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    The Last of the Oroqen Hunters

    In the frozen wilderness of China’s Hinggan Mountains, an ethnic minority group watches its heritage slip away amid tightening gun control.

    This article is part of a series that explores life along the Hu Line, an imaginary diagonal line across China that has vast demographic, environmental, and political significance.

    HEILONGJIANG, Northeast China — The worn shotgun Ge Chunyong checks out of the local police station is the same one he bought when he was 18 years old. Back then, he and fellow members of the Oroqen ethnic minority group freely hunted in the Lesser Hinggan Mountains, masters of the firearms for which they are famous. Today, however, Ge’s beloved gun sits under lock and key, a sign of greater government control in the area.

    Ge, 47, is one of a handful of remaining licensed Oroqen hunters in China. Once year-round, the hunting season is now restricted to three months in the winter, but Ge still considers it one of life’s greatest pleasures. Back home in Xinsheng Oroqen Ethnic Township, he often appears listless and apathetic. But sitting astride his horse in late November, in the freezing mountain wilderness four hours outside of town, Ge suddenly comes alive.

    This is where his ancestors lived for generations.

    An ancient member of the family of Chinese ethnic minorities, the Oroqen are one of 10 native peoples of Heilongjiang province. The nomadic group once roamed the vast area bounded by the Outer Hinggan Mountains to the north and the Heilong River to the south, where modern-day China and Russia meet.

    Today, Xinsheng Township is administered by Heihe City at the northern tip of the Hu Line: an imaginary boundary that crosses China diagonally, separating the more affluent, densely populated east from the expansive, rural west. There are around 1,000 people in the township, but only about 100 are of Oroqen descent.

    In the name of protecting wildlife and local safety, the government has tightened gun control regulations for Oroqen hunters in Xinsheng. With only 12 hunters left and little hope of passing the tradition on to the next generation, the Oroqen are seeing the hunting practices at the heart of their culture slowly die out.

    Though the shotgun is widely considered the most distinctive symbol of the Oroqen — and is often imbued with a sense of romantic glory — the minority group has developed a fraught relationship with the firearms over the course of its bloody history. Guns have reduced the Oroqen to one of China’s smallest ethnic minorities: According to the 2010 census, the Oroqen population in China was just 8,659.

    The Oroqen began using muskets brought in from czarist Russia in the mid-17th century. They became adept at riding and shooting in the forests of the Hinggan Mountains, making them a great asset to the Qing armies, who frequently enlisted the Oroqen as fighters. Between 1895 and 1915, the Oroqen population fell from some 18,000 to just over 4,000.

    When the Japanese imperial army occupied Heihe in 1933, they found use for the Oroqen, too. They set up a defense force armed with Japanese rifles and forced the Oroqen into battle against Chinese soldiers. By 1945, only around 1,000 Oroqen were left.

    In the Lesser Hinggan Mountains, the Oroqen traditionally rested by day and hunted by night. Roe deer was their delicacy of choice and the staple of their diet. Historically, the region’s dense forest and network of rivers and streams were home to abundant wildlife. But gradually, fewer and fewer wild beasts roamed the mountains, and the Oroqen hunting seasons became shorter and shorter.

    Ge Changyun — no relation to Ge Chunyong — turned 74 this year and belongs to one of the last generations of Oroqen who grew up in the traditional way of life. “Before the age of 7, I lived on the mountain and ate so well,” he remembers. “My father would leave before sunset and would come home before the sun had fully sunk behind the mountains, carrying two or three roe deer with him. The fish in the river were really big as well — more than a meter long.”

    In 1953, the Oroqen were resettled at the base of the mountains, bringing an end to their nomadic days. Away from war and strife, the group finally began to grow its numbers.

    But the relocation was just the beginning of many major changes. In the 1980s, the local government started tightening its control over the Xinsheng Oroqen hunters’ firearms, implementing two sets of gun regulations in 1982 and 1986. The township government was made responsible for the administration of gun ownership, while police under the district security bureau were tasked with managing gun control.

    Then, two fatal incidents of gun violence occurred in Xinsheng in 1991 and 1992. Afterward, local police rewrote the guidelines on gun ownership: Outside of the winter hunting season, all hunting rifles must now be held at the local police station. When the season rolls around, hunters pick up their guns from the station; when they return from the hunt, they must immediately hand over their weapons once more.

    The authorities no longer replace hunters’ old rifle models, as they used to do free of charge, nor do they supply any bullets. Once a licensed hunter gives up the practice — usually due to death or poor health — their gun cannot be withdrawn from the police station again.

    In the last few years, Xinsheng Township had about 14 hunting rifles — one for each licensed hunter — but that number has been whittled down to just 12. Today, hunting is largely symbolic and merely provides supplementary income to the Oroqen, most of whom earn a living as farmers, small-business owners, or migrant workers.

    Township head Zhang Hui says that distributing guns to the hunters is becoming more difficult each year. Every time, he has to lobby his superiors harder. “We can understand the concerns of those above us. Once you give out guns, it puts a strain on public security in town,” he says. “More importantly, it runs counter to strict national regulations on guns and on the protection of wild animals.”

    Yet local wildlife may have less to fear from Oroqen hunters than from poachers, who take advantage of the Oroqen hunting season to kill wild game without the appropriate permits —difficult to procure under China’s strict gun laws. Their numbers greatly outstrip the Oroqen hunters, and their guns are much more sophisticated.

    “We make great efforts all year round to protect wild animals in the nearby mountains, and then they get almost wiped out!” says Wang Wei, Xinsheng’s township secretary. “Every time you hear a gunshot ring out, another animal dies. But you only hear the gunshot; you have no idea whether it was killed legally by a hunter or illegally by a poacher. Deep in the mountains, you can’t track everyone who goes hunting.”

    The Oroqen detest poachers, whose hunting practices run counter to the minority group’s traditional code of conduct. Oroqen hunters cherish the value of their prey and strive to uphold the laws of nature: They customarily offer a sacrifice to the mountain god for the first kill on a hunt, and they refrain from killing animals during mating. In this most treacherous of natural environments, the Oroqen’s love for the forest has been key to their survival.

    In contrast, poachers’ traps are an improper way to hunt, says 63-year-old Oroqen hunter Wu Baorong. “Animals fall into [the traps], but the poachers themselves don’t always realize,” Wu says. “So the animal just lies there, rotting, completely useless! This isn’t how a good hunter should behave.”

    To combat poaching, Wu and a few other experienced hunters in Xinsheng have joined the local mountain patrol squad. On days when they aren’t out hunting, they ride their horses through the mountains, apprehending poachers and protecting the forests of their ancestors.

    This past winter hunting season, luck was on Ge Chunyong’s side: In three days, he killed a large adult boar and four young. “I can sell the adult for 4,000 or 5,000 yuan [around $590 to $740] and get another 1,000 or so for the younger ones,” he says.

    Ge Chunyong has killed more than 20 wild boar in his time. He fondly recalls his most vivid hunting memory from more than 10 years ago, when he and his older brother spent an entire day tracking a boar. At last, the beleaguered pig suddenly charged, its pointed tusks missing him by a hair’s breadth. The animal went for his brother before finally falling to the ground, thrashing and writhing, blood spilling onto the snow and dyeing it red.

    But Ge Chunyong fears the Oroqen’s hunting days are numbered. When asked what will happen if the Oroqen lose their remaining guns, he is silent. He finally replies, “We’ll find a way.” His words are as much an answer to the forest.

    Translator: Matthew Walsh; editor: Jessica Levine.

    Over the coming weeks, Sixth Tone will publish stories, videos, photo galleries, and social media posts that chronicle our road trip across China along the Hu Line, as well as an interactive multimedia platform in the fall.

    (Header image: Ge Chunyong aims his gun at a wild animal in the forests of the Lesser Hinggan Mountains, Heilongjiang province, Nov. 26, 2016. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone)