CHENGDU/XI’AN, October 10– As Terry Townshend sat in a secluded bamboo grove in the middle of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, he began to have flashbacks of all the people he met during his trip.
“For me, these people are heroes, and a lot of them are unsung heroes,” he uttered.
It was the last day of the journey for the wildlife conservationist and Alice C. Hughes, professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Invited by Xinhua’s China Chat show, the two British experts traveled through multiple cities, villages and nature reserves in China’s Shaanxi and Sichuan provinces, visiting and interviewing a dozen conservationists and biodiversity specialists.
“Their stories don’t get told, and so the few that do, we have to celebrate,” Townshend said.
THE PANDA PAPA
While going through his photo album, Hu Jinchu recalled the day he first set foot in rural Sichuan to investigate wild giant pandas 47 years ago.
The 92-year-old retired professor, known affectionately as the “panda papa,” is China’s pioneer of ecological and biological research of giant pandas.
“We ourselves didn’t even know how many giant pandas there were in the country,” Hu said.
At that time, China did not have much information on the large bearlike mammals, with its Chinese name literally translated to “giant bear cat,” but shortly after, they became the country’s national treasure.
When Richard Nixon, then president of the United States, boarded his flight from Shanghai in 1972, he brought back to Washington not only memories of China, but also words from Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai — China would give a pair of giant pandas to the United States.
A survey on rare animals was later requested, particularly on giant pandas found in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanxi provinces.
In 1974, Professor Hu was sent to Sichuan and appointed the team leader of a survey group of about 30 members to investigate the rare species discovered in the province.
During the investigation, he invented the comparative analysis procedure known as the “Hu method.”
The process uses giant panda feces to determine the age, number and range of activities of the creatures, as well as other vital information.
“Research conditions were rather tough at that time. All we had were our legs and a pair of binoculars,” Hu told Hughes when they met at his home in Nanchong City, Sichuan Province.
In 1985, Hu and his team completed the world’s first comprehensive study of the ecology and habits of the giant panda, titled “The Giant Panda of Wolong.”
Hu’s life has been full of unforgettable experiences and achievements.
At the age of 92, he says his greatest regret is that he will not be able to continue his work forever. “I haven’t done enough,” he said.
THE IBIS GUARDIAN
The crested ibis is one of the oldest bird species in the world, and they once flourished in China, the Korean Peninsula, Japan and Russia.
It is believed that these birds have existed for over 60 million years.
Yet, the widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers, hunting, and habitat loss due to deforestation brought the “oriental gem” to the brink of extinction. By the 1970s, they were nearly wiped out in the wild.
In 1978, Liu Yinzeng, then a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led a team to search for the bird throughout China.
“At that time, I had prepared my paper concluding that the crested ibis had become extinct.”
After three years of relentless search efforts that took Liu and his team across 50,000 km in 14 provinces, the remaining group of the endangered species, seven in total, were finally found in Yangxian County, Shaanxi Province in May 1981.
The scientist was worried whether such a tiny population of seven could survive, but thanks to the joint efforts of the government, experts and the local, the once-endangered species has not only survived, but actually thrived.
The number of wild crested ibis in the world has now increased from seven to 7,000, with more than 3,000 calling Yangxian home.
The habitat area for the birds expanded from less than five square km at the time of discovery to 15,000 square km.
“The overall picture of the biodiversity world is quite grim. What this example shows is that we can make a difference,” Townshend said after spending an afternoon with Liu at his place in Yangxian.
THE NEIGHBORS OF NATURE
Throughout the last 40 years, the locals living in Yangxian have worked hard to protect the crested ibis and have also been able to improve their quality of life.
“Local people are the stewards. They are the people who are looking after biodiversity. So, it has to be economically viable for them,” Hughes commented.
Since the 1980s, farmers here have used trap lights instead of pesticides to kill insects, leading to the production of organic agricultural products.
Today, Yangxian has created the brand “crested ibis organic products,” which has a valuation surpassing 9.3 billion yuan (about $1.44 billion).
Another Yangxian local who has benefited from the protection of the ibis is Hua Ying.
In 2001, two ibises nested less than 10 meters away from Hua’s house.
“Every morning, when the ibises tweet, we knew that it was time to send the kids to school. When I do farm work in the field, the bird is often next to me. Gradually, my affection for the ibis grew.”
A few years ago, Hua transformed his front yard into a sanctuary for the crested ibises, and now he runs a homestay for bird enthusiasts and photographers. Visitors can also enjoy locally-made products like honey, black rice tea and porridge.
Townshend expressed his admiration for what Hua was able to accomplish, noting it is a great example of how a community can benefit sustainably from policies and practices that benefit the crested ibis and help compensate the community for their role in stewardship of that environment.
“It’s something that I think China should be proud of and more people should hear about for sure,” he said.
THE BIRD WATCHER
Having spent 10 years living and working in Beijing as a bird enthusiast, Townshend has always enjoyed exploring the city with his camera and binoculars.
When he first started bird watching in Beijing, it was common to find people trapping birds, predominantly for the cage bird trade.
According to him, the law enforcement authorities were not interested in responding to these types of complaints.
“You would call them, and it was almost as if, ‘you’re calling me about birds? I have so many more important things to do!'” Townshend recalled.
“And that was the general attitude, but now it’s very different,” he added.
Townshend still occasionally finds people trapping birds. “But the reaction of the law enforcement is much different.”
The wildlife conservationist now has the local police on his WeChat, and if he finds someone trapping birds, he can immediately send the authorities the location and a picture of the scene.
“Normally within an hour, they will be there, and that is a huge change from 10 years ago.”
Earlier this year, Townshend was invited to share his work in a meeting with the Beijing municipal government about managing renovations on many old buildings in the city, which are often vital nesting sites for birds.
“It’s just a small example, but it shows that generally there is greater awareness and consideration of biodiversity,” he said.
For Townshend, the biggest eye-opener during the entire trip was the individual dedication of so many people to protecting and restoring nature.
“Those stories can inspire people not only within China but around the world, and give them hope,” he said. – Xinhua