While city folk flock to zoos or animal parks for a glimpse of wildlife, the threats posed by predators such as snow leopards, wolves and brown bears are a daily fact of life for 41-year-old forest ranger Zhao Hongshang in the Qilian Mountains in northwestern China's Qinghai province.
His base, Qiqing forest station, sits at an altitude of 2,900 meters and is the highest forest station in Qilian Mountain National Park－one of China's first 10 pilot national parks.
Work on the parks started in 2015, with the aim of further protecting local ecosystems and wildlife.
In August 2018, a pack of wolves chased Zhao and his colleague Ma Xu for about 5 kilometers while they were patrolling the forest on a motorbike. The wolves sprang from a hill beside their route and followed the two rangers for more than 10 minutes, with the chase ending when a truck approached.
"We jumped off the motorbike and rushed into the truck," Zhao said. "We were surrounded by 11 wolves. That was very scary. The driver hit the horn for a long time. We kept yelling at the wolves and finally scared them away.
"The experience was life-threatening, but sweet to me. I've been working as a forest ranger for nearly two decades. For me, nothing could be better than seeing the land I've protected become greener and home to more wildlife."
The construction of the national park, part of China's comprehensive strategy of improving the environment and achieving the goal of ecological civilization, has boosted animal populations and biodiversity in the Qilian Mountains, which lie on the border of Qinghai and Gansu provinces.
In August 2019, President Xi Jinping, who is also general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, stressed the importance of the ecological protection of the Qilian Mountains.
"The Qilian Mountains are a vital shield for ecological security in the western part of China," he said. "This is a positioning in the national strategy."
Xi made the remarks at a horse ranch during an inspection tour of Gansu, when he also expressed satisfaction with the effectiveness of nature conservation work in the area.
Qilian Mountain National Park covers 50,200 square kilometers－68 percent of which lie in Gansu－and features forest, grassland, desert and wetland landscapes.
Most of the 10 pilot parks have a core protected area and a general protected area. Regulation is stricter in the core protected areas, with commercial activities, such as tourism, banned and other forms of human activity kept to a minimum. That even applies to local residents, who are being relocated from the parks' core protected areas.
The core protected area of Qilian Mountain National Park－27,500 sq km－accounts for 55 percent of its total area.
The mountains' ecosystem faced severe threats from overgrazing, tourism, mining and commercial logging dating back to the 1980s. By the 1990s, their natural resources were overexploited by more than 500 mining enterprises and 150 hydropower stations, according to Gansu's provincial government.
Thanks to the launch of the pilot national parks, the ecosystem of the Qilian Mountains has been recovering steadily, although threats to the mountains' environment have not been completely eradicated.
Economic Information Daily, a newspaper affiliated with Xinhua News Agency, reported that large-scale illegal coal mining had continued to devastate the environment of the Qilian Mountains and reported that a company was suspected of making billions of yuan through illegal coal mining in the past 14 years.
The government of Haixi prefecture, where the mine is located, sent a special team to investigate the case and the Qinghai provincial government sent a special inspection team a day after it was reported.
Two senior officials in Haixi prefecture were removed from their posts for dereliction of supervision duty on illicit mining in Muli coal field in the Qilian Mountains, the provincial government announced at a news conference in 2020.
Liang Yanguo, a member of the Party committee of the prefecture, and Li Yongping, head of the Muli coal field management bureau, were removed from their posts and are under further investigation, according to the provincial discipline inspection commission.
Another three officials from local supervision departments in Haixi were also removed from office and put under investigation.
Since 2017, the central government has conducted two rounds of environmental inspections, including one in the Qilian Mountains.
Illegal mining and commercial logging in the mountains have been banned, and tours that could damage the environment have been suspended. Herdsmen have also been relocated from the core protected area of Qilian Mountain National Park.
Wang Hongbo, director of the park's management office, said 114 mines were closed in 2018, with all facilities and buildings dismantled or removed, and 25 tours that posed threats to the ecosystem had been modified due to environmental concerns.
The improved environment has seen the revival of the population of some endangered species. Images of Tibetan donkeys, blue sheep and yellow Mongolian gazelle, animals not seen since the 1990s due to excessive hunting, have been captured by infrared cameras several times in recent years.
Zhao said rangers were four times as likely to encounter a blue eared pheasant now than 20 years ago, with the chances of seeing a blue sheep seven times greater.
With three other rangers, he safeguards wildlife in 427 sq km of forest. They patrol the region for 21 days a month and each covers more than 30,000 km a year－nearly three-quarters of the Earth's circumference.