I am back from China! I had intended to update you on every leg of my journey, but this initial pilot trip had zero downtime. I got back at the end of May. It was straight back into university life to reclaim my desk and reassure my partner that I hadn't run off with the gibbons for good!
It was wonderful to be back on Chinese soil - and this time I felt better equipped with six Mandarin lessons under my belt. I was able to cover the most important topics: beer (Píjiǔ), make polite greetings to senior academics (Rènshì nǐ hào gāoxìng, nice to meet you), and hop in a taxi where more than 80% of the time I ended up in the right location. I picked up a lot of new words and phrases, especially "méiyǒu" which means "we don't have" or quite simply "no" whenever I attempted to order something on the menu that wasn't chicken feet.
The aim of the five-week trip:
1. Do site recces in both Hainan and Yunnan provinces;
3. And most importantly, see some Skywalker gibbons!
Over the last few months my project has expanded. You may recall I was solely focusing on saving the Skywalker gibbon...but why try and save one species when you can save four? The four gibbon species in China all face the same threats: habitat loss and hunting. The other three gibbon species include the Hainan gibbon, the world's rarest primate with only 26 individuals remaining; the Cao Vit gibbon found on the China-Vietnam border also has a mere 110 individuals and recently replaced a famous logo to raise awareness (thanks Lacoste); and finally, the Western Black-Crested gibbon also found in the Yunnan province.
By Day Two I was already off to a flying start. I flew into Hong Kong and wasted no time visiting my sister who moved there 18 months previously. Instead, I hopped over to Hainan Island, the only place in the world where you can see Hainan gibbons. Due to heavy reserve restrictions however, I was unable to get into the core forest zone to see the apes. Instead I visited a few research groups and reserve wardens to follow formalities and show my lǎowài (foreign) face.
On Day 8 I headed back to the China mainland. This was the second time I had visited Guangzhou: the location of Sun Yat-sen University and my Chinese Supervisor, Fan. It is a large, sprawling city with lovely pockets of green space.
The first thing that struck me was "Wow! The streets are so clean!" Everywhere you look there is a street cleaner (the job of a rural migrant from the counties outside of Guangdong). My Institute of Zoology supervisor, Sam, traveled with me. He has somewhat of a fascination with these street cleaners and had apparently waited "twenty years to pick up a mop in China!" I'm glad I was able to help him live his dream (see photo).
It was a rare moment when I managed to pin down three of my four supervisors in the same country! The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Cloud Mountain (a gibbon conservation and education non-governmental organisation based in China) co-hosted an international gibbon workshop to discuss new and improved field methods (i.e. gibbon population monitoring, and using the latest technology to monitor forest disturbance) and the plight of the gibbons. It was a pleasure to mingle with like-minded experts including reserve wardens, zoo keepers and researchers, and chat 'gibbon'. I later gave a presentation to my new Chinese research group about my background and intended gibbon-focused project. I hope to build these relationships over the coming years. I was sad to not meet our team scat-finding dog, however. Apparently he was taking a rest after a tough field work stint.
By Day 17 I was finally headed to Skywalker gibbon lair up in the Yunnan Province. I was lucky to have a Mandarin-English speaker with me who helped with some basic logistics (even getting on a local bus in China can be highly challenging without the right pronunciation!). It was once again a reminder that I needed to perfect my Chinese language skills - fast! We flew to Baoshan, then took a local 11-seater bus for 8 hours to the Gaoligong mountain range. Nestled in between the mountain peaks are little villages where I will be carrying out a lot of my local interviews. I stayed in Manghe at one of the reserve stations in the heart of the village.
I managed to trial out a market survey (i.e. recording what forest products are being sold and for what reason). I came across some very interesting traditional Chinese medicine stalls selling all sorts of bones, scales, mystery items in jars, and huge boxes of [supposedly] imported Viagra from America. I was warned that my presence may make people feel uneasy but I found the opposite. Everyone was warm, friendly and let me take photos of their products. The market was amazing! Fresh rice noodles were being sold, all sorts of colourful vegetables and fruits (many that I could not identify), and there was even a dentist ready to pull out your teeth and fit some shiny new dentures!
After two nights in the village we hopped in a 4WD car as far as it would take us up one of the mountain slopes. We parked in an abandoned village. Apparently the Lisu ethnic minority group had once flourished here on the edge of the nature reserve, but had to move down the mountain to lower elevations because of water being lost on the steep slopes. Farmers favour the lower elevations which is potentially good news for my gibbons (but maybe not, seeing as they prefer the lower elevations in the winter (publication in prep) - hopefully my research will answer some of these questions). There was the odd village inhabitant around who were friendly and willing to share their story. I was invited into one farmer's house for a glass of water that had been cooked on a fire and had a burnt aftertaste. His name was Han and he was renting the land off one of the Lisu families. After an hour of informal conversation, we slung our bags onto our backs and started our hike.
It is only 1-2 hours hike from the abandoned village. A piece of cake, I thought! The ground was muddy and slippery however, so it was not as easy as it seemed. I understood why Fan had questioned my fitness before I left. Luckily for my Swiss blood, I am a mountain goat and managed to make the climb in good time. Ten minutes before reaching the top however, one of the reserve wardens said the gibbon team were close by. My heart skipped a beat with excitement at the prospect of glimpsing a Skywalker gibbon! Sure enough, there they were! A male and a female called B1 and B2, respectively. I quickly named them Bertie and Betty. I am in agreement with Jane Goodall that it is okay to give your focal animals names. I don't think it makes me any less of a scientist!
The female was sandy coloured with a gloomy looking expression (totally anthropomorphising here!) and the male was jet black with big white eyebrows. They were just bedding down for the night and finding a sleeping tree. The female stared at us inquisitively for some time which made me wonder whether the data would still be reliable with such a big group of people present (something I partially studied for my masters). It started to rain as they snuggled together in the sleeping tree - it was interesting for me to see this huddling behaviour because in Indonesia the male and female gibbons don't normally sleep together.
I was told the camp was basic. I thought back to my field stint I had done in Cameroon in Africa many blue moons ago where we camped, washed in rivers, pooped in pre-dug holes, and caught our own mole rats for dinner... This camp was totally luxury in comparison. We had real beds and hot water (YES fellow primatologists, HOT water!). At night we all gathered around the fire in the kitchen; a small shed adjacent to the bedrooms. The wardens cooked up a feast...alas, animal fat featured heavily. The wild mushrooms were delicious, however! Conversation was limited due to fatigue and language constraints. At 8 p.m. I said I was going to bed and all four reserve wardens looked up in shock..."Now??" They seemed a bit disappointed as they brought out a huge petrol jerry filled with home-brewed rice wine. I had a polite shot (it burned!!!) and made my excuses and quickly escaped.
The forest was so stunning but tough. Up and down, up and down! I loved it! I sprinted up the mountains alongside my Chinese colleagues, and then skidded all the way down the other side of the mountain without caution. Scratched, bruised, covered in mud and a smile. I had missed field work! There was a visiting warden from a different site who panted behind us, "How....*fast breathing*...how...*took a deep breath* do you run so fast?!" Poor guy had to turn around after a few hours. Following gibbons is not for the faint-hearted. Poor bugger.
My favourite moment of the whole trip was when Betty and Bertie burst into song. For 30 minutes I was mesmerised in awe and thought 'I love my job!!!' Enjoy the sound byte!
After a week in the forest I had to get on the road again. This time to Dali to visit Cloud Mountain headquarters. Alas, all that animal fat had taken its toll on me... The 5 hour bus ride to Dali was not fun.
Dali had been recommended to me - beautiful temples, wonderful food, and lots of local shopping. I'm not a big shopper, but man, I do love a market!
Several kilograms heavier (both me and my suitcase), I headed back to Hainan Island to assist an Imperial Masters student with her data collection as it links in with my project. She is carrying out open-ended questionnaires to assess the level of Hainan gibbon awareness and effectiveness of previous campaigns on the island. We already know that education is key when encouraging positive behaviour change, but what methods are most useful? More about this later in the year!
On my way home I swung (no gibbon pun intended) by Hong Kong to see my big sister. I raided her wonderfully stocked fridge, worked my way through her chocolate stash, drank all the wine, slept in a comfy bed and took my first day off (shamefully watching Netflix). Pure bliss! The next day I was up early researching Mandarin immersion schools for the future.
The day I traveled back to the UK, my sister was also travelling to Australia and Japan on a business trip. "I will take you to the First Class Lounge" she said nonchalantly. I felt like utter riff-raff with my muddy backpack, baggy trousers and scratched hands (from swinging down the mountains). No one noticed however, and I took advantage of the spa (!) and the huge array of food and drinks on offer.
I am now planning my next trip out between January and March where I hope to do a Chinese immersion course and start my data collection (semi-structured interviews and market surveys) - exciting!