TAIYUAN, May 23 (Xinhua) -- Every day as the sun rises, a 66-year-old farmer can be seen setting out with his dog to patrol Yuncheng Salt Lake -- also known as the "Dead Sea of China" -- in the city of Yuncheng, north China's Shanxi Province.
Ma Hongyi, who lives in a village just 200 meters from the lake, still remembers the special day in the winter of 2014 when he first saw two big pink birds wading through the water.
"I had never seen such pretty birds. They were even taller than me, with wings this long," Ma recalled, holding his arms out wide.
A young man informed him that these strange birds were flamingos, a rare sight in China.
The pink wading birds were listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species in 2013. Many flamingos have migrated in search of suitable habitats, with a handful touching down in Shanxi.
From the first day he saw the flamingos, Ma started his second career as a volunteer lake-patroller. Every day, he would walk around the lake to prevent human activities from interfering with the wildlife.
He persuaded photographers not to deliberately tease the flamingos to get a good shot, and he stopped people dumping garbage into the salt lake.
"The birds are attracted here by the good environment," Ma said. "I will do my best to protect the lake so that the birds can come here every year."
The migratory birds have been wintering in the salt lake for seven consecutive years, with the maximum population reaching eight in number, said Guan Yan, an official with the city of Yuncheng.
Yuncheng Salt Lake is one of three inland salt lakes with sodium sulfate in the world, covering an area of 132 square km. It once served as a salt production base.
As the country began attaching greater importance to environmental protection, an ecological protection and development center was set up in 2012 to carry out regular ecological protection and restoration in the lake.
In 2019, industrial activities in the area were completely halted. Meanwhile, in 2021, millions of dollars were earmarked for environmental restoration, embankment repair and other projects.
"The greatest value of the salt lake lies in its ecology, which should be well restored and protected," said Chu Xianghao, mayor of the city.
The lake area boasts 292 types of wild animal, most of which are birds, along with 782 types of plant, including many kinds of algae that are newly recorded species in the country.
After patrolling the lake as a volunteer for over four years, Ma was recruited by the local government to protect the wildlife in 2019.
"The environment of the lake is getting better," Ma said, who looks forward to the arrival of the flamingos every year.
"Some of them are my old friends," he said.