Damage to the environment really gets his goat

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Damage to the environment really gets his goat

The sun rises along the ridgeline and up toward the highest peaks. Sunlight streams through snowy branches and the forest begins to radiate warmth. Thus begins a new day at Mount Seorak, and thus begins a new year.

Wandering through the depths of these woods, you may encounter one particular man: Park Geu-rim, 55, director of a group formed to protect the mountain, the Seorak Green Union. For the past 10 years, Mr. Park has been happily caring for the mountain goats that dwell on Mount Seorak; he is so devoted to the animal that his friends call him the "mountain goat guardian."

Mr. Park, with his beard and gaunt face (brought about by his diet of saengsik, a drink made from powdered grains), is even starting to resemble a mountain goat. He started his saengsik diet a year ago "to refrain from emitting food odors on the pristine mountain."

Although it is the New Year holiday, he is getting ready to go check on the mountain goats. He has packed a sleeping bag, spare clothes, a map, binoculars, camera, compass, and tools to disable traps and snares. "Mountain goat surveys are best conducted in the winter, when there are visible hoofprints in the snow," Mr. Park explains. "During the winter, I often spend days at a time in the mountains following prints."

Born and raised in Seoul, Mr. Park didn't realize what his calling in life would be until he was almost an adult. "I fell in love with the beauty and grandeur of Mount Seorak when I first saw the mountain in high school," he says. "After that, I went there whenever I had the chance. I even changed my name [his real name is Park Sang-hoon] to express my yearning for Mount Seorak." His new name, Geu-rim, means "yearning."

Mr. Park could not bear to see the destruction of the mountain because of development and damage inflicted by careless visitors. In 1992, at the age of 44, he shut down his clothing manufacturing business and moved with his wife and their two elementary school children to the back wing of a small house at the foot of Mount Seorak.

"It was a complete mess," he says of the area. "There were parking lots and restaurants halfway up the mountain. I filed complaints and even got into fights."

The next year, in the spring of 1993, he founded the Seorak Green Union with about 60 people from the nearby city of Sokcho.

Mr. Park often meets mountain goats during his travels over the stony cliffs. He says he feels sympathy and sorrow for them.

He has been distressed to discover the carcasses of goats killed by poachers. One sight in particular brought tears to his eyes: a kid dying in a poacher's snare.

The species of mountain goat Mr. Park has devoted his life to has pointed horns and a grayish brown coat. It is endangered; its chief habitats are in Siberia, Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. Roughly 600 of the goats live in South Korea, mostly on high, rugged mountains. Living on a diet of grass, leaves and fruit, they have a life span of about 10 years.

In 2000, Mr. Park got on a bicycle and rode around the country to publicize his cause. He gave speeches in 40 cities over 48 days. He pedaled relentlessly through storms and up arduous slopes.

Over the passing years, Mr. Park has found peace in his heart, he says. He is thankful that his children live at the mountain and can enjoy nature and attend a small country school.

Still, he has trouble making ends meet. "My total income consists only of the occasional fee I get from my speeches and funding I get from small support groups," he says. "These are trying times but I am happy. I have my family's love, and above all, I have the incredible fortune that is Mount Seorak."

This year, he will use radar and a computer to record the movements of goats, while keeping up his fight to preserve the mountain and protect its wild creatures. The work can be dangerous.

"On many occasions I have tumbled down valleys and fallen off cliffs," Mr. Park says. "But if I can help to restore Mount Seorak so that the mountain goats can roam freely on it again, these hardships are really nothing but my joy."

by Kang Chan-su

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