellow River wetlands are attentively protected to preserve the wintering home for the migratory birds, where wildlife can stay safe from poaching and disturbances and live in peace, the vigorous biodiversity of the mother river will recover.
And the great bustards, a symbol of the king's diligent peasants recorded as early as in the Book of Songs (1100 to 600 B.C.), can continue to coexist harmoniously with the Chinese nation, Song said.
In order to honor the man's tireless efforts in protecting the wetlands, Song Keming was named "the most beautiful environmentalist in Henan," winning the "Green Guardian" award of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment and the "Green Monument" award of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.
The work of Green Future has received wide acclaim and support from the country and was highly commended by international experts and scholars at the International Conference on Promoting the Protection of Asian Great Bustard held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in 2017.
However, Song could not let himself rest on the laurels. He told the reporters that there is still a long way to go to protect the great bustard and the Yellow River wetlands. The situation is still urgent and we should not be blindly optimistic, he warned.
The International Committee for the Protection of Birds has included great bustard in the Red Book of Endangered Species. "There are only about 800 left in China. Each one of them that we are losing to poaching is a loss too heavy for the survival of the species!" he said.
The man who humbly refers himself as "just a peasant who doesn't know how to make great speeches" is determined to continue protecting the wetlands and its biodiversity until he can no longer move.
In the future, Song hopes to help the local villages develop eco-tourism that will not cause harm and disturbance to the wildlife in a way that village folks can benefit from species conservation and ecological restoration. For example, helping poachers become tour guides to show the visitors where to view the most breathtaking landscape or how to identify the most beautiful birds or operate homestays and hostels - anyway that they can make money legitimately, Song suggested.
If wildlife and the health of the wetlands became the attraction for eco-tourism, the local population will voluntarily protect the environment, as proven in precedents worldwide, he said.
"I hope that every ordinary person can start from himself, refuse to eat wildlife, refuse to wear fur, refuse to use drugs containing wild animal components and actively report any suspicious sales of wildlife products to the forest police," Song said, telling Xinhua that he wishes everyone a happy Chinese New Year.
"Everyone can make his/her share of contribution to protecting endangered species," Song said.
As for himself, the 54-year-old "bustard guardian" is willing to believe that with the concerted efforts of the entire Chinese society, the future is promising for China's building of an ecological civilization and the biodiversity conservation and for the Asian great bustard to survive and thrive.
"I look forward to witnessing the Mother River of the Chinese nation regain its vitality as people and nature develop in perfect harmony," Song said.