Photo taken on Feb. 14, 2018 by an infrared camera shows a wild giant panda in Baishuijiang National Nature Reserve in northwest China's Gansu Province. (Xinhua/Baishuijiang National Nature Reserve)
He Min has patrolled the giant panda habitat of Baishuijiang National Reserve in northwest China's Gansu Province for 16 years, but he has only had one encounter with a wild animal.
Covering 183,799 hectares of mountain forest, Baishuijiang, known as China's largest giant panda habitat, is home to more than 110 wild giant pandas, one-tenth of the country's total.
The 38-year-old man is adept in walking on steep and slippery hillsides where he records traces left by wild giant pandas and reports poaching activities and fire risks.
Every month, patrollers including He have to camp in the wild for five days, changing batteries for 260 infrared cameras that monitor the wild giant pandas.
China initiated a plan in 2017 to build a 27,000-square-kilometer national park for giant pandas across three provinces -- Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu -- to help the endangered animals move around more freely since wild giant pandas currently live in isolated mountain areas in the provinces. Baishuijiang is scheduled to integrate into the park by 2020.
To foresters like He, this means even harder patrol work.
"Routine patrol starts in early morning and finishes after the sun sets behind the mountains," He said.
His wife and two daughters live in the nearest township of Bikou. However, He can only visit them once every month or every other month, spending only three to five days with them at a time. There is no paved path to the township, as the reserve is almost cut off from the outside world to keep wild giant pandas undisturbed from human activities.
In 2016, He came across a wild giant panda.
"I was walking in the mountains as usual, when I suddenly spotted a giant panda eating bamboo just 20 meters away. I think it was a male panda. It was not afraid of me, and looked straight at me for about 10 seconds before walking away," said He, dressed in thick clothes to keep him from getting scratches and mosquito bites while working outdoors in the wild.
He said it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for patrollers to come across a wild giant panda. There are 132 wardens in the reserve, and not many have ever spotted a giant panda.
"I see this job as an honor, since without us, the giant pandas, our national treasure, could have lost their homeland forever," said He, who earns a monthly salary of 3,700 yuan (about 540 U.S. dollars).
As the son of two senior foresters, He was determined to become a forest ranger since childhood. After graduating from a forestry school in 2002, he had no hesitation in seizing the opportunity to work in the Baishuijiang reserve.
"My mother always reminds me that I am from a forester family, and I should work more professionally than other fellows," He said. "I always keep that in mind."
He has witnessed improvements in the environment in the natural reserve over the past years.
"Under our surveillance and protection, there are almost no illegal activities, such as poaching and logging, in Baishuijiang," he said.
Before 2000, the giant panda population in Baishuijiang once dropped below 100 because of increasing human activities in the mountains.
There are 51 varieties of nationally-protected animal species, including giant pandas and golden monkeys, in the reserve. Since the protection work was tightened in 2000, the amount of wild giant pandas has increased by more than 10 percent.
He considers his primary work is to train his younger fellows.
"Many of the young foresters are fresh out of school. I encourage them to bear hardships and persist with this job," He said.