Feng Limin peered through the thick underbrush of Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve’s tropical forest. The camera trap was still there, strapped to a tree above a faint track visible only to his trained eye. After local villagers stole most of his cameras the first year he started surveying the reserve, Feng became more careful about where he placed the equipment.
Feng came to this lush forest in the Shangyong region of the park, along the Chinese-Laotian border, to study animals that served as tiger prey. He and his colleagues at Beijing Normal University wanted to find out if the reserve might be able to support reintroduction of the Indochinese tigers (Panthera tigris corbetti), a unique population of the tiger that used to roam these mountains, but which hadn’t been seen in China in over 40 years.
After scanning the trail for tracks, Feng collected the film, reset the trap and headed back to the main path. Back in town, he developed the film to see what he’d caught. He was looking for Sambar deer (Cervus unicolor), the tiger’s favorite food. Many animals use the same forest tracks, so he was pleased – but not surprised – to have a photo of not only a Sambar deer, but also of the local porcupine species.
Other cameras had also captured threatened clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa), Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and mouse deer (Tragulus spp.).
He flipped through the photos, and stared in amazement at one image. It was an Indochinese tiger! Shangyong not only protected tiger prey – it also had a tiger.
When he documented the first Indochinese tiger in the wild in China in 2007, Feng Limin was only 27. He hadn’t planned on becoming a conservationist. At university, he had first wanted to study microbiology. When he didn't pass the rigorous graduate entrance exam, he chose wildlife biology instead.
His professor sent him to the wilds of Yunnan Province to survey Asian elephants, and there in the forest surrounded by colorful birds, the Beijing native fell in love with nature.
“While walking through the forest looking for elephants,” says Feng, “I realized that if I didn’t learn about nature, my job would be very boring! So I started learning about the birds and the forest – the wildlife there is so beautiful.”
While surveying elephants, Feng actually found a tiger footprint and photographed it, but didn’t know what it was. Since the nearby Laos forest still held tigers, one of his mentors, Aster Zhang Li, Senior Species Program Officer with CI-China, sent him to Thailand to learn tiger survey techniques.
Now one of China’s few tiger experts, Feng has since documented hundreds of tiger tracks in the region.
This year Feng Limin won the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) Future Conservationist Award, giving him a chance to lead his first non-university-funded conservation project.
With the award’s $12,500 prize, he and his team members plan to survey other sections of the park and assess the possibility of establishing a conservation corridor to link healthy tiger habitats within the reserve.
IN PHOTOS: Feng Limin: Tiger Conservationist
The reserve’s many threatened animals and plants face numerous problems. The region is the main area in China suitable for rubber production, and the rapid expansion of rubber plantations is carving away the forest even within park boundaries. Poachers hunt Sambar deer and other animals for sale in the wildlife trade. Although the forest is legally protected, few rangers are on hand for enforcement.
Killing a tiger is a serious offense in China, but killing a Sambar deer usually only results in a reprimand or a small fine – if the hunter is even caught. Without deer, there will be no tigers. “To protect tigers is not just to protect tigers…you have to protect his prey and his whole habitat,” says Feng.
Protecting wildlife and their habitat is not just good for animals; it’s also good for people. The Xishuangbanna mountain forests that harbor tigers also supply clean water, traditional medicine and food to local communities.
Farmers depend on the rainfall patterns regulated by healthy forests for crop production. Predators like tigers help maintain nature’s balance. Perched at the top of the food chain, healthy tiger populations are usually a sign of vibrant forests teeming with life.
For Feng Limin, the CLP award also provides an opportunity for training and networking with conservationists from around the world. Feng understands that even his research is not enough to protect tigers. He will also need to work with local communities, the government and reserve staff to improve tiger habitat and protection.
Feng dreams of healthy forests in Yunnan and throughout China, full of wildlife like tigers and elephants. He is anxious about the future. “Every day I worry that hunters will kill my tigers,” he explains. “My hope is that one day we will have a trans-border conservation reserve so that we can connect tiger populations and habitat in Laos and China.”
In China and throughout the world, tigers are a symbol of strength, inspiring awe at the power and majesty of nature. After following their tracks for years, Feng fervently hopes he will one day see the real thing – a live tiger in the wild.
“There is nothing as exciting as a tiger,” he exclaims.
SPECIES PROFILE: Tigers are Endangered
The Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) is a partnership of five organizations – BirdLife International, Conservation International, Fauna & Flora International, the Wildlife Conservation Society and BP – working to develop the potential of future biodiversity conservation leaders by providing a range of awards, training, advice and sustained support via an active international network of practitioners. Learn more about the Conservation Leadership Programme.