Hunter becomes guardian of Taiwan's bears

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When he was young, Taiwanese aboriginal hunter Lin Yuan-yuan became a legend after he killed two ferocious Formosan black bears.

Now he has devoted his life to saving the endangered species.

The 55-year-old is still revered by his tribe, the Bunun mountain people, as a guardian of the island's biggest land animal as it struggles to survive poaching and continued degradation of its traditional habitat.

"When I see an animal, I no longer want to shoot it. I want to film it," Lin said.

"I feel happy every time I'm in the mountains," he added, caressing the camera he uses to capture images of animals he encounters in Yushan National Park, one of the bears' two major natural habitats in Taiwan.

Now a ranger, Lin is in a four-member team that patrols the park regularly, covering 40 percent of its 105,000 hectares (260,000 acres) on foot every month.

The transformation into a government employee has not been easy for a person who was born into an aboriginal family and taught hunting skills from early childhood.

Lin, better known to his Bunun people by the name of Ison, killed his first bear on a winter day when he was just 19 years old.

"I saw two animals in the woods," he said, remembering the incident in the eastern Taiwan mountains that made him a local hero 36 years ago.

"At first, I thought they were wild boars. So I fired at one of them and only then did I realise they were actually bears."

The bear, a male of about 70 kilograms (154 pounds), was only 15 metres away from him, roaring with pain for about a minute before collapsing on the ground, he said.

Lin and his cousin had to stay in a shelter on the mountain for two days to prepare the animal for transportation down to the village - skinning the bear, cutting up the meat and roasting it.

When he arrived in the village, Lin was greeted in accordance with age-old tradition, welcomed as a true son of the Bunun tribe with ceremonies and celebrations.

His status as a brave hunter against the island's most dreaded animal was further consolidated after he killed a second bear two years later.

Not long after its establishment in 1985, he joined the Yushan National Park. The job allowed him a stable income and 13 years later it paved the way for a dramatic change in his life.

As a ranger familiar with the bears' habitat, he was approached in 1998 by Hwang Mei-hsiu, a scholar who had dedicated herself to research into the endangered species.

She needed help for a field study which required capturing bears in the wild, fitting them with radio transmitters and releasing them to monitor their movements.

For the first time the study was able to lay bare the dangers confronting Taiwan's indigenous bears, using concrete scientific evidence

Despite a ban on hunting, Hwang's study proved that poaching had been rampant as eight out of the 15 bears they captured in the two years to 1999 in one specific area had lost a paw or several claws when recaptured.

"The bears had fallen victims to hunters' traps, and they were hurt, even though the traps might not necessarily target the bears," said Hwang, who is nicknamed "Bear Mother" by the aborigines.

Killing a bear may bring hunters an illegal profit of Tw$150,000 ($5,200) through the sale of the bear's paws, a delicacy, and bile, an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicines, she said.

To protect the island's endangered species, the authorities in 1989 enacted a law under which poachers of bears and other rare animals may face a jail term of up to five years and a fine of up to Tw$1 million.

Some biologists estimate there may be hundreds of Formosan black bears, largely at elevations of 1,000 metres to 2,000 metres (3,300 feet to 6,600 feet) in the Yushan park and the neighbouring Shei-Pa National Park.

They are elusive, but if anyone is capable of finding them it is Lin, using his hunting skills for new, less lethal purposes.

"Lin has always taken us to places where he thought bears might show up," Hwang's assistant Lin Kuan-fu said.

"He is so familiar with the eastern part of the national park that he doesn't even need a map," he said.

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