In the course of many trips to China over the last fifteen years, I have spotted the following wild animals: an enormous stag that bolted in front of our car one night in eastern Tibet; a lone wolf, loping over a snowy hill in Qinghai; some kiang – which Wikipedia tells me is ‘the largest of the wild asses’ [giggle]; some Tibetan antelope, and hundreds of monkeys. That’s it. If you take away the species I’ve seen on the Tibetan Plateau, then all that’s left are the monkeys. Where are the rest of China’s wild animals?
Hiding, in my opinion. Most of China’s countryside is so densely populated that many wild animals are pushed into remote pockets of unfarmed land and wide-flung nature reserves. Even in these redoubts some species are still at threat from hunters looking for exotic ingredients for ‘wild flavour’ (yĕwèi 野味) cuisine – pangolin congee, say, or stewed sparrow.
Grim as this may sound, there are a few success stories that give hope to China’s conservationists. One of these is currently unfolding in northwest Yunnan on the flanks of Baima Snow Mountain.
Baima Snow Mountain is part of the Three Parallel Rivers region, where the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween Rivers flow within a hundred kilometres of each other. This crumpled wedge of land at the eastern edge of the Himalayas is home to hundreds of endemic animal species, making it one of the most biologically diverse temperate zones on the planet.
The mountain itself, lying between the Salween and the Mekong drainage basins, is home to the Three Parallel Rivers’ most charismatic residents – troops of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys. There are just 2,000 of these endangered primates left in the wild, all living in the high-altitude cloud forests of northwest Yunnan. Their numbers have been dramatically reduced by habitat destruction and poaching, but now their fortunes seem to be changing for the better.
The monkeys have become a flagship species in the area – much like the giant panda in Sichuan – and national-level nature reserves have been established to preserve the monkeys’ lush forest home which benefit all the resident species. We visited the reserve on a trip to Yunnan in March, and saw a troop of twenty individuals breakfasting on moss that the park wardens hang on bushes nearby. This particular group has become accustomed to humans, which I have mixed feelings about, but if you do visit the reserve in the early morning you are almost guaranteed a sighting, which is a boon to visitors who have travelled a long way to see them. I hear from a biologist friend in the region that the existence of the reserve has supported other totally wild troops further up on the mountain, who have yet to work out that there’s a free buffet available each morning at 8 o’clock…
As is the case in much of Asia, the main question for Baima Snow Mountain Reserve is how the park can balance the needs of its wildlife with the needs of the Lisu villagers who live nearby. On our trip we crossed several clearings used for grazing pigs and water buffalo, and at least one lady carrying a heavy load of firewood, so it’s clear that the villagers do continue to draw on the park’s resources to a certain extent. Is there a harmonious future in store for the monkeys and the pigs? I have my fingers crossed.