Nobody knows the snub-nosed monkey better than Xi Zhinong. Over the past 20 years, the renowned Chinese nature photographer and filmmaker has recorded the plight of the endangered monkey found only in Yunnan Province and Tibet Autonomous Region.
Xi is well known for successfully leading a national campaign in 1996 to save more than 200 Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys and their habitat. His efforts have earned him a reputation as one of China's leading environmentalists.
A nostalgic journey
Shiba forest is hidden in mountains around the village of Shiba at Xiaruo Township, Deqin County of Diqin Tibet Autonomous Prefecture in northwestern Yunnan Province. It was home to more than 200 Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys. In 1993, the country had an estimated monkey population between 1,000 and 15,00. The Shiba forest was targeted by logging companies in 1995 because it was outside of the Baimaxueshan National Nature Reserve boundary.
Xi learned of the logging plans and was quick to act. His campaign might have ended had not one of China's leading environmentalists, Tang Xiyang, suggested that Xi write to state councilor Song Jian, a passionate conservationist.
Song passed the letter to the Ministry of Forestry and the logging plans were reported in the press. In 1996, Tang launched a "Green Camp of College Students" in Deqin to add to the publicity.
After the forestry department sent two investigative teams to Deqin, the ministry ordered the logging to stop. In 2001, about 2,000 hectares of the Shiba forest was put under protection of the expanded Baimaxueshan reserve, which covers an area of 190,000 hectares.
As a member of the "green camp," Xi has been to the village of Shiba, but failed to enter the forest and see the monkeys (Rhinopithecus bieti) because of "terrible weather and road conditions, lack of information and no back-up."
"But it has long been my dream to see the forest and even the monkeys living there with my own eyes," he said.
This May, he received a call from Zhong Tai, a Baimaxueshan reserve manager, who has shared Xi's conservation goal of the golden monkey for many years.
"He told me after the 10-year ban on logging, the forest is good, the monkeys can be found and the villagers hope we return for another visit," Xi said.
So Xi and his wife Shi Lihong, who was also a member of the "green camp," decided to make a nostalgic journey to Shiba earlier this month, together with a group of 10 friends. Shi is a former reporter of China Daily.
We left the town of Shangri-la County by bus at 3 pm and crossed a bridge on the Jinsha River, the westernmost major headwater stream of the Yangtze River, outside of the town of Tuoding at 4:30 pm. "In 1996, we had to take a ferry to Tuoding," Shi Lihong said. "Tuoding was a prosperous log distributing centre. Trucks with huge logs were bustling around."
The small town was quiet that afternoon and near the bridge stood a white building named "Protecting Forest Hotel."
More than 40 minutes later, we arrived to Ruoxia Township. It took the couple five hours to complete the same journey on a truck in 1996.
The road was upgraded recently to cater for the booming business of piny fungus or Matsutake mushroom, Zhong Tai explained. Growing in primitive forests of the region, the mushroom favoured by Japanese, is one of the major sources of income for locals. Partly because of the benefits they get from the mushroom and other products collected in the forest, the Shiba villagers have become more active in conservation.
At Ruoxia, we changed to the jeeps arranged by Zhong Tai and his colleagues. Around 7 pm, the jeeps reached the end of the road. The village of Shiba is halfway up the slope, Zhong Tai, a stout Tibetan, told us in the darkness.
We started climbing a steep ascend and I was soon short of breath. "Last time we walked from Ruoxia," Shi said. "It took us almost a whole day."
Near the entrance of the village, we heard singing. Dozens of the villagers lined the path. Dressed in their holiday best, they had been waiting for us since afternoon.
The villagers made with Lisu ethnic minority served sour wine of highland barley, pancakes made of buckwheat and there was more singing and group dancing around a bonfire.
Zhong Tai said some villagers had spotted a group of golden monkeys about eight kilometers away. "Hopefully, we can see them tomorrow," he said.
Closer view of monkeys
The morning sun illuminated the beauty of the village. I stepped out of the stilted timber house where four of us put up for the night and saw similar houses halfway up the slope on the opposite side of the village.
Terraced fields growing green vegetables or heaps of dried corn stalk surrounded ten houses. Patches of forest stood the top of the slope. The late-coming autumn cast a golden hue over countryside. A clear river ran through the valley, which was lush with trees and shrubs. The ridges of rolling mountains cascaded behind the slopes.
We left the village at 9 am and hired more than 20 male villagers to be our porters. Despite our light loads, the walk into the forest was hard going. We had to ascend from the village, 2,800 metres above sea level to the campsite, which had an elevation of 3,200 meters.
The Yunnan snub-nosed monkey is considered as one of the world's most elusive monkeys. "You can't find the monkey below 3,000 meters," Xi said.
The primitive forest is one of the most beautiful forests I had ever seen. The leaves of different shrubs are colorful and huge conifers are everywhere. A type of green lichens hangs on the great fir trees, like old cobwebs from branches. They are staple food for monkeys.
We arrived at the campsite, an open space near the stream and surrounded by big fir trees, after a five hour walk. Zhong Tai and his colleagues began preparing our dinner in a wooden hut.
Several villagers soon found the monkeys. Through an open space on the slope, we started looking up at the patch of forest hundreds of meters away from the valley.
Zhong was the first one to see the monkeys. I reached for my binoculars and soon focused on a moving black and white spot on a canopy of a tree. It was the golden monkey. The adult monkey is dark on the back and light on the belly.
We went in to get closer look. I found a nice niche near the huge roots of a fir tree. I could look up at the canopies of the forest on top of the ridge clearly. The monkeys moved through the canopies and passed the stretch of forest I focused on.
I saw the furry animals with famous red lips swinging and jumping idly through the trees. From time to time, they would sit on branches and eat the lichen.
I counted more 30 monkeys, however, Zhong Tai and Shi Lihong estimated there were more than 100 in the group.
One man's pity
We were thrilled by the closer views of the charismatic animals. However Xi Zhinong could not share our excitement. He was the only one in our group who failed to see the monkeys.
Despite campaigning for these lovable-looking creatures, he has still yet to see one in this enchanted forest, an area he has fought so hard to protect.
His mood changed when we walked back through this beautiful forest to the village. He could see the monkeys another day because their home was safe.
Back at the village, Xi played two of his TV documentaries. The documentaries, one about the life of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys and another about the "green camp," attracted most of the village's 124 residents. When the monkeys appeared on screen, the locals laughed and called out in happy astonishment.
Before we left the village, Xi led us to take snapshots for all residents of the village and printed them out as our gifts for them.
"The major aim of our trip is to show our outsiders' attention to the area, including not only the forest and monkeys, but also the local Lisu people," he said. "It will also endorse Zhong Tai and his colleagues' work in the area."
Xi has now begun to plan regular groups of ecotourists to Shiba. "We'll take them to Shiba once or twice a year, in the name of Wild China Film (China's first nature-image provider founded by Xi)," he said. "It will certainly encourage the local people to stick to conservation."
(China Daily November 25, 2006)