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Guardian of birds

By Liu Xiangrui (China Daily)

08:54, March 15, 2013

Zhang rows a boat on Dongting Lake, on his mission to prevent wild birds from being poached and trapped. (China Photo Press/Tong Di)

A farmer has been protecting migratory birds around Dongting Lake for almost 30 years. He tells Liu Xiangrui he is atoning for his misdeeds, having killed thousands of birds when he was a young man.

Zhang Houyi has taken it upon himself to protect migratory birds around Dongting Lake in Yueyang, Hunan province, for the last 27 years.

Often seen in his tall boots and an axe in hand, the farmer patrols the banks of the lake almost daily, rain or shine. Sometimes the 73-year-old has to wade through thick reed fields to cut the nets used to trap the birds.

"Birds are friends of human beings, and this is the only way I can atone for the wrongs I've done when I was young," says Zhang with a smile that further accentuates the wrinkles on his face.

His strong stand against bird hunting and poaching has made the devoted guardian of birds well-known in the lake area. It is hard to imagine him as a celebrated bird hunting champion in the past.

He learned hunting skills from his father at 16, using a previously popular black-powder rifle, which was primitive and dangerous. Zhang used to hunt birds whenever he was free from farm work and even earned the nickname "marksman" from the locals.

Zhang admits that then, he enjoyed shooting birds and it was his natural instinct to aim his rifle at the fowls whenever he spotted them.

He was so good a shooter that he was invited to work for a State-owned farm and later even head its hunting team in 1967.

Zhang was paid 29.3 yuan ($4.67) a month, a considerably good salary compared with farming. He shot 700 birds on average weekly.

More than 250 migratory species stop by the Dongting Lake region annually, including at least 16 globally threatened species. Most of the birds the employees hunted were wild geese or ducks, mainly for their feathers, which can be used as clothing material.

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