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The Longbao Shoal National Nature Reserve is in Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai Province in northwestern China, 4,200 meters above sea level. It is one of the highest alpine wetlands on the planet and home to black-necked cranes. Its summers are short, but just long enough for the birds to lay eggs and hatch them before migrating elsewhere for winter.
For three decades, Phurbu has been taking care of these black-necked cranes in the wetlands of Longbao.
Birds of a Feather
A native of Chindu County, Yushu Prefecture, Phurbu left his hometown when he was 16 to attend junior high school in Xining, the provincial seat, where he concentrated on physical education. After graduation, he gave up an opportunity to join the provincial art troupe because his family wanted him to accept an offer from a local government department in charge of agriculture and animal husbandry near his hometown. He volunteered to take care of the black-necked cranes in the nature reserve two years later due the lack of help there. “I was born to befriend birds,” he grins. “I am so lucky to have so many opportunities to watch them and take photos. nd if I contribute to their protection, that’s even better.”
Life was tough there, with only a single row of tile-roofed houses without electricity or running water. Phurbu was proud to accept the challenge and join the first group of crane guards alongside other local Tibetans. He didn’t regret enduring the hardships caused by strong ultraviolet rays, big temperature fluctuations and harsh living conditions. With hardly any vegetables to eat, he still survives on fried noodles, butter tea and dried yak meat; and he saves potatoes for special occasions. His patrol is so demanding that for several months at a time, he barely finds a chance to return home to change clothes .
“All I want to do after patrolling the lake is to eat something warm and get to bed,” Phurbu explains. He does miss home and laments, “I feel guilty about spending so little time with my family: I’ve hardly ever embraced my son and have no idea how he was raised.”
He has worn out two motorcycles shuttling between work and home. The single trip across the bumpy mountain roads takes three hours. “I receive very low subsidies for gas and food.”
“How have you lived like this for nearly 30 years?”
“People say I am one of the birds,” Phurbu mutters before lighting a cigarette and staring off into the distance.