National parks are places where Korea’s precious natural ecosystems and cultural heritage are located, which we must cultivate and protect and enjoy with the next generation. In Korea, there are 22 national parks, including mountainous types such as Seoraksan, Hallasan, and Mudeungsan, maritime and coastal types such as Dadohaehaesang and Hallyeohaesang, and Gyeongju, the only historical and cultural park. Together with Ranger Lee Yoon-soo, who works in Jirisan National Park, the first national park in Korea, we explored the work of a ranger who protects mountains and people.
Jirisan National Park Jeonnam Office, National Park Service Team Leader Lee Yoon-soo. photo provided by myself
From the highest, the deepest, the lowest!
Q. I heard that ‘Ranger’ is a job that does everything that happens in Korea’s national parks. I’m curious as to what exactly your job is.
A person who patrols and rescues people in a national park to conserve nature and keep people safe and order, and takes charge of the work within the national park is called a ‘Ranger’. The term was first used in the United States in 1898. At the time, civilians who helped the U.S. Army manage the national park were called ‘Forest Rangers’. Then, in 1901, Sequoia National Park in the United States called it ‘Park Ranger’, and since 1905, the term has been officially used in all US national parks. Now, in most countries around the world, including Korea, all those who work in national parks are called rangers. Rangers inspect national park wildlife and restore endangered species and plants, as well as crack down on visitors who damage wildlife or enter restricted areas. Rescuing injured visitors and helping firefighters put out wildfires in the event of a wildfire. In addition, as an eco-education program for children, they explain about national parks and discover historical and cultural resources of national parks.
Q. Anyone who likes mountains and nature can become a ranger? I want to know what qualities a Ranger needs.
I have loved animals since I was young, so I majored in biology in college, and worked as a zookeeper at a zoo. Then I fell in love with finding traces of wild animals, and in 2002, I started working as a national park ranger when I participated in the endangered black bear restoration project in Jirisan National Park. You must go through procedures such as acquiring knowledge, qualifications, and necessary education for tasks such as lifesaving and commentary education. Most national parks are in rugged terrain such as mountains or the sea, so you need to have a healthy body and a strong body to ride the mountains like your own home. As a national park ranger, it’s good to decide what kind of job I want to do, and then develop the skills necessary to achieve that goal. Above all, if you have a love for national parks, you can take on this job well enough.
A national park ranger monitors migratory birds. (Left) An injured black bear is treated and released back into the forest. In May, the first 4th generation cub was born after 18 years of starting the black-breasted bear restoration project. This fourth-generation birth is an example that shows that the restoration project has entered the stabilization phase. photo courtesy of Lee Yoon-soo
Q. You participated in the half-moon bear restoration project. What was the reason for starting the half-moon bear restoration project in Jirisan National Park?
In the old days, there were many black bears all over Korea, but during the Japanese colonial period, they said that they had a ‘sea water relief system (a policy in which the Japanese government-general killed wild animals in the name of saving people and property from tigers, bears, wolves, etc.)’ They hunted breast bears indiscriminately. Officially, 1,076 animals were killed. After the Korean War and poaching to collect bear gall, the number of black bears decreased, and in 2000, it was estimated that only five survived in Mt. In order to restore the black bear, which could become extinct if left as it is, in 2002, a black-breasted bear management team was formed at the National Park Service. I also participated in this team and helped them to settle down in Mt. Jirisan by introducing black bears, which have the same genes as Korean black bears, from Primorsky Krai and North Korea. As time passed, the black-breasted bear, who found a mate naturally, began to give birth, and the bears gradually expanded their habitats to neighboring areas. Nearly 20 years have passed, and now there are 79 black-breasted bears living there.
Q. The half-moon-breasted bear from Mt. Jirisan can reach anywhere in the Baekdu-daegan Mountains of Korea!
There is a bear named ‘KM-53 (Korea Male-53, male bear born in Korea, control number 53)’ that was born in Mt. Jirisan in 2015. This bear, also known as the ‘Columbus Bear’, moved to Sudosan Mountain, which is about 100km away from Jirisan Mountain, in 2017. I captured the KM-53 that had escaped Mt. Jiris and released it back to Mt. Jiris, but I used to enjoy traveling enough to go back to Mt. I heard that this bear went up to Boeun, North Chungcheong Province, more than 53km away this year. Like the KM-53, there are three more bears that escaped Mt. Jirisan. Just as black-breasted bears roamed the entire Baekdudaegan region in the past, I hope that they will do the same in the future.
photo courtesy of Lee Yoon-soo
The mountain is always there, so be careful when you visit.
Q. As for the ranger, the more visitors to the mountain, the more things to worry about.
To prevent accidents and respond to emergencies, I always carry a portable automatic defibrillator (AED), first aid medicine, and a walkie-talkie. However, the national park is so mountainous and high that not all rangers can respond to emergencies. That’s why there are safe shelters for people to rest on along the trails of national parks, and shelters in the alpine areas. Rangers are working at key points, so they are responding quickly. If a visitor in need of rescue reports it, a ranger mobilizes to the nearest shelter or branch, where they can find the location, and rescues the visitor.
Q. The national park has a well-preserved natural ecosystem, so even if you step off the trail a little, the forest will grow thick and the rocky road will be steep. I wonder how rangers can find such forest paths well.
Visitors can safely enjoy nature and forests because they use trails, but we often enter forest trails to do research or crack down on illegal hiking. Fortunately, there is a GPS device to help you know where you are, and there are field management applications that are only available to national park staff these days, which is a big help. Still, you can’t be vigilant. Rangers who know the terrain perfectly are traveling in pairs to prepare for any possible danger.
Q. It is a season where accidents are easy to occur here and there like the rainy season, typhoons, and torrential rain. Is there anything you would like to say to people who visit the mountains?
When a weather warning is issued, such as a typhoon or heavy rain, the number of safety accidents has been greatly reduced because the mountain is controlled so that people cannot enter the mountain. However, sudden rains can cause casualties due to the overflowing valley water. It is most important not to enter the mountain on a day when the weather is bad. The mountain is always there. Please visit when my body is healthy and the weather is sunny. Because safety always comes first.
Q. Even though the saying ‘a mountain is always there,’ touches my heart, all of us who enjoy the mountain must do their best to keep the mountain completely in its place. If you dream of becoming a ranger, what kind of activities should you do?
It is good to watch nature-related documentaries such as the BBC or National Geographic, and I hope that you can experience nature a lot through camping or outdoor experiential learning. That way we can know what wild animals and plants live around us. When you’re outdoors, look closely at the trees moving in the wind and pay attention to the little flowers that bloom around them. Everything I wonder about what that flower is and what the name of the insect sitting on the petals is helps me understand the environment in which I live. If interest in wild animals and plants grows like this, you will naturally be able to enter the path of ‘Ranger’. I would like to tell you about the article written by Shin Yong-seok, the former head of Jirisan National Park Office, who joined the National Park Service in 1987 and worked for over 30 years as the first ranger. ‘As a naturalist with a clear soul, as a volunteer who contributes to society and the region, as an expert with science, technology and physical strength… Looking at the rangers who sacrifice themselves for the country and the people from the highest, deepest, and lowest places in Korea, I hope that the world will become a world where young people can fulfill their dreams and challenges.’ I am of the same opinion. With this kind of heart, I believe that the future of our nature will be brighter if friends with these qualities become national park rangers.
※ This interview is affiliated with the Summer 2022 issue of Gyeonggi Children’s Newspaper.
Jeong-ah Jeon, reporter for MODU magazine [email protected]
Written by Jeon Jeong-ah ‧ Photo provided by Lee Yoon-soo