Guardian of the forest

Updated: 2012-08-15 08:13

By Liu Xiangrui in Guiyang (China Daily)

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It's been a decades-long habit of 85-year-old Bao Shouguo to grab a stick and a knife and head for the hills every morning.

As a forest ranger since 1995, the villager in rural Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province, walks an average of about 20 km, alone, in the forest each day, all year round.

Guardian of the forest

Bao Shouguo, 85, guards his village's forest every day. Wang Jing / China Daily

"I have watched the trees grow from saplings. They are like my children," explains Bao, who walks with a firm step and talks energetically despite his age.

Bao has a special affection for the trees he guards because they represent the painstaking work he and his fellow villagers made decades ago.

Bao had been a village head for more than 30 years after returning home following seven years of military service. To alleviate poverty and improve the environment, he is ambitiously determined to turn nearby barren mountains green and has led villagers to plant trees on them since the early 1970s.

At first the survival rate of the trees was low, so Bao started experimenting and learned from forestry experts the secrets of successfully planting trees.

Bao then taught hundreds of fellow villagers to plant trees, and they created a forest that covered an area of about 133 hectares.

However, due to neglect, fire, stealing and the trampling of animals, the forest was later reduced to nearly 100 hectares.

Which is why Bao volunteered to guard it after he retired as village head in 1995. Since then, he has patrolled the forest in the early morning and late afternoon, visiting different areas on different days.

"When I fell sick, I'd ask my son or grandsons to do the work for me," says Bao, who is proud to say that under his watch a fire has never taken place.

However, it was hard in the beginning, Bao recalls.

In the first few years, stealing continued to occur, and Bao, unable to look after such a large area, had to ask some residents near the forest to keep an eye out. In return, he often bought them gifts out of his own money. He estimates that he spent his savings of 3,000 yuan ($470), and he did not tell his family until afterward.

He leads a thrifty life on a monthly military rehabilitation allowance of 500 yuan. He turned down a subsidy of 200 yuan a month offered by the village committee several years ago, when it proposed to pay him on condition trees in the forest were felled to make up for a budgetary shortage.

"I worried they might fell too many trees, so I decided to give up the money," Bao explains with a smile.

Bao is known as dutiful and stern. Because of that, he has made enemies as well as friends among the villagers.

"Some who wanted to fell trees complained and said the forest isn't mine," Bao recalls. "But I insisted on protecting it because it's a treasure for everyone."

Thanks to his care, the village's forest has benefited water and soil conservation; while the regular thinning brings in hundreds of thousands of yuan.

Though Bao is dedicated to preservation, he has shared the forest's bounty, according to villager Bao Yanguang.

"He used his influence and prompted the village authorities to allow those who have economic difficulties to get free wood while building their houses," he explains.

There are risks in the mountains, with its steep slopes and thick undergrowth. Bao had a serious injury when he fell down a slope in 1997. It took him four months to recover. And Bao recalls seeing a python in 2001.

"I bolstered up my courage and shouted loudly, took off my clothes and waved them around to drive it away."

This is why he now takes a stick and a knife with him on his patrols.

In 2007, Bao scared his family when he went on a patrol one evening but didn't return until midnight. His flashlight broke in a fall and he spent hours feeling his way through the dark to return home down the mountain.

"We all went out to find him. However, the forest was so big and our calls went unanswered," says his son Bao Shihong, who is a doctor.

His worries have grown as his father ages, the doctor says.

"I'd often follow him up the mountains in case of any accident," he adds. "I thought about taking over his work, but there are many practical considerations."

Meanwhile, Bao Shouguo is looking for someone to follow in his footsteps.

"I am worried that one day I might have no more strength to climb the mountains.

"I am looking for a responsible successor. However, not so many people are willing to take up the dull and profitless work."