A forest guardian's Spring Festival vigil in the cold front
By Zhang Shasha  ·  2024-02-23  ·   Source: NO.9 FEBRUARY 29, 2024


Cui Jianwei on his way to the forestry station in Tahe, Heilongjiang Province on February 13 (ZHANG SHASHA) 

Beneath February skies, the Greater Khingan mountain range wears a cloak of white, with its vast forests becoming an expanse of wintry solitude. Located at China’s northern extremity, the range extends through the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Heilongjiang Province, occupying a place of pride as one of the coldest areas in the nation. Its dense forests serve as China’s ecological shield, a sanctuary and a treasure trove of biodiversity. 

Early morning, Cui Jianwei sets out into the forest to begin his duties. Cui is a forest ranger at the Talin Forestry Station, run by the Forestry Bureau of Tahe, Heilongjiang Province. In winter, his primary responsibilities are thwarting illegal logging and poaching activities. He patrols the woods, checking the conditions of decaying and fallen trees for pest and tree diseases control, while also dismantling traps set to capture local wildlife.  

“I’m the section chief of these woods,” Cui told Beijing Review, proudly pointing over his “jurisdiction.” The Tahe Forestry Bureau oversees a vast area of 920,000 hectares, of which Cui is responsible for 3,710 hectares. He knows the flora, fauna, and terrain of his jurisdiction like the back of his hand.  

From mid-March after the snow has melted and the ground becomes dry to early November, in addition to policing illegal poaching and logging, forest rangers shoulder an even more vital task, wildfire prevention. 

Rangers are stationed at checkpoints, which are manned 24 hours a day, year-round, even during holidays. For Cui and the other approximately 70 rangers at the station, working during Spring Festival, or the Chinese New Year, has become routine. 

Cui was on duty on New Year’s Eve, on February 9 this year, excluding him from participating in the traditional family reunion dinner. For Cui, the lively Spring Festival celebrations going on outside made the silence of the forest even more striking. 

Cui told Beijing Review the silence doesn’t bother him as he has grown accustomed to it. He said, for rangers, enduring solitude is a necessity. The size of the forest, the distance from urban centers and the lack of cellular signal make contact with the outside world a rarity. Communication between rangers is primarily through walkie-talkies, and Cui admitted to occasionally using them for casual chats to break the monotony.   

However, on New Year’s Eve, not being able to video call his son and daughter in law  did leave a bit of regret amid the acceptance of his solitary vigil.  

The rigors of nature 

Solitude is only one of the challenges facing forest rangers. In spring, insects start to become active in the forest. In the Greater Khingan mountain range, ticks are known as the forest’s top killer, feared even by fierce beasts. A tick bite can lead to mild symptoms such as dizziness and fatigue, or in severe cases, muscle paralysis and even death due to respiratory failure.  

“In places within the forest where grass grows, merely walking 50 meters can result in finding 50-60 ticks clinging to your trousers,” Cui said. To avoid insect bites, rangers must secure their patrol uniforms tightly and exercise extreme caution when removing them, ensuring that insects on both the inside and outside of the clothing are thoroughly removed. Despite these precautions, there were still instances where some insects slipped through. Cui mentioned that sometimes he even accidentally brought ticks home. 

The rangers receive annual vaccinations against tick-borne illness; however, some still experience long-term effects from bites. Cui recalled a case where a driver, who was responsible for transporting workers into the mountains, developed a persistent numb sensation after being bitten.

Aside from ticks, other wildlife, such as black bears and wild boars, also pose a threat to rangers, Cui said. 

Health risks also come from other aspects of the natural environment. In summer and autumn, the Greater Khingan mountain range is battered by strong winds and intense ultraviolet rays. The rangers, who spend extended periods outdoors, inevitably suffer from sunburn and sun-damaged skin. The reddened marks of sun exposure on Cui’s face have become a permanent part of his appearance. 

Winter also presents a formidable challenge for forest rangers, as outdoor temperatures in Tahe can plummet to below -40°C, with -30°C being the norm. Temperatures within the mountain forest are known to be even colder.  

Rangers spend their entire day in the mountains, taking their meals with them. Cui said despite using insulated lunch boxes, their meals are often cold by the time they eat them.  

These are some of the reasons young people are reluctant to pursue this profession today, Cui said. 


Cui Jianwei on patrol in Tahe County, Heilongjiang Province, on February 13 (ZHANG SHASHA) 

The beauty of the forests 

In addition to many challenges, the rangers are in the best position to enjoy the beauty brought by every unfolding season.  

While appreciating the beauty of the forests, rangers also shoulder the responsibility to safeguard their beauty.  

The 53-year-old Cui has been working as a forest ranger for 30 years and has witnessed the transformation of the Greater Khingan mountain range into a greener and more vibrant ecosystem. 

In 1987, catastrophic forest fires erupted in the forestry plantations of Mohe and Tahe counties in Heilongjiang Province, resulting in the loss of 1.01 million hectares of forest and the lives of 211 people. 

The song Mohe Ballroom, which has gained traction on social media in recent years, drew its inspiration from the tragic forest fires of that era. It narrates the poignant tale of an elderly man who lost his wife, a passionate dancer, to the flames. In the aftermath, he remains unmarried, living in remembrance of his wife and symbolically continues to dance alone in a dance hall in Mohe.  

While the fire did not directly affect his area of responsibility, the dense smoke that swept over it left a kind of anguish that those connected to the forest have not managed to erase.  

“The fire has greatly enhanced the awareness of fire prevention among both authorities and residents,” Cui said. 

Since then, authorities have implemented many measures to prevent fires. These include prohibiting the carrying of fire into the mountains, banning smoking in the wilderness, requiring a fire prevention permit to enter the forest during the fire prevention period, forbidding all outdoor activities on windy days, enforcing a responsibility system, and establishing professional firefighting teams. 

During Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, a traditional Chinese festival that usually falls in early April, people visit graves, often located in secluded rural, mountainous or forested areas, to give offerings to honor their ancestors. Since 1987, burning offerings such as spirit money and incense has been prohibited. During the festival, forestry workers, along with the county and regional fire prevention offices, head to the mountains to enforce the ban. 

“Over the years, the forests have only become better and more beautiful, and the number of wildlife species is also increasing,” Cui said.  

Born on the mountain range, Cui has loved the flora and fauna of the forest since he was a child. Now, in spring, the woods are filled with wild vegetables; in summer, there are many kinds of fruit. Wildlife including roe deer, pheasants, and wild boar can be seen, and even wolves and wolverines, which were rarely spotted before, have begun to make appearances. Infrared cameras installed by the local forestry bureau have captured these animals, he said. 

Throughout the year, the forest displays a different color in each season, enticing Cui into its depths even when he is not working.  

He said that exploring and preserving the forests’ beauty are the motivations behind his decades of service in forest conservation for the nation and the source of his professional pride. 

(Print Edition: The Green Pledge)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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