In late 2012, veteran environmentalist and photographer Li Feng decided it was best to lay low for a while.
Li, a senior photo journalist at the Changsha Evening News, and his two associates had just finished an investigative report unearthing the rampant slaughter of migratory birds in the remote mountains and forests of Hunan province and the illegal trade among local residents. Hunan, a south-central Chinese province famed for its spicy cuisine, lies along one of eight major routes for the world's billions of migratory birds. Every autumn, countless flocks of birds fly over the province as they travel thousands of miles to winter in warmer places, such as India and South East Asia. Little do these flocks know, local poachers in Hunan are waiting for them with shotguns and traps.
The report was an immediate success - the photo story and a related 12-minute mini documentary went viral online, attracting more than tens of thousands of clicks on the first day and prompting heated debates on the protection of migratory birds and government malfeasance. A few days later, Oriental Horizon, a flagship morning news programme on CCTV News picked up the story.
But for Li Feng and his associates, publicity brought trouble. His personal Weibo account began to receive abusive comments and even death threats. Anonymous callers harassed his family and threatened their safety.
“Some of those anonymous callers said they would shoot me with their homemade shotgun, which they use in poaching,” Li said. “The most scary fact was that they were able to find out private information, such as how old my child is and where my wife works.”
His associates, Heishanlaoyao and Fengzhongliandao, two nature lovers Li recruited online for the investigation, had all decided to leave Hunan till the heat died down. Intimidated by abusive comments and death threats, Li also felt the need to leave Changsha for a while.
“I was going to leave the city, not knowing when I would be back,” he said, adding that he did not inform his supervisors and colleagues at Changsha Evening News of his decision so as not to involve them.
The Chinese press often has to deal with pressure and intimidation from government departments and other sources. Although Li’s investigative report had been picked up by state media CCTV and Xinhua, it made no difference. Officials from Guidong County, where the poaching activity took place, visited the office building of his newspaper several times.
“Frankly speaking, I didn’t even know whether there would still be a job for me when I came back from hiding, given that the whole leadership of the paper were under great pressure because of this story.”
However, just when Li was about to leave the city quietly, the production team of CCTV’s Face to Face programme, a news talkshow, flew to Changsha and asked for him. His colleagues told the production team there was no such person to protect his identity, but Li decided it could be a turning point. While a public appearance could make it easier for his harassers to identify him, it could also push the protection of migratory birds onto the national agenda, Li thought.
And he was right. Appearing on national television as the face of the story did gain the protection effort high profile attention.In January the next year a charitable fund was set up supporting the “Let Migratory Birds Fly” campaign, which Li had initiated along with Deng Fei and Feng Yongfeng, journalist-turn-activists known for their charity or environmental protection works.
Though Li Feng was honoured by the state broadcaster CCTV and later received the 2013 China Environmental Press Award for the story with the 'Biggest Impact', he did not enjoy the fame.
“Unlike Deng Fei and other activists, the central stage is not for me,” he said, adding that he prefers doing field reporting rather than being the representative of a certain cause.
In January 2013, just two months after his migratory birds report, he came back with another story on the rampant poisoning of swans. Li spent more than a week floating on a boat in Dongting Lake, cold, exhausted and cut off from outside communication, in fear of alerting the locals. When Li returned he was “surprised and regretful” to find he had missed the birth of his daughter.
The success of his environmental reporting has to a certain degree changed his life, Li acknowledged. “I used to be a clean-shaven guy, with my crew cut and everything. Now, I’ve changed my style and want to stay away from spotlight,” he joked, adding that one-third of his hair has turned gray since the migratory birds story.
But one thing in his life will remain the same as before- his passion for reporting.
“I want to make a documentary on migratory birds, recording the problems along their migrating routes inside China and the grassroots protection efforts,” he said.
“That will take a long time, but it would be worthwhile.”
The China Environmental Press Awards, jointly organised by chinadialogue and the Guardian recognise the work of environmental journalists working in China today. The 2014 awards take place on May 27th.