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While nature conservation is vital to China’s southwestern regions, policy often comes at odds with local cultures and ancient ways of life

By Wang Yan Updated May.1

Local hunters return to camp after a day of hunting, Lijiang, Yunnan Province, October 20, 2013

For thousands of years, hunting has been an important part of life for the Dulong people in the mountainous regions bordering Myanmar in Southwest China’s Yunnan Province. The Dulong hunt with crossbows and arrows dipped in wolfsbane – a purplish flower whose root is highly poisonous.  

“A poison arrow can kill game in a few minutes,” Meng Zisung, a middle-aged Dulong man living in Bapo, a small village in Dulongjiang Township, told the reporter in late November 2021.  

Wolfsbane grows in the mountains of the Dulongjiang Valley, an area along the Dulong River that flows through northwestern Yunnan to Myanmar. So important is the flower to Dulong life that they have a dramatic ritual when they collect it.  

“Before you dig up its roots, touch it first and then fall down and roll around on the ground, pretending to suffer from the poison,” Meng said. “This might seem like superstition in the modern world, but it miraculously makes the poison more potent.” 

Dulong hunters never directly hand the poison to one another. They place it on the ground. “Again, when another hunter picks it up, he’ll also fall down and roll on the ground as if he were poisoned,” Meng said.  

The roots are washed in the Dulong River and then sun-dried on large rocks. “Washing it in tap water and leaving it in an unclean environment decreases its toxicity, which could lead to a failed hunt,” Meng said.  

“I see this as a ritual to endow the herb with our mental strength, a way to connect us with the natural world.”  

But that connection faded for the Dulong in the late 20th century as China made a massive push to establish nature reserves. By 2003, there were 186 reserves in Yunnan, which included traditional Dulong hunting grounds. Authorities confiscated hunting rifles and banned hunting nationwide not only to scale up environment and wildlife protection efforts but also to combat poaching that plagues many regions. 
The Dulong and their hunting traditions, which had coexisted with nature in harmony for centuries, were caught in the crossfire. 

Connections with Nature 
Like many other ethnic groups in Yunnan Province, the Dulong were hunter-gatherers who engaged in slash-and-burn agriculture. Before departing into the mountain forests, Dulong hunters perform rituals to their local mountain hunting gods.  

“We hunt and fish according to unspoken rules passed down from our ancestors,” said Zeng Xueguang, a Dulong man who works at the Yunnan Nationalities Museum in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. “For example, most often people don’t hunt in spring when most animals breed, and hunters avoid killing young animals.”  

Zeng said that Dulong boys receive their first handmade crossbows from their fathers or grandfathers at around 5-6 years old.  

“We know which trails each animal takes and we can track them easily, such as muntjac (small deer), takin (large mountain goat) and serow (goat-antelope),” Chen Rong of Lengmudang Village told researcher Du Xingmei for her paper “The Mountain Hunting Livelihoods of the Dulong People in the 20th Century” published in the Journal of Guangxi University For Nationalities in June 2019.  

“Their hunting culture does not involve indiscriminate killing or is in direct conflict with nature and wildlife,” Du, who works at Yunnan University in Kunming, told the reporter in mid-January. “The spiritual world of the Dulong is very rich, but there is still not enough research in China on Dulong hunting traditions, rituals and folk beliefs. It’s important to analyze their hunting culture from the perspective of the people in the culture,” Du said.  

Hunting is a prevalent part of the indigenous cultures of northwestern Yunnan. Apart from providing sustenance, hunting embodies the close ties between humans and the natural world.  

Daba, the animism-based religion of the Naxi people who live in the same region, advocates a shared community of nature, humans and the supernatural. According to He Shigao, 51, a Daba master in Labo, Ninglang County, Yunnan, traditional Daba scripture describes humans feuding with the mountain god Rimugu for their place in nature.  

“Humans gained wisdom by drinking magical water offered by the heavenly god and learned how to make bows and arrows from tree bark. Ever since, game belonged to humans and all other wildlife beonged to Rimugu. These hunting rules settled the disputes between the mountain god and the people,” He told NewsChina in early December 2021.  

Before Dulong hunters set off on winter hunting expeditions, the most senior hunter makes a ritual offering to their hunting god, Rimuda. “Figurines made of buckwheat, corn, wheat and flour meal shaped like animals including takin, muntjac, wild boar, blue sheep and pheasant are placed in front of a ceremonial mountain replica as offerings,” said Yang Jiangling, a researcher with Institute of Anthropology and Ethnology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.  

Yang said that the Dulong mainly hunted herbivores rather than carnivores like tigers, leopards and wolves, most of which are nationally protected animals. “Generally, Dulong hunters won’t deliberately kill carnivores unless they threaten their livestock,” Yang said. 

An undated photo of a Dulong hunter in traditional dress

Dulong hunter Li Wenzheng, 75, repairs his crossbow at home, February 13

Human Wildlife Conflict 
Among local predatory species, Asian black bears pose the biggest threat. According to Du Xingmei’s research, Li Chunrong, a former hunter in Dulongjiang, said that while the Dulong rarely hunt bears, they set traps for them to protect their farmland during harvest season, as bears attack livestock and can ravage an entire cornfield overnight. “Bears also destroy beehives and sometimes make off with an entire hive,” Yang Jiangling said.  

“But because the law changed in recent decades making it illegal to kill wildlife, no one dared hunt bears anymore,” Zeng Xueguang said. “The total population of [Asian black] bears near Dulongjiang has visibly rebounded, with bears frequently approaching villages.”  

Dulongjiang is within Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve. The reserve is a biodiversity hotspot boasting 205 species of mammals, 525 bird species and over 100,000 plant species.  

According to Yang Guiwei, within the reserve, wild populations have grown thanks to effective protection efforts. “According to the latest survey, the total number of Gaoligong takin, a first-class national protected animal, increased from 300 in late 1990s to about 400 to 500 in recent years,” Yang told NewsChina.  

In addition, Yang said that populations of other endangered species, including Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys, have also increased.  

The rebound of wildlife has a downside for locals. Villager Li Yihua, 30, told NewsChina that takins have eaten and destroyed crops in Dulongjiang. In 2021, Li said bears came to her village and ate pigs, chickens, ducks, sheep and a cow.  

“Last year, my family lost a pig to a bear, and recently almost all our corn fields were destroyed by bears,” Li said. “Although the government offers compensation for wildlife damage, the claims procedure is very complicated and time-consuming, and the money hardly covers the losses.”  

According to Yang Weidong of the forestry and grassland bureau in northwestern Yunnan’s Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, government-funded compensation for human-wildlife conflicts in Nujiang totaled 1.76 million yuan (US$280,000) in 2020, 2.04 million yuan (US$320,000) in 2021 and 1.5 million yuan (US$240,000) in 2022. 
More than 600 cases of human-bear conflict occur annually in Dulongjiang Township’s Gongshan County, data shows. In 2020, 329 households in Dulongjiang reported either livestock or crop losses caused by wildlife. 

He Shigao, 51, in his ceremonial robe before performing a Daba ritual. On his chest, he is wearing a wild boar’s tusk as a talisman against evil forces in nature. Other ornaments include patterns of wildlife including birds, leopards and deer, December 10, 2021

Real Threat 
The threat of hunting traditions to China’s animal populations during the 1990s paled in comparison to those from illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking, Zeng Xueguang said.  

“It was rare to spot a bird in the sky during that time due to all the poaching,” Duan Jianhui, a Nujiang police officer in charge of wildlife crime, told NewsChina in mid-December, 2021. The situation improved after 2000 when authorities instated nature reserve programs and hunting rifle bans, Duan said.  

Bordering Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, Yunnan remains a hotbed for wildlife crimes. According to a TRAFFIC report from 2012, Yunnan, along with Guangxi and Guangdong provinces, is a critical region for wildlife trafficking and consumption. “The number of criminal wildlife cases in these three provinces accounted for 68.3 percent of the national total according to National Forest Police statistics in 2011,” said the TRAFFIC report.  

A report by the Endangered Wildlife Crime Intelligence Center at Nanjing Forest Police College in March 2021 said there were 218 wildlife crime convictions in Yunnan in 2020, accounting for 28.6 percent of the national total. Between August 2020 and October 2021 alone, Yunnan opened 1,707 criminal wildlife investigations, ranking first in China, according to data provided by the Yunnan provincial public security department.  

However, controlling cross-border poaching remains a challenge. “Unlike the situation at home, hunting and deforestation are not banned in Myanmar,” said a law enforcement official in Yunnan Province who spoke under condition of anonymity: “The political instability caused by Myanmar’s armed forces have presented risks like forest fires and wildlife trafficking for us for decades,” the source said.  

“We share long borders with Myanmar, and illegal poaching and wildlife trafficking on the Myanmar side are rampant, Yang Guiwei told the reporter. “In recent years, China increased investment in biodiversity preservation and management in border regions and hired more forest rangers to patrol the border,” Yang added.  

There are currently 33,000 government-employed forest rangers in Nujiang Prefecture, according to the Nujiang Forestry and Grassland Bureau. As of 2021, 195 among the total 4,300 Dulong people in Dulongjiang serve as forest rangers – local villagers familiar with the surrounding mountains. They patrol the forests regularly for poachers and forest fires, and sometimes aid in scientific research by installing and monitoring camera traps.  

China’s tightened travel restrictions during the pandemic have boosted wildlife preservation efforts by further curbing cross-border poaching and trafficking. According to Duan, strict rules have been imposed for travel to and from villages in the region, particularly villages along the border in Yunnan. “Over the past two years, we have had no cases of wildlife trafficking and few cases of poaching,” Duan said. 

Question of Preservation 
To preserve the local hunting culture, Dulong elder and former Gongshan County chief Gao Derong advocated for limited traditional hunts, Meng Zisung explained. However, wildlife protection authorities rejected the proposal.  

“He also proposed setting aside one mountain for hunting performances to attract tourists and allow outsiders to learn about our traditional hunting culture, but authorities rejected that idea too,” Meng told the reporter.  

“My generation still has detailed knowledge about our hunting traditions, but the next generation knows nothing about it. I’ve hunted in the mountain forests with my grandpa since I was a child and learned that a successful hunt is collaborative and involves energy exchanges between all elements in nature.”  

“Hunting is banned, but in many ethnic regions in Yunnan, hunting is a livelihood backed by beliefs. During our research, we discovered an intact system of harmonious coexistence between human, plants and wildlife animals,” said Shen Dingfang, founder of Mengnanshe, a Kunming-based NGO engaged in cultural conservation and community development.  

Shen told the reporter in December 2021 that some groups in Yunnan believe that hunting more than one four-legged animal a day or a pregnant animal will bring misfortune to the hunter and his family.  

“This philosophy of modest utilization of natural resources helps locals strike a balance with wildlife and the natural environment, sustaining the reproduction of wildlife,” Shen said. “Yet it should be clarified whether hunting, as a kind of livelihood or culture, should be passed down. Perceptions have changed, and the complete system for traditional hunting is unlikely to remain intact.”  

“Dulongjiang is within a national nature reserve, and all hunting activities are prohibited. I hope that some hunting activities are restored in an orderly manner under the supervision of authorities, mainly to promote tourism in the Dulong region, and is also a way to protect the traditional culture of the Dulong people,” Yang Jiangling told the reporter in mid-January.  

Some disagree. “Personally, I believe hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture were forced choices under extremely primitive living conditions,” Duan Jianhui said. “Thanks to our country’s poverty alleviation efforts, and as long as you have enough food and daily necessities, who wants to risk going on hunts in the mountains? Many local ethnic people still keep a crossbow at home, purely as decoration.”  

In Du Xingmei’s paper, she concluded that “completely different from all the production systems based on transforming nature, the Dulong people’s livelihood reflects ecological knowledge and wisdom with a complete system of energy exchange and material circulation.”  

Unless a balance is struck between conservation of nature and culture, this valuable wisdom will likely fade into history. “Each year as winter comes, we used to set off on hunts deep in the forests on sunny days,” Meng said, looking down at the bear tooth talisman hanging around his neck. “This tooth is from a bear that my grandfather, an experienced Dulong hunter, killed when he was young. I’ve had it on me for over 30 years. It’s precious and carries my grandfather’s best wishes for me and my family.”  

“We do not enjoy a wealthy or modern lifestyle in this remote borderland area, but our hunting culture should be preserved and passed down to future generations to maintain our connection with nature,” Meng said.