Young Ambassador for Nature: Soaring High with Ariel Chen

I first met Chen Yanzhi (Ariel) in March 2017 when, with Luo Peng, I helped lead a birding trip for students and families as part of EcoAction’s environmental education programme in Beijing.  I was immediately impressed by Ariel – she was inquisitive, intelligent, fascinated by the natural world and clearly had the respect of her peers.  Last year I was delighted when she agreed to become one of the student “Swift Ambassadors” as part of the SOHO China Swift Project, presenting the story of the Beijing Swift to Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China and one of the most famous entrepreneurs in China.  Since then she has set up a school birding club and her own WeChat channel (China’s equivalent of Facebook/WhatsApp), writing regularly on all things nature and conservation.  At 15 years old, she is already an accomplished writer, in both English and Mandarin, and is building a large following.  I am delighted Ariel has allowed me to reproduce her most recent article here on Birding Beijing.  It’s a joy to read.  As one of a growing band of young people engaged in wildlife conservation across China, she is part of a new generation giving hope for the environment of this biodiversity-rich country.  


This article is written by Chen Yanzhi (Ariel Chen)

The temperature was not warm on that day in June, but sweat still came off my back. In the open-air meeting room, suited men and women flowed into the space, and media reporters, with their giant black cameras, slowly positioned themselves at the back.

It was 27 June, 2019 when the Beijing SOHO Swift Project was officially launched on the rooftop of Qianmen SOHO. In the next few months, several buildings under SOHO China would erect artificial nest boxes for the Beijing Swift (the pekinensis subspecies of the Common Swift Apus apus), to provide a breeding ground for those little creatures that lost their homes in the waves of urbanisation.  As one of the “Swift Ambassadors,” I was invited to share my thoughts on protecting these birds. In front of those entrepreneurs, I began: “The swifts stay all summer in Beijing. But where will they go for the rest of the year?”

“The swifts stay all summer in Beijing. But where will they go for the rest of the year?”

Although I was extremely nervous during the meeting, I was thankful of this opportunity to spread the story of the Beijing swifts and rally support from people to find a new habitat for these unique birds.

A Journey Started in Africa

I have always been fascinated by different animals, although my story with the birds started in Africa just recently. I could read all day, repetitively flipping through the few pages in a book, looking at the pictures of animals. And when I was eight, I went hiking in Yunnan and fell in love with the rays of sun beaming through forest leaves, and the sage-coloured mosses creeping on the rocks. I longed for the place and even cried after returning.

But I rarely noticed the birds back then.

In 2017, our family traveled to Tanzania. And I only realised later that this was a life-changing journey.  Like most travellers in Tanzania, our goal was to see the “big animals”: lions, giraffes, and elephants. Yet, by the middle of the trip, staring at sleepy lions and uniformed herbivores, we felt a little bored already. Under the scorching sun, I felt trapped in the perfectly still air.

And one of our group members, a birder, changed the story.  In the hottest noon, she led us, a group of restless kids, to find the little creatures that lived around our camp. She led us to the sunbirds resting on the trees, the secretary birds roaming on the savannah, and the Egyptian geese wandering in the lakes. I saw, at that time, how so many different kinds of interesting birds were there, hidden in the least noticeable corners.

A wandering marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumenifer).

By accidentally peeking from this newly opened window, my birdwatching journey began. And I have never turned back.

A “Birding Fanatic” Left Alone in the Forest

Since that trip to Africa, I’ve started a mode of birding-around-the-world. From around Beijing to as far as South America, I’ve seen over 1,500 species of birds and become quite literally a “birding fanatic” and have had fun memories.

I’ve been to Yunnan, a magical land where two-thirds of all the birds in China fly high, numerous times. On most occasions, we would birdwatch in some remote villages that tourists wouldn’t even bother knowing. My most unforgettable memory happened in Pudacuo National Park, a traveling destination packed with tourists.

“普达措国家公园属都湖 – PuDaCuo National Park(ShuDu Lake)” by Yang Yu’s Album is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

As we walked along the trail, we found many more birds than I previously expected. Novel bird chirps and mysterious noises in the undergrowth attracted our attention, and we would stop every few meters, sometimes even going into the forest. We would end up spending seven hours straight on a three-kilometer trail that would be hiked for more or less one hour. When we reached the bus stop at the end of the trail, the sky is already darkening.

A greenish warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides)

Any outside automobiles are banned in the National Park, so we had to wait for the buses that navigate between locations.

10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes… time slowly ticked by, but no cars nor even a living human, were there. Under the slate grey sky, the tourist centre laid dead silent and the giant and unmoving spruce trees seemed to emanate an ominous shade. Our confusion continued and we were even more shocked when we looked at the notice board: “What? The National Park closes up at 6 p.m.? The bus stations close at 5 p.m.?” That meant the buses had already stopped coming for 2 hours! “Are we going to spend the night in the forest, where anything can happen?” We were worried and anxious, like someone trapped in a maze.

Eventually, we saw on the notice board the telephone number of the Public Security Bureau of Forestry.  A few minutes later, two cops arrived in front of us, with their mobile car siren screaming.

“What is the matter? How long have you stayed? Why haven’t you left already?” Just as we were getting on the patrol mobile, the police fired the questions at us. We had to tell them how we missed the clear-out because we were too engrossed by birdwatching, and how we never noticed that the rest of the tourists already left, and how we spent seven hours on the three-kilometer trail.

Obvious enough, the police did not believe what we said and queried us back and forth before driving us back to the hotel. As I sat on the back row of the cop, with metal railings on both sides, I felt like an escapee caught by the police.

As I reflected while on my way back, I thought it was quite terrifying being in the mountains alone, much more being rescued by police. It was an unusual episode in my birdwatching journey. When we were anxiously waiting for the bus, the forest was still alive: the goldcrest jumped around from tree to tree, showing off its fire-colored crest, and the Eurasian wren wagged its tail by the trail. The adventurous excitements, free-flying birds, and the power of lives in nature charmed up this unique experience and only led me to liking birdwatching even more.

Spreading the Love

My skills have gradually improved after countless birdwatching trips. From a know-nothing novice who can only follow others and ask “Where is the bird?” I can confidently say I can now find and identify birds swiftly.

One day, a thought flashed through my mind: “Why don’t I spread such a remarkable activity to more people?” As a result, I launched the Birding Club in my school, Keystone Academy.

I have absolutely no experience initiating and leading a club. During our first meeting, I couldn’t even face the members! I couldn’t believe that all those people signed up to the club, and I couldn’t think that I would, soon, talk to all of them for the next 40 minutes. Before my class, I squat at the corner of the classroom, unready to speak. I asked myself: “Is there something missing in your mind? How could I ever imagine that I could teach them about birds!”

But I couldn’t squat there all day. Eventually, I stood up, with my palm sweating profusely, and started the first Birding Club lesson. My talking speed was so rapid that I finished the lesson within 20 minutes when it was originally planned for double that time. I had to find something for the members to watch to pass the next 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the documentary did not play. Either my laptop hung or the file needed VIP access to view. Minutes ticked by, and there was still nothing to show the students. In the end, I found one documentary and played it for two minutes before the class finished.

Although the first lesson was a near disaster, over time, I became more confident, more experienced, and my lessons were more interesting. In the one-and-a-half years that have gone by, I’ve performed nearly 30 mini-lessons, hosted six outside-campus birding trips, and organised two lectures with experts. But the thing that has rewarded me the most is how the students slowly begin to like these “feathered wings,” and will sometimes show me the birds that they photographed when traveling.

Some PowerPoint pages from my Birding Club lessons. When my mini lessons become more interesting, “Wow”, “Oh really? A bird can do that?” “Birds are not bird-brains!” are common responses from the club members.

I’ve also created my own official WeChat account and written around 40 original articles to raise awareness of birds and other wildlife. From recording my traveling experiences at first, to writing about specific animals (for example, a disclosure on the wing structure of the club-winged manakins) and debating topics like “Why we shall protect animals,” the interactions of people and animals in Tibet, and the conflicts between animal welfare and nature conservation, I went from simply “liking animals” to digging deep into the topics of nature conservation.

Voicing out for those who cannot speak

An encounter in Yunnan in December 2018 strengthened my dream to participate in nature conservation in the future. In a national park in the city of Pu’er, I sneaked into the “No Tourists” area while no one was around. The midday sun warmed my back, and the air smelled tropical, but I still felt cold on the inside. Following the clamour of animals, I found what I was searching for: a line of cages, with some irritated macaques and stressed eagle owls. I started to record videos with my camera and my shaking hands. Because I was way too nervous, there were several lapses in my footage so I had to redo the filming. After finishing the record, I scrambled out of the place, not even daring to look back.

Here you might be wondering, what was I doing in a no-tourist area?

A few days before the filming, I came to this national park with the idea of viewing wildlife. This place was advocated as the “heaven for interacting with animals,” and indeed, the animals seemed to be roaming free, ready for the tourists to see at a close distance.  However, I soon realised that something was amiss: elementary feathers are necessary for a bird to fly, yet they were gone on the owls here; when the tourists come close, these owls could only stumble away. Nocturnal animals should appear only at night, but here, they stayed on the treetops in broad daylight. To discover what was happening, I launched a “personal investigation” and eventually found these cages that backed up my assumption: the park caged the animals every night in a confined little space and released them in the day, to conjure up a scene of “animals peacefully interacting with humans.” 

The Bengal slow loris (Nycticebus bengalensis) is a nocturnal animal but is forced to stay on the treetops in daylight to face the cameras of tourists.

But how could no one notice that these were against an animal’s natural behaviours? How could anyone miss such blatant deceits and leave this park satisfied, thinking that “this is how we interact with wildlife”? I realised that, at least in China, public education on nature conservation still has a long way to go. Still, many people assume that wildlife conservation is to confine the animals while feeding them well; still, many people believe that wildlife is a tool to play with.

When I wrote my observations, I realised how I could use my power to inform other people, and perhaps change their behaviour, when a stranger who read the article told me, “I will never go there again.” Yes, I am going to tell people how conservation isn’t “saving” the animals and keep them in a sanctuary, nor is it as simple as “putting them into a nature reserve.” It is using scientific methods to enable an increase in the population of animal species and it is considering the need for animals and people, to fully realise a strong correlation.

When I first tried birdwatching two years ago, I never considered it as my lifelong goal. But now, through finding these feathered heralds, preparing the lessons in the Birding Club, and organising more birdwatching trips, I have established my future goal.

When I was young, hearing stories about burned and chopped rainforest always made me feel helpless and sad. But now I realised, although coming to the Anthropocene is unavoidable, we can still change our attitudes towards nature and wildlife. Birdwatching, for me, is not merely an interest, but also a way to view the world, and a forever lighthouse to light up my future path towards nature conservation.

A hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoatzin) in the Amazon Rainforest.

There will always be dark corners in the world, but that is why we endeavour to fight: to make our earth a better, and better home.

Photos: Animal pictures taken by Ariel Chen


Featured Image: Chen Yanzhi (Ariel) taking field notes in Yunnan Province, China.


12 thoughts on “Young Ambassador for Nature: Soaring High with Ariel Chen”

    1. Thank you, Jane. Yes, she is! Her parents are also wonderful, allowing her space to explore her interest in nature, despite the pressure on young students in China.

  1. An amazing young woman trying to make a difference such dedication and enthusiasm. An inspiring article for all youngsters to follow in her footsteps and follow your dreams and you will succeed in making a difference however small carry on till you achieve your goals

  2. Wow! So inspirational. Keep spreading the word Ariel you are doing amazing work.

    Mike Edgecombe
    Oriental Bird Club Council Member

  3. We hear so much negative news about China while here in the west, so it is reassuring that there is a young generation full of enthusiasm to make a difference and influence others.

  4. Well done, Ariel. I hope your efforts and enthusiasm can inspire others, old and young alike. Appreciating birds and the places they live has been a first step for many of us to try to conserve them and their habitats. The future belongs to young people like you: it is heartening to know that your dedication and determination is being put to saving birds. Don’t let anyone discourage you 🙂


  5. Opened your blog today Terry to read about Beijing’s Greenish Warblers (and how to ID them with any level of confidence – was that one I saw today here in Korea?), and came across this inspirational article instead. All power to Ariel and those like her! And many thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Nial. Thank you. If you work out how to ID the Greenish Warblers, do let us know! Seriously, would love to see pics and/or hear a sound recording of your bird in Korea today. Still some uncertainty about what the Beijing birds are but there is work ongoing (blood samples were taken a couple of years ago). Thanks again, Terry

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