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  • The Gibbon Warrior

The terrorist with the elephant foot

"You've been reported as a terrorist!" Exclaimed a local reserve manager with a sense of urgency.


"What! By whom?" I laughed uneasily knowing we were a mere 20 km from the China-Myanmar border.


As a foreigner I have to be extra cautious in this area as there are a lot of trade routes, police checks and you need a valid permit - and reason - to be here. I've watched countless policemen look at me with suspicion when I mentioned I was here to study gibbons. I can't remember the last time I saw a fellow foreigner which means I stick out like a sore thumb.


"Possibly a local. They said they saw a Chinese foreigner with pale skin from a different province. They were reported to be wandering around their village aimlessly."


"A CHINESE terrorist? So that can't be me then...?" I relaxed and smirked at my two assistants sat next to me thinking it must be concerning one of them.


"No. They meant you." Said the reserve manager as one of my assistants, Chuang, lent over and showed me a photo of a Chinese national from another province. They had pale skin and looked almost middle-eastern.


"Absurd! Am I to be ARRESTED?!"

My assistants, Thomas and Chuang, the day before I was reported as a possible terrorist. Looking very hostile with a flower in my hair.

Another field season, another set of interesting hurdles. I am pleased to report that the police spoke with the reserve management before arresting this suspicious character. After which, all was cleared up and I was free to go.


I am ecstatic to announce that I have just finished all my research in Yunnan province! More than 180 interview hours later, 221 interviews, more than 40 villages and 17 group discussions.

It's been an eventful trip. Terrorism aside, I've had police raid my hotel room at 22:30 PM just to check my passport whilst I stood awkwardly in my pyjamas wondering what was going on. I also had a very interesting night with a group of Lisu locals who insisted I drank Baijiu (homemade rice wine) with them and the night ended with my head in a toilet.


Another time I managed to trip over someone's chicken and ended up tearing the ligaments in my ankle. The next day I was called into the police station (once again). Having no choice - and no car - I crawled out of bed with my huge elephant foot and proceeded to hop down the street in my pyjamas (which I couldn't remove because my foot was too swollen to get my leggings off). My guesthouse host felt bad for me and cut a bamboo stick to use as a crutch...except it was too long and I looked like I was pole-vaulting down the road much to the delight of onlookers. The police were rather amused too with my acrobatic entrance.

A Jingpo elder later saw me hobbling in his village and insisted I allow him to treat it. Sceptical, I eventually gave in.


"We must soak it in Baijiu..." He said softly examining my giant foot in his coarse hands.


Why does everything have to involve Baijiu?!


"Baijiu was the CAUSE of this problem!" I laughed as he rubbed a brownish, warm liquid vigorously into my foot. I peered at the contents inside the jar which appeared to be a mixture of herbs, dead animals and this brown liquid.


CRACK!!! The elder bent my foot left and right. Twisted it. Turned it. Forced it up and down.


I am not ashamed to say that I was screaming so loudly that nearby villagers were peeking into the house to see what was going on! My audience were filming with delightful smiles on their faces (everyone is always excited to see a foreigner in their village...especially one in extreme pain receiving traditional medical treatment).


I sobbed internally as the elder looked up at my sweaty face. "Now, rest it."


I looked down expecting to see my giant, black elephant foot at an angle after being cracked into a new position. Much to my surprise, my foot had decreased by half the size! It looked almost normal! I put it down on the ground. No pain! My magical miracle man had done a wonderful job! I was instantly converted to Chinese medicine.


Sadly even my miracle man couldn't completely cure it however. Fearing it was broken, I visited a hospital in the first town I passed (which was over a week later). Can you believe how efficient Chinese hospitals are! Expecting to wait a few hours to be seen, I saw two specialists and had an X-Ray all within 45 minutes! I paid less than £10 for this treatment. No broken bones. Just torn ligaments.


All the fieldwork fails aside, I have once again met so many friendly locals and discussed gibbons over many cups of tea. I am excited to analyse these results and go through each interview meticulously to pick out trending themes.


One thing that has interested me is how the locals quantify numbers and explain gibbon population trends. I tell them there are 150 Skywalker gibbons remaining and then judge their reactions, asking them if this is a "a lot, normal or a few".


"This [number] is normal for this species" One local replied. "They are not many because China is so much bigger than them."


"In the 1970's there were small numbers, but now we hear more singing so therefore there must be more." Said another.


I've also noticed pockets of people who feel really passionate about protecting the gibbons. Their intentions are almost always extrinsic however (i.e. will benefit humans): "More gibbons means more tourists, means more income." And who can blame them when some people are earning a mere £1000 a year which has to support an entire family.


Although many locals share western opinions that nature has an aesthetic value (i.e. it is beautiful) and an intrinsic value in its own right, the extrinsic value seems to be the one that really matters. Knowing this information can help us target and develop specific education initiatives and conservation strategies.

With my Yunnan trip at an end, I want to reflect on some of my best memories of working in this province (enjoy the videos!):


1. Doing a kind of line dancing with local Lisu women at night;

2. Drinking countless cups of Baijiu with the local men;

3. Having the rare pleasure of dining with Miao, Lisu, Jingpo, Man, Dai and Han people around one table;

4. Dressing up in traditional clothing on numerous occasions;

5. Being healed by a Jingpo elder;

6. Sitting on hard, wooden stools until my butt went numb as a local butcher skilfully removed a cow's eyeball;

7. Sleeping above the pigs and mules in remote villages;

8. Singing traditional Lisu songs as we each toasted everyone's health;

9. Trying countless, adventurous dishes including duck brain and the 100-year old egg;

10. And finally, meeting an 87-year old elder who had never left her village or met a Caucasian woman before.


Thanks for the unforgettable memories, Yunnan! Next stop - Hainan.

E: carolyn.thompson.17@ucl.ac.uk | T: @gibbonresearch | IG: gibbonresearch

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© Carolyn Thompson 2017. All rights reserved.

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