A former teacher turns his love of nature into a study of the endangered gibbon in the forests of Yunnan. Chen Liang reports
Before 1995, Li Jiahong had mainly worked indoors as the teacher and headmaster of a primary school at Lujiang township, Baoshan, Yunnan province.
However, his love of nature and the outdoors caused him to change track in 1995. He was 37 when he was transferred to the Baoshan Administration of Gaoligong National Nature Reserve, after paying compensation of 1,000 yuan ($146) to the school.
Education's loss became conservation's gain. For the past 15 years, Li has been working to protect some of the country's most endangered animals, including hoolock gibbons, as a ranger and wildlife photographer.
The hoolocks are the second largest of the gibbons and their habitats extend from northeastern India to Myanmar. Small populations also live in eastern Bangladesh and in Southwest China.
In China, gibbons can only be found in western Yunnan. Shown by a survey done in the 1990s, its population had shrunk to around 200, from more than 500 in the 1950s and 60s. As a result, the hoolocks are now under first level State protection.
It was in 1997 that Li first heard the gibbons' call in the Gaoligong Mountains. He was transfixed. But neither he nor his colleagues managed a glimpse of the creature living high in the treetops.
In fact, he didn't see hoolocks until May 9, 2004. On a rainy morning, he found a couple of gibbons in the forest near the Nankang Protection Station of the reserve. The male was playing and eating while the female was watching from the treetop. Greatly excited, he grabbed his camera and started shooting. But a combination of his amateur skills and expired films ensured he didn't get even one image of the animal.
That December, he joined a photography camp organized by Wild China Film, a non-governmental conservation organization, and the reserve. After completing the training, he got himself a new digital camera and a 300-mm lens.
"Our retired director often said: 'You tell me there are hoolocks in our reserve and I believe you; but (without evidence), how can we make the public believe us?'" Li says.
"This was the main reason I wanted to capture the hoolocks' lives in images."
In spring 2005, he was transferred to the Nankang station and became its director. Armed with his new photography equipment and now closer to the gibbons' feeding grounds, he felt he was ready.
On the morning of May 15, Li left the station with his field rations, sleeping bag, tripod and camera as usual and came to a forested area where the hoolocks had been sighted recently. But, except for hearing their calls several times, he got nothing that day. He decided to spend the night in the woods and try his luck the next morning.
On May 16, he was rewarded by the sight of a buff-colored female and a black male. He clicked away, happily. Those are the first recorded pictures of the animal in the wild in China.
"I was (at that time) still unfamiliar with the landscape in the 2,000-hectare forest under our patrol station," says the man of medium build. "But since then, I have been to most of the valleys and ridges of Nankang."
He has captured the life of four hoolocks - a family of three and a single female - living in that part of the Gaoligong reserve in more than 1,200 photos and 100 minutes of video footage. Through these, researchers have figured out that a baby gibbon was born between October and November, 2005 and that the couple mated in February, 2008, producing another baby in November, 2008. The first gibbon left the area in early 2008.
After tracking, monitoring and photographing the primate for more than a year, Li now knows that gibbons live together in pairs, and stake out territory. Their calls are meant to locate family members and warn off other gibbons from their territory. Their diet consists mainly of fruits, insects and leaves. "The hoolocks are good weather forecasters," he says. "You know it is going to rain when their calls increase dramatically."
Besides the gibbons, Li has also photographed five other primate species and birds distributed in the area.
"Of the 24 primate species distributed in the country, six can be found in Nankang," Li says. "Besides hoolocks, there's the Phayre's langur, Assam macaque, stump-tailed macaque, Tibetan macaque, and slow loris. I have photos and videos of all of them."
Thanks to the efforts of Li and his colleagues, Nankang has become one of the foremost areas in the country for primate research. While the number of gibbons remains stable, the numbers of other monkeys have increased. "For example, the population of Assam macaques has increased from about 20 in 2005 to nearly 50 last year," he says.
In January, 2007, a hoolock gibbon research center was established at Nankang, and in February of that year, the Gaoligong Nature Park, including the center, was opened to the public.
"We hope the park can serve as our base for scientific research, environmental education, and conservation," says Ai Huaiseng, director of the reserve's Baoshan administration.
Li is now the park's manager and says that on the first day of the Spring Festival, more than 1,000 people visited. Many of Li's photographs are displayed at the entrance.
Li continues to work as hard as before. He rarely returns to his home in Baoshan city. "I go home only because I have business in Baoshan. My wife, a teacher, visits me during her holidays," he says.
He still goes searching for the hoolocks almost every day.
"After all these years, they are still a mystery to me," he says.