“Life-changing”, “Eye-opening”, “Amazing” and “Inspirational” were some of the words used (or, rather, their Chinese equivalents!) by students and teachers to describe their trip to Yinggeling.
As trailed in the previous post, last week I spent 7 days at Yinggeling Nature Reserve, nestled in the mountains of central Hainan, a tropical island off the south coast of China, with 14 students and two teachers from Beijing’s 94th Middle School . The trip was organised by Luo Peng of Eco Action, a new Chinese company dedicated to raising awareness of sustainability and environmental issues in China, in particular with young people.
The aims were twofold: first, to introduce the students to a forest ecosystem so that they could understand the benefits provided by a forest and the importance of a sustainable relationship between nature and people; and second, to provide income to the village to support an agreement not to hunt wild animals or plant more rubber trees (their main source of income) and to help pay some of the villagers to act as “rangers” (to patrol the forests, remove illegal traps and snares and, if possible, apprehend any poachers).
I was invited to lead the birdwatching activities and, in partnership with officials from the Kadoorie Farm and nature reserve staff from the Yinggeling National Nature Reserve, we put together an itinerary that included conducting a biodiversity survey, birdwatching, night safaris to observe fish and amphibians, learning about local practices, including harvesting honey and basket-weaving, and helping the villagers to plant their rice crop.
The trip started with a flight to Haikou, a city on the northern coast of Hainan. After a short birding session around Haikou on the first day, where we met with staff from Kadoorie Farm, the local Mangrove Nature Reserve (and some visiting Beijing birders!), we met the students at the airport and set off for the 3-4 hours drive to Yinggeling Nature Reserve. Here we spent two nights learning about Yinggeling, its wildlife, hiking, birding and even playing football!
After familiarising ourselves with the local area, including a beautiful hike to a stunning waterfall, we prepared for what was to be the highlight of the trip – three days and two nights at Daoyin, a remote village deep inside the nature reserve.
Daoyin, with a population of 90 ethnic Li people, has no roads to link it with the outside world, no phone signal, no hot water (a revitalising dip in the river is the nearest thing to a shower) and, of course, no WiFi (hard for those of us addicted to smart phones!). It was only recently that the fitting of solar panels provided limited electricity (for lighting) for the first time.
Getting to Daoyin required a 3.5 hour drive from our base at the nature reserve, mostly along rough dirt tracks, followed by a stunning, but demanding, 5-6 hour hike along the river, crossing the river three times… it was a real adventure and wonderful to see the students pushing themselves and helping each other to reach the village.
On arrival we were met by the local villagers, including Mr Fu Guohua, the current village leader, and Mr Fu Jinhai, the former leader (the villagers have a system whereby the leadership is rotated). Although the villagers lived a very basic life with mud-huts and chickens and pigs wandering around, we were struck by just how happy everyone looked… the children were having a ball exploring the forest, climbing trees and playing badminton.. as the villagers busied themselves with their daily tasks – fishing, preparing food, washing clothes and building or repairing houses. Surrounded by bird, insect and frog song, with none of the noise and stresses of the city, life seemed idyllic.
At this point, feeling adventurous and slightly proud of myself for making it to this remote place, I asked Mr Fu if I was the first British person to visit the village… He thought for a moment and then said “no!” A scientist – an expert from Kadoorie Farm – had visited several years previously. My slight disappointment soon melted away when he told me that this British scientist was well-remembered for having given the then leader a gift of a wind-up head torch, something the leader cherished… and now almost everyone in the village owned one. I felt proud to be British and offered the leader my own gift – a Swiss Army Knife – which he looked at with some confusion before I showed him what it could do!
The villagers were fantastic hosts. Over the two full days that we spent in the village they helped us to arrange a host of activities for the students, including early morning bird walks, a survey of the “fish sanctuary”, an area where fishing is prohibited to ensure fish stocks remain healthy, the release back into the wild of a Hainan Partridge that had been found in an illegal trap several weeks before, a hike to collect footage from some of the camera traps that have been placed inside the forest (the rare and endemic Hainan Peacock Pheasant has been caught on film!), harvesting honey from the village hives, making baskets and cups from bamboo and helping the villagers to plant their rice crop.
On the second day a group of villagers returned from a 3-day expedition into the mountains to look for poachers and traps… After great work by Kadoorie and the local nature reserve staff, these villagers had agreed to become “rangers”, paid to sacrifice hunting and, instead, help to protect the forest’s wildlife. They told us that, with the rubber price very low this year and the forthcoming Chinese New Year (a traditional time to eat exotic food), some of the people in other local villages had been tempted to try to make money through hunting and selling of wild animals.. The head of the nature reserve told me that demand for exotic meat was such that a hunter could receive as much as Yuan 1,000 (GBP 100) for 1.5 kilos of wild animal meat.. With prices like that, it’s no wonder that some people are tempted to break the law… and it’s an indicator of just how important it is to tackle demand..
The rangers had found an injured Yellow-bellied Weasel in an illegal trap and, the day we returned to the nature reserve HQ, they found an endemic Hainan Flying Squirrel that had been shot. Hunting is clearly still an issue but the villagers say that it is much reduced, largely thanks to the hard work and of the nature reserve officials and Kadoorie Farm, together with the positive engagement of the local villagers.
On our second and last night, the local villagers not only provided us with a tasty meal of fish, vegetables and rice, but also put on an impromptu talent contest… one of the villagers was famed for his ability to “play” the leaf… and we were treated to renditions of some traditional Li songs before the nature reserve staff and village leaders together sang the “Yinggeling Song” (the soundtrack to the video at the end of this post).
After enjoying our time in the village, all too quickly we had to leave, and after hiking a different route back to the road, over the mountains instead of along the river, we met our 4wd vehicles and headed back to the nature reserve HQ.
Back at HQ, the students were divided into teams and were invited to make a presentation about what they had learned, their ideas about how to protect the forest and the livelihoods of the local people, and how their experience would affect them.
After receiving their certificates for volunteering in Daoyin we made our way back to Haikou where we enjoyed a delicious meal at the local seafood market before resting ahead of our early morning flight back to Beijing.
I felt privileged to be part of such a rewarding and meaningful trip. The students clearly gained a lot and it was easy to see that several were truly inspired by their experience. The head teacher told us that, when they had spoken about the village of Daoyin in the classroom, the students did not believe that such places existed… …and yet, here they were at the end of the trip, devising lots of positive ideas about how to support the villagers and to protect the forest. It was great to see. And, of course, it wasn’t just the students who benefitted. For each guest, a payment was made to the local village that will help to ensure they do not need to hunt wild animals to sustain a living and also providing the resources to make some improvements to the village…
My heartfelt thanks go to Luo Peng , of EcoAction, for devising the initiative, to Mr Fu Guohua and Fu Jinhai and all the villagers at Daoyin who made us feel so welcome, to the Yinggeling Nature Reserve staff, especially Mi Hongxu and Liao Gaofeng, and to the officials at Kadoorie Farm, in particular Li Fei, who accompanied us throughout. Finally, a big thank you to the students and teachers from Beijing’s 94th Middle School for engaging so positively and for making the trip so much fun.
EcoAction hopes to plan similar trips to Daoyin in the future, not only for schools but, potentially, for small parties of tourists, ideally families. If you are interested in a truly authentic Chinese experience that will benefit the local community as well as providing you with an unforgettable encounter, feel free to contact me..
I’ll finish the post with a short video that captures some of the activities during the trip.. all to the backdrop of the “Yinggeling Song”, as sung by the nature reserve staff and local villagers..!
PS I almost forgot the birds! In total, we saw 105 species, including 2 of the 3 endemic species, Hainan Leaf Warbler and Hainan Partridge. A full species list is available here.