Discarding a comfortable city life and donning comfortable Tibetan robe, artist Li Weiyi sweated and shivered for months on the vast grasslands in northwest China, rewilding a wolf cub she had saved on a sketching trip. For seven months, she lived, ate and slept "like a mother wolf" with her cub named Green (Ge Lin), first in a mastiff kennel, then in the deep grasslands, leading the young wolf back to the wild, and finally a pack.
The Sichuan native, 31, is the first recorded person in China who has raised a wolf to survive in the wild. The gray wolf, now two and a half years old, has been back in the wild for nine months with Li on the rewilding project. He has been on his own since then for 21 months.
Li says he was alive in May because a Tibetan herder checks occasionally and photographs Green with his distintive prints and markings.
This drama is unfolding near Zoige town in Zoige grassland on the northwest Sichuan Plateau. The grassland is in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, adjacent to Gansu Province.
Li herself last saw him in February 2011, attacking a yak herd with his pack. He came to her and licked her face before returning to his pack.
The cub was named Green after the color of the lush grasslands, and after the mistranslation of Brothers Grimm, who wrote the Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.
Rewilding a wolf
To get Green back to where he belongs, Li and Green risked almost certain death over months. They encountered fierce eagles and fierce Tibetan dogs that chased them for miles. Once she prised open a mastiff's jaws after it had attacked Green.
She survived a case of potentially deadly pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) and exhaustion when they ran out of food. She was amazed Green never tried to eat her while they were both starving.
Li never regretted her decision.
"Green is not a pet. He needs freedom to choose his own habitat and compete for survival. Freedom is a wolf's birthright. I can't take it away. He needs to live free like a wolf, with dignity," She told Shanghai Daily in a telephone interview from her home in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province.
"Even if Green died, at least he would die free. Between the safety of captivity and the danger of freedom, I chose a risky adventure for him."
In July Li described her legend-making experience with Green in a 400,000-word semi-autobiographical novel titled "Back to the Wolf Pack." Despite piracy, the book sold more than 100,000 copies in two months. It's China's next big "wolf" novel after the acclaimed "Wolf Totem" (2004) by Jiang Rong. It too tells the story of grasslands, wolves and a young man's rescue and raising of a wolf cub.
Jiang called Li "China's No. 1 wolf lady," and wrote in the preface: "I've read this four times and want to read it again. Many times while reading, I broke out in a cold sweat; I felt my blood burn and it brought me to tears." He was astonished that the wolf was accepted by a pack and awed by the courage and determination of both Li and Green.
Li said she was "quite stressed" after completing the book. "It may be a happy ending that Green survived and went back to the wild, but wolves are facing a much bigger threat. Maybe in just a few years, the wolf itself, 'Wolf Totem' and my story of Green will all become legends. People will only be able to learn about the soul of the wolf and lush grasslands from our books."
The book is in Chinese; translations are expected.
Li was praised by many readers but some accused her of wasting time and energy on animals instead of orphans and poor children in real needs. She laughs off criticism. "They don't understand it's not just about saving a life. Wolves are critical to the grasslands ecology," she said. "I hope our story can help change stereotypes of the wolf, bring changes in the grasslands and raise public awareness."
Born in mountainous Ya'an in Sichuan Province, Li spent her childhood playing with squirrels, hedgehogs, snakes, wild boars, foxes, hares and pheasants. She frequently rescues strays on the street and campaigns to save endangered moon bears that are farmed in cages for their bile in China and Southeast Asia.
"Children who grow up in the mountains have a bigger world in their heart," Li said.
In her book, there's a photo of Green and Li, looking delicate and pretty. But she was born tough and stubborn. She wanted to paint at age five and once waited for three days outside the home of a painting master until he agreed to take her as a pupil. She sold her first works when she was 14 and held a solo debut exhibition two years later. She now lives in Chengdu and works as a painter.
"When I was sketching in the grasslands in 2010, I never thought a dying wolf cub crying for help was destined to affect my whole life," Li writes.
In May that year on her sketching trip she heard a wolf story from Tibetans: A male wolf had recently killed a lamb to feed his mate and newborn cubs. Herders killed the wolf. His grieving mate raided the sheepfold during the day and at night howled at the spot where the male was killed. She was hunted for days and poisoned, leaving behind seven starving cubs. A herdsman took them.
Hearing that story, Li couldn't resist the urge to see a real wolf for the first time and find those cubs. After days of travel and inquiries, she found the man's tent.
Inside was one, 10-day-old cub, a tiny bundle of gray fur, barely breathing. All the other cubs had died. Li crouched down and thinking he was dead as well, began to cry. The little wolf came to her, whimpering and nuzzling for milk.
The herder agreed and she took the sick cub back home to Chengdu.
"If I could do it again, I would never bring him back to Chengdu, the days in the city were miserable for him," Li said. "I never felt sorry later when he was bitten by mastiffs or chased by Tibetan dogs. Those were necessary life lessons."
Back in Chengdu, Li smuggled the cub into her home where she lived with her parents, hiding him in her studio, then moving into a flat with him. She fed the cub meat congee, based on the recipe in "Wolf Totem." She later fed him raw meat. Chocolate is his favorite dessert.
Li was moved by the wolf's territorial consciousness, his pride, vitality, instinct for survival and desire for freedom. He also had a pure love for those he trusted, namely Li.
"That's what moved me to risk my life returning him to the wild. There are fewer and fewer things that truly touch us in life today," Li said.
Far from trying to tame Green, she let him run free in the suburbs and on the big rooftop of her apartment building. But it became harder and harder to hide him in the neighborhood, especially when he learned to howl after listening to Li's recordings of wolves' howling. But his howl is a bit inauthentic and that's one way she can locate him.
Complaints from neighbors and warnings from the police upset her. Green was then two months old and weighted around 12 kilos.
A routine afternoon walk turned into a nightmare - Green ran off. When Li finally spotted him he was trapped in a busy intersection, frightened by bright headlights, screeching brakes, honking horns and shouting drivers.
"At that moment, I saw a wild life in collision with modern civilization," she recalled. She had to confine Green to the cement rooftop but it was taken over for a LED screen. That's when she knew she had to take him back.
Li did extensive wolf and rewilding research that included reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the United States. She determined to return him to Zoige grasslands for training and release. That was July 2010. Green was two and a half months old.
Shared life and death
"Only after sharing life and death together will the wolf treat you like family. Strong as I am, it was a narrow escape from death to walk with him through all this. I could barely hang in," Li wrote in an e-mail to Shanghai Daily.
For the first stage of wilding, Li took Green to a kennel for mastiffs owned by a friend in Zoige. It was near his natural home and relatively safe from hunters. But it was also dangerous because mastiffs fight wolves and Green was too small to compete.
However, after several tentative, get-acquainted fights, the mastiffs accepted the wolf and they played together. Thus, Li and her wolf settled down in the kennel. There, Green learned how to kill game, store food and survive in the wild.
In October 2010, Li and Green set out on their first trip to find a wolf pack. They failed when Green tried to lead a wild wolf back to Li, whom he trusted. Green was cruelly bitten on the shoulder. The two also went hungry for three days after they ran out of food.
Late that winter, better equipped, she tried again.
"Winter is hunting season for the pack, which urgently needs new blood (new members to hunt). Green is eight months old, capable of hunting but no threat to mature wolves, so it'll be easier for the pack to accept him in their society," she explained.
This time, they succeeded. Green ran off to find other wolves and didn't come back. The last time Li saw him was in February 2011, when she saw nine-month-old Green and his pack attacking a yak herd. She chased him for miles on foot and called his name. Green stopped, ran back to her, rubbing against her and licking her face.
She hugged the cub she had raised, briefly put a leash on him, and then forced herself to let him go after around 10 minutes.
It's been over 20 months since Li and Green have been apart. She often sees him in dreams, mostly nightmares, in which he is hunted or killed.
In May, Li's herdsman friend Tashi spotted Green eating salted meat they left around his ranch, to lure him occasionally and document his survival. But Green had gone by the time Li, then living in Chengdu, arrived at his home in Zoige. She took comfort in the pictures Tashi had taken and the remains of Green's hearty meal.
"I never doubted his ability to hunt and survive. It's human hunters I'm worried about," Li said in the interview. "I hope to see him again, but also afraid to find him hurt, afraid that I couldn't let him go again."
Green was not afraid of Li and her fiance, and she doesn't believe he would attack other people. But picking up the scent of human beings is dangerous for a wolf because his pack will smell humans, who mean danger, and expel him.
Whenever she has a chance, she takes a break from her painting world and goes in search of Green.
Green's prints are easy to recognize because he lost a toe when a terrified woman in Chengdu stamped her high-heel shoe on his paw. He's smaller and thinner than most wolves, but his fur is thicker. He has a round scar on his forehead where he beat his head against kennel bars in an effort to get out and help his mastiff friend fighting another dog. And his howl isn't quite right.
Li's life is calmer now, her health restored, her book completed. Painting fills the wolf gap in her life. She paints Green and so far has 10 watercolors, portraits and landscapes. She aims to raise funds to help wolves with an exhibition and charity auction.
The wolf lady hopes to fund a wolf reserve in China, which has none.
Meanwhile, her fiance Yi Feng, a freelancer, is editing their videos of Green into a documentary. A video titled "Beauty and the Wild Wolf" was released on the Internet and created a buzz.
"One day people will discard the stereotype of wolves and treat them in a fair way," Li said. "I will do everything I can to be the first woman devoted to protecting wild wolves in China."
Wiping out the wolves
Wolves once roamed throughout much of China, which had various gray wolf species, such as the Tibetan and steppes wolves.
But loss of habitat to development and grazing and years of hunting and slaughter decimated the population.
Today wolves live in mid- and high-latitude regions of northwest and northeast China, in the Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions.
Reliable population figures are not available. A study in 2008 indicated no more than 2,000 wolves in the Hulunbuir Grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
The wolf plays a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance, which was disrupted when their grassland habitat was converted to industrial herding and agriculture, as described in "Wolf Totem."
Coal mining and human encroachment took more land and the desert moved in.
In 2008, 12 people in Qinghai Province were infected by deadly pneumonic plague, traced to its carrier, the Himalayan marmot. The rodents were reproducing in frightening numbers since wolves, their natural predators, were being wiped out.
This was one of many problems caused by wolf extermination and it drew nationwide attention but little effective action has been taken to protect wolves.