“Turning over a stone and seeing a slug…”

When asked by US President, Barack Obama, how he became fascinated by natural history, Sir David Attenborough replied:

“Well I’ve never met a child….. who is not interested in natural history.  I mean just the simplest thing, a 5 year old turning over a stone and seeing a slug, you know, what a treasure! How does it live and what are those things on the front?’ Kids love it. Kids understand the natural world…”

Of course, as he is about everything, Sir David is right.  And there is something about experiencing the fascination of children with nature that is deeply inspiring and heartening.  That’s why there’s a spring in my step.  I’ve just returned from the latest EcoAction environmental education trip to Hainan with some wonderful families from Beijing and Dalian.

We visited Yinggeling nature reserve and stayed with a Miao minority village deep in the forest to learn how they co-exist with their natural surroundings.  The sustainability of their living means that, within a stone’s throw of their traditional homes, many of which are made of mud and grass, there is an abundance of life.  From freshwater crabs in the nearby stream and the spectacular mantis to beautiful dragonflies, outrageously coloured moths, darting kingfishers and even the rare and endemic Hainan Partridge, there is wildlife all around.  It’s the perfect place to spark a child’s fascination with nature.

After meeting in Haikou, in the north of Hainan island, the trip began with a visit to nearby Dongzhaigang Mangrove Nature Reserve.  Here we introduced the children to birding and, in just a couple of hours, we had seen more than 30 species, including the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Asian Dowitcher, White-throated Kingfisher, Chinese Pond Heron and, a real favourite, the spectacular Fork-tailed Sunbird.

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I am, perhaps, not the best teacher when it comes to sketching birds!

The following day we made the 4-hour drive to Yinggeling Nature Reserve, our base for the next few days.  Here we met with nature reserve personnel, participated in day and night walks to explore the reserve and its wildlife, and learned how to make bird feeders from used plastic bottles…

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This mantis was a big hit with the children during a night safari..
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After a brainstorming session about the bird feeder, the children came up with an ingenious design!

After hearing a lecture about the wildlife of Yinggeling from nature reserve staff, we walked to a nearby lake where we spent the night and cooked dinner on an open fire..  great fun for the children (and parents!).

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The scenery was spectacular with a sense of peace not easy to find in mainland China!
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Cooking dinner using hand-made bamboo ‘spears’ was a lot of fun.. and boy did that chicken taste good!
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Our campsite was idyllic and, with no light pollution,it offered a stunning view of the night sky.

Soon it was time to make the journey into the forest to stay with a Miao village.

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Arriving at the village…
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We were greeted by villagers offering traditional rice wine
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We learned about the Miao crafts, including how to make their traditional clothes
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And making birds from leaves.. not just for decoration but for holding sticky rice as a packed lunch..

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The Miao celebrate special occasions with “three colours rice”
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The rice was as delicious as it was beautiful

Of course we took the opportunity to introduce the local children to birding.. and they were in awe of the capacity of the telescope and binoculars to bring distant birds so close..

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Watching Black Bulbuls in the village
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The villagers loved the telescope and binoculars

In the heat of the day we cooled ourselves with the delicious water from the local coconuts..

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This child was very protective of his treasured coconut!

And later in the afternoon, the local ladies wore their traditional dress in preparation for an evening of entertainment..

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The local ladies in traditional dress..
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In the evening they put on a special dance performance.

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The villagers were wonderful hosts and were patient with questions from the families’ and the inquisitive children..  Although, by modern standards, their lives are simple and lacking in many of the modern comforts we take for granted, these villagers are among the happiest and most generous people I have met.

After our stay, each child was asked to explain what they had learned from the trip and to highlight their favourite moments.  Bo Han, one of the children, wrote a fabulous summary of lessons learned – here are my favourites:

  1. Don’t be afraid of bugs
  2. Unite to succeed.  When my design for the bird feeder was not accepted, I ran away in disgust.  When I came back I saw everyone had brainstormed and their design was better than mine.  I realised that the wisdom of the collective is likely to be higher than the individual.
  3. Don’t put wet trousers too close to the fire!
  4. Don’t use flash to photograph birds, insects and other wild creatures.  Birds may spend the day searching for a safe perch; the flash frightens them and, at their next stop in panic, there may be hidden enemies, so the flash might be killing them.
  5. Air and water can spread sound differently.  I put my phone in a waterproof case and recorded the sounds.
  6. Three colour rice is characteristic of Hainan Miao diet.  It’s dyed by grass (black), flowers (red) and wild ginger (yellow).  It has taste of ginger but smell of pizza.
  7. Wild bamboo is integrated into the natural environment and not easy to find.
  8. The branches of the Banyan tree absorb nutrients and then take root.. it looks like a lot of trees together but actually it’s one big tree.

 

Before leaving, we exchanged gifts and said our goodbyes.. having made some wonderful new friends, learned a lot and sparked an interest in the natural world that will hopefully stay with the children, and their families, for the rest of their lives.

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Big thanks to Luo Peng for her vision in designing the itinerary and for making the arrangements, to the wonderful staff at Yinggeling nature reserve and Kadoorie Farm and to my fellow leaders, Chen Lijun and Hu Yunbiao.  Most of all, a big thank you to the families, especially the children, for providing me with a very special gift – a genuine sense of optimism for the future!

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EcoAction runs environmental education trips for schools and families.  Recognising that the most effective learning is through participation and experience, the trips are designed to provide opportunities for the children to explore, discover, participate and learn. 

 

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