The Chinese judge keeping a watchful eye on wildlife

As China cracks down on the illegal wildlife trade, Yang Jie continues with his solo mission

XINHUA – As the sun begins to peek over the horizon, 33-year-old Yang Jie braces against the wind and reaches the top of a mountain. He quickly snaps a photo as a sparrowhawk flies over his head.

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“Sparrowhawks mainly live in forests and prey on small birds,” says Yang, a judge of the People’s Court of Changping district, Beijing, who has been observing and protecting the city’s wildlife for the past eight years.

Born on the grasslands of neighbouring Hebei province, Yang has had a special affection for wild animals since childhood.

“My dad always took home injured animals such as wild ducks. Sometimes they died despite our treatment.  I cried and dug holes to bury them,” Yang says.

Yang mainly handles commercial court cases. In his spare time, he enjoys climbing. His birding journey started in 2012 when he met a birdwatcher from Friends of Nature, an environmental non-governmental organisation, on a mountain. He decided to join them in their quest for wildlife protection

Every weekend since then, Yang treks into the mountains, recording the species and number of migratory birds. Accumulating knowledge, he has turned himself into a bird specialist.

“I regard birdwatching as a wonderful hobby. It can build up my body and mind. Also, it can help protect wild animals. The only downside is that the mountaineering equipment and camera are quite expensive,” he says.

As he experienced more contact with the region’s wild animals, Yang began to focus on cracking down on wildlife poaching. Out of commercial interest or curiosity, poachers strategically place snares and traps in mountains and around reservoirs.

“The only thing some people know about wild animals is how to cook them,” Yang says.

Once, he found a raccoon dog caught in a trap. The poacher who was a resident of a nearby village appeared when Yang tried to release the animal and the ensuing standoff between the pair drew a crowd of curious onlookers from the village. With no understanding of the fact that hunting wildlife is illegal, they immediately pointed the finger at Yang.  Luckily, the head of the villagers’ committee recognised Yang because he had handled a recent case for the village, and dispersed the group. The forest police arrived at the site, taking away the poacher and subsequently discovering frozen boars and pheasants in his freezer.

In another case, Yang found a pair of eagle owls. The birds – a species under state protection – had failed to breed successfully every year because a villager from Yang’s hometown kept stealing their eggs to eat.

Yang visited the villager, befriended him and explained the concept of wildlife protection to him. Finally, the man gave up eating wild animals. “He even takes photos of the eagle owls and sends them to me every week now,” Yang smiles.

Under his influence, more people, including his colleagues, have shown interest in wildlife protection. “They encourage me and many of my colleagues also join me to climb up the mountain for birdwatching now,’’ he says.

In recent weeks, China’s top legislature decided to ban illegal wildlife trade and eliminate the bad habit of eating the animals. Local governments in Fujian, Guangdong and Tianjin have also introduced regulations banning such behaviours. Shenzhen has gone even further to issue a “White List” of only a dozen edible animals, expanding the ban to other non-protected animals.

“The news heartened those engaged in wildlife conservation,” Yang says. “I only hope more people do their best to protect wild animals and live in harmony with them.”

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