Zhang Yong found a tiger scalp, and his heart sank: “Our tiger is dead,” he says. But on the less grim side, after four months searching for evidence, he was finally on the scent.
Zhang Yong is the chief at a border police station, in charge of an area just three kilometers from the border of China and Laos, which plays host to about a dozen different ethnic minorities. The thick forest is their home and source of food. The men hunt in the mountains and the women go fishing in rivers, a pattern that has continued for centuries. The villagers are tough, brave, and agile, their relationships closely bonded by their families, particularly the ever-authoritative village elders.
When Zhang and his team patrol the forest they often come across poachers and smugglers. The men of these minorities are all excellent marksmen. For generations, hunting has been their life, and boys start to play with guns at the age of 10. As gun-ownership is illegal, most villagers hide their guns in hollow trees. Even though there is no longer a need to rely on hunting for a source of protein—most of the villagers now earn decent incomes—they refuse give up hunting as a tradition and a hobby. For Zhang Yong, the minority people are more at home in the mountains than him. In the forest they are sensitive to the police and will flee across the border if need be. The villagers are allowed to cross the border freely; the police are not. When cornered, they desperately shoot back to avoid imprisonment.
When Zhang was new to the area 27 years ago, the local community was almost impenetrable. Zhang is a Han Chinese. He can speak the minority languages, but not much. This— alongside the fact that he arrests them for poaching, their livelihood—made things even harder. He is essentially an outsider and always will be. When he was new to the area, he asked an old man if he could speak in local dialect to the villagers about the ban on hunting. The old man obliged, and Zhang was deeply grateful for this favor. But, the old man said, simply, “If anyone tells the police any information, then they will be no longer allowed to enter our village.”
“If you are not well-connected with the locals, it is like you are blind and deaf. No one will tell you anything,” says Zhang. Zhang decided to send his men to work in the field with the villagers and live with them to earn their respect little by little. “Gradually, the villagers treated me like their family,” he said. “I’m always ready to help out when they need to send their children to school or go to hospital. It was hard, but I eventually made friends in every village.”
It took Zhang many months to build his secret intelligence network in the area, infiltrating each village with his informers. One day in May, 2009, an informant told him that in Dachoushui Village the people hunted “a big thing”, but no further explanation was given. Zhang knew something bad was happening: “a big thing” usually meant a buffalo, an elephant, or a tiger, and there was indeed a tiger that often roamed close to the village. Yet everything was kept very vague: there were four or five families he was particularly suspicious of, but he couldn’t be sure. He told his men to keep an eye on them. “It was a dumb idea, but there was no other way,” he said. “I could only hope that perhaps a new crime would lead to an old one.”
The breakthrough came on a rainy night. Zhang learned that one of his major suspects, a man called Chen Weineng, hunted a red deer and intended to trade at midnight. Zhang drove two hours to wait for him, catching the man in the act. This justified a further search of his house. Zhang went to the house and noticed that Chen’s mother was particularly panicked, which for him was a sign that there could be something hidden. He went to their warehouse, and in a bag found several bones that seem to be from the limb of an animal, and then the skin of a tiger’s face emerged—something he suspected but didn’t want to find. What they had killed was the one of the last two Indo-Chinese tigers in China. However, the case was not yet closed. The village was a well-connected, outsider-proof community. Whenever there was a big game hunt, the hunters always shared the trophy among the whole village to implicate everyone in the crime, and thus seal everyone’s mouth.
“It is very difficult to interrogate the locals. Unless they are confronted with direct evidence, they will never tell the truth,” Zhang says. When questioned, the women all swore that they found the tiger’s dead body when they were searching for herbs and had no idea what it was. In order to make things easier, Zhang secretly and cleverly took Chen away to a nearby town. Chen became anxious when displaced from his home village and broke under the pressure, telling Zhang what he knew. The tiger was killed by another villager, Kang Wannian. He and his friend were catching clams in a river when they noticed a pair of red eyes glowing in the darkness of the wood across the bank. Kang, in the habit of hunting large animals in the wild, fired, and later claimed he didn’t know it was a tiger. Realizing it was a serious crime, they both ran away but came back again with five other villagers to divide-up the body, bring it home, and eat it. Kang got 12 years in jail as a result. The news caused a sensation for a while; most of the lurid headlines said: “Tiger Eaten by Peasants”. People were confounded that a villager would kill a tiger for such simple motive. “It was so not worth it,” Zhang lamented. “I always tell them, if they want to eat meat, they should just buy it in the market.”