Most people who visit Shanghai are dazzled by the towering skyscrapers, tangled roads and buzzing traffic. But for Zhang Cizu and his son, Zhang Bin, cities are "scars" that humans have left on nature.
"How people get along with animals has been a universal problem," said Zhang Cizu, China's famed zoologist and wild animal photographer.
Zhang retired from the position of the director of Shanghai Zoo in 2000 and now devotes much of his time to taking pictures of various kinds of animals. He often works with his son, himself a remarkable wild animal photographer and freelancer.
So far, father and son have taken nearly 60,000 animal pictures. Zhang Bin is now scanning and uploading the best 10,000 onto their personal website (zhcz.nease.net), where people can witness the marvelous world of animals, including 2,000 different kinds of vertebrate.
"We take pictures of all the animals we see, whether they fly in the sky, run on the land or swim under the water," Zhang Bin said. "All animals are beautiful to us. We are trying to build the biggest animal picture gallery in China."
Zhang Bin's fondness for animals can easily be attributed to his family background. "Fifty six days after he was born, he was sent to the nursery affiliated to Shanghai Zoo," Zhang Cizu said. "It could even be said my son was raised in the zoo."
At that time, both Zhang Cizu and his wife worked at Shanghai Zoo, the second largest in the country. In 1961, after graduating from Shanghai Agricultural College, Zhang Cizu started working as an assistant technician at the zoo. His responsibilities included feeding, managing and breeding the animals.
"By that time, Shanghai Zoo had more than 300 animal species and over 150 different kinds of birds," he said.
Unlike today's young people, those of his generation rarely switched jobs, but instead dedicated themselves to a single occupation and employer. Due to his devotion to the zoo, Zhang gradually became a zoological expert. He also gained more managerial responsibility at the zoo.
In 1977 soon after the "Gang of Four" were defeated, the State Forestry Administration decided to publish a book of photographs of rare Chinese animals. Shanghai Zoo was given the leading role and Zhang Cizu, along with two professional photographers from the Shanghai Science and Technology Press, were allotted the task.
"At first, we spent almost two years taking pictures of every animal living in the zoo," Zhang recalled. Since he understood the habits of the animals, he acted as "director", luring animals into a good position and keeping them there while their photographs were taken.
"But we thought the album should include pictures of animals in the wild as well," Zhang said. With this in mind, Zhang and the photographers arrived on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in 1979. Many different kinds of wild animals live there, for instance, the Tibetan antelope, Asiatic wild ass and yak.
Prior to this expedition, Zhang had already traveled to the same area seven or eight times. It was not difficult for him to adapt to the hard climate of the plateau, although it was almost unbearable for the two urban photographers - they had never worried about being able to breathe in Shanghai.
"Because they were not used to the climate, they stayed at the foot of the mountains to take their pictures," Zhang said. Little was achieved during the first month.
"The photographers complained that we were in an open place without any animals. The animals usually stay up in the mountains. It was only by climbing the mountains that we would find them," Zhang said.
Frustrated and miserable, the two photographers left. Zhang, who did not even know how to use a camera, was left to complete the unfinished work. With the help of a local guide, Zhang spent another three and a half months dragging the heavy camera from the Kunlun Mountains to the Tanggula mountains, then to the Himalayas. The lowest elevations of all of them exceeded 4,000 metres.
In order to climb Kunlun Mountains, Zhang rode a horse for 11 hours. "It was a bald mountain covered with weathered stones," he said. He once chased a yak to the top of the mountain to take its picture. He stood in the half mountainside, holding the camera in his hand. The hooves of the frightened yak dislodged large stones that rolled down towards Zhang. "It was very dangerous, but exciting," Zhang said.
In Kekexili, he encountered large groups of female antelopes with their offspring. "I ran up to them immediately, but I was too excited and tired. I collapsed in a faint," Zhang said, laughing. As soon as he came around he began taking more pictures.
It was not until heavy snow began to fall on the plateau that Zhang returned to Shanghai with his treasure trove of photographs. "My 40th birthday was celebrated in the Himalayas, where I took valuable pictures of the red goral, one of the world's most endangered animals."
Zhang had learnt to take pictures of animals and would continue to do so throughout his life.
His father's footsteps
Zhang hoped that his elder daughter would inherit his love of animals and follow in his footsteps. "My son was too naughty to study hard. I never expected he would end up doing this job," Zhang said.
Zhang invested all his hope in his daughter, encouraging her to major in zoology at university. But after graduation she switched directions and became a businesswoman. Zhang Bin, on the other hand, chose photography as his major and decided to become a wild animal photographer like his father.
"Anyone in China wanting to be a wild animal photographer should face the reality that it is a hard and expensive job with little economic return," said Zhang Bin. In order to ensure the quality of his pictures, Zhang Bin has invested at least 130,000 yuan (US$15,854) in camera equipment. "Compared to other animal photographers I am very lucky, because I get lots of support from my family, especially my father," Zhang said.
Zhang Cizu regards the special experience accumulated over his 40 years at the zoo as his "intellectual property". "Now, I can pass it to my only son," he said.
Zhang Bin usually spends three or four months each year taking pictures outside and another three or four months developing the film and sorting the photos. "In the time that remains I write articles and build our website. Yes, I am a free man, but my time is very limited," he said.
Zhang Bin once read a prediction by foreign scientists saying that, by 2050, 50 per cent of the world's animal species would be extinct. "It is an urgent task to take pictures of these animals. Time is pressing," he said
All the pictures father and son take are designed to assist in the study of animals and to play a role in popularizing the idea of animal protection, especially for endangered species.
"Do you know that birds keep a Chinese map in their mind during their long migration?" Zhang Bin asked. Migrating birds who breed in Siberia have to fly across China to spend their winter in South Asia and Australia. "Whether in Australia or in Siberia, people can approach these birds and take photos of them. But in China, this is hard, because of the terrible experience their ancestors have been through in China. We frighten them."
Zhang Cizu said that China's urban construction must take animals' lives into consideration. Otherwise, cities would be nothing but wastelands for animals.
(Shanghai Star January 28, 2005)