The Longbao Shoal National Nature Reserve is in Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai Province in northwestern China, 4,200 meters above sea level. It is one of the highest alpine wetlands on the planet and home to black-necked cranes. Its summers are short, but just long enough for the birds to lay eggs and hatch them before migrating elsewhere for winter.
For three decades, Phurbu has been taking care of these black-necked cranes in the wetlands of Longbao.
Birds of a Feather
A native of Chindu County, Yushu Prefecture, Phurbu left his hometown when he was 16 to attend junior high school in Xining, the provincial seat, where he concentrated on physical education. After graduation, he gave up an opportunity to join the provincial art troupe because his family wanted him to accept an offer from a local government department in charge of agriculture and animal husbandry near his hometown. He volunteered to take care of the black-necked cranes in the nature reserve two years later due the lack of help there. “I was born to befriend birds,” he grins. “I am so lucky to have so many opportunities to watch them and take photos. And if I contribute to their protection, that’s even better.”
Life was tough there, with only a single row of tile-roofed houses without electricity or running water. Phurbu was proud to accept the challenge and join the first group of crane guards alongside other local Tibetans. He didn’t regret enduring the hardships caused by strong ultraviolet rays, big temperature fluctuations and harsh living conditions. With hardly any vegetables to eat, he still survives on fried noodles, butter tea and dried yak meat; and he saves potatoes for special occasions. His patrol is so demanding that for several months at a time, he barely finds a chance to return home to change clothes.
“All I want to do after patrolling the lake is to eat something warm and get to bed,” Phurbu explains. He does miss home and laments, “I feel guilty about spending so little time with my family: I’ve hardly ever embraced my son and have no idea how he was raised.”
He has worn out two motorcycles shuttling between work and home. The single trip across the bumpy mountain roads takes three hours. “I receive very low subsidies for gas and food.”
“How have you lived like this for nearly 30 years?”
“People say I am one of the birds,” Phurbu mutters before lighting a cigarette and staring off into the distance.
Sleeping among the Cranes
The nature reserve spans 100 square kilometers of permafrost. In summer, sedge communities pop up, providing the cranes with their favorite foods such as Kobresia littledalei, Pedicularis verticillata, and Dicotyledoneae on the lakeside as well as mare’s-tail and Catabrosa aquatica in the water. The period from mid-May to early July is the breeding season for these migrant birds, during which time they are often threatened by predators such as snow leopards, wolves, and foxes. This is the period when they need the most protection.
Phurbu and his colleague pitch a tent on a small islet, about a kilometer south of his station, and sleep right next to the birds. Every evening, they spend an hour crossing the lake with the tent and quilts on their heads to reach the islet where they stay at night.
The wide difference in temperature between day and night makes the mission even more difficult: When night falls and the temperature drops below freezing, they fear flash hail storms. Mosquito bites are inevitable. It is extremely quiet at night except for the calls of bar-headed geese and black-necked cranes. Highly-experienced Phurbu can identify attackers by hearing the cries, whether man or red fox. “When a poacher attacks, bar-headed geese jitter collectively and black-necked cranes yell loud and clear continuously,” Phurbu explains.
Phurbu confronts anyone who attempts to steal eggs, and most end up leaving them.
He can’t count how many times his feet have been injured because he stood in peat all summer, and he now has severe arthritis. Two years ago, fortunately, the World Wild Fund for Nature financed the installation of cameras in the peat so he doesn’t have to patrol at night.
Splendor of Life
The Longbao National Shoal Nature Re-serve was established in 1986, at which time the black-necked crane population tallied 22. The latest survey shows that the number has hit 216, accounting for a fourth of the world’s total. Today, Longbao Shoal has been included in a project to protect the ecological environment in conservation areas of the source regions of the three rivers (Yangtze, Yellow, and Lancang). This is good news for the protection of the endangered black-necked cranes.
Phurbu and his colleague wake up at 7:00 a.m. every day to patrol by car around the lake, have lunch with a herder, drink a cup of butter tea and continue their journey around a larger circle, counting the birds at seven protection zones. He returns to his dwelling in the protection station around 8:00 p.m. He then takes notes on the whole day’s trip, analyzes the location of the birds, drinks some barley wine with dried beef and goes to bed.
After nearly 30 years of dedication, Phurbu is now deputy director of the nature reserve, which has further raised his standing with neighboring herders, most of whom still don’t understand his motivation to contribute so much. They think of the animals as just a few birds and eggs.
Things are quite different for Phurbu: Guarding this tract of land has become part of his life. Some have pushed him towards retirement, but he doesn’t want to give up the 100-square-kilometer wetland and his hopes for it. His life would seem empty without the sounds of black-necked cranes in breeding season.