“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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Yinggeling

“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!

Introducing some of the younger members of th group to birding near Haikou
Introducing some of the younger members of the group to birding near Haikou before travelling to Yinggeling
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Introductions and initial briefing at Yinggeling
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An impromptu game of football (in walking boots!) between the students and reserve staff was a good pre-lunch workout at our base in Yinggeling.

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.

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The students take a breather during the hike to the waterfall in Yinggeling Nature Reserve
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The hike took us through some beautiful forest and alongside a narrow stream..
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The students collected 6 bags of litter over the day!

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.

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Preparing for the hike to Daoyin
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Students making one of the river crossings on the way to Daoyin
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A spectacular old tree on the way to Daoyin

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.

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Local children
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One of the new houses in Daoyin. On the orders of the government, any new buildings must have metal roofs as traditional grass roofs are considered a fire hazard.
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A more traditional house, made from mud and bamboo, with a roof of dried leaves.

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.

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Harvesting honey from one of the villages’ hives

 

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Eating the grubs from the beehive was not to everyone’s taste!

 

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Local children released a Hainan Partridge back into the wild after it had recovered from being injured in an illegal trap (see more on the video at the end of this post!)

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..

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The rangers enjoying a well-earned cup of tea after three days patrolling the forest.

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.

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This Yellow-bellied Weasel was caught in an illegal trap. After recuperating, it will be released back into the wild in the area where it was found.

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.

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As we left the village, I just had time for a farewell toast with village leader, Mr Fu Guohua, using the bamboo cups he had made for me as a gift..
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Farewells at Daoyin

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.

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One of the student groups explaining what they had learned and their ideas for the future
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All 14 students received a certificate from the head of the Yinggeling nature reserve

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.

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The group photo at the reserve HQ just before departure to Haikou
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The seafood market in Haokou was a visual treat!
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Some strange-looking fish were on sale in Haikou market
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Enjoying a coconut was a great way to end the trip for most of the students

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.

A Hainan Adventure

For more than a year Birding Beijing has been a proud partner of EcoAction, a new and innovative Chinese organisation focused on education for the environment, sustainable development and ecotourism.  In November I helped to introduce birding to a group of middle school students at the Botanical Gardens in Beijing.  On Friday I will travel to Hainan, an island off the south coast of China, to help lead my first field trip outside the capital.  We will be taking 16 students to Yinggeling (鹦哥岭) Nature Reserve in the remote and mountainous centre of Hainan.

The reserve covers a large area – 33km from north to south and 39km from east to west – crossing the boundaries of  Baisha, Wuzhishan and Qiongzhong Counties, and with an elevation range of 200-1812m.  It is apparently the largest remaining contiguous tract of primary rainforest in China.

Yinggeling is a treasure trove of biological diversity and recent scientific expeditions have discovered many new species, including more than a dozen new trees and the Yinggeling Tree Frog (first described in 2003).  Scientists believe that there are still many discoveries to be made in this relatively unspoiled part of China.

We are privileged to have been invited into the heart of the nature reserve (no wifi or mobile phone signal and not even electricity or running water!), where we will be hosted by staff from the conservation organisation, Kadoorie Farm, and local minority people.  The aim is to demonstrate to the students the beauty and value of a forest ecosystem and the intricate dependencies, from the smallest leaf-ant to the mammals and birds of prey at the top of the food chain.  Activities will include exploring the forest looking for, and studying plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and, of course birds, as well as learning about the local Li minority’s culture and how they have lived in harmony with the environment for generations.

It’s going to be an adventure…  and with three Chinese endemics possible – Hainan Peacock-pheasant, Hainan Partridge and Hainan Leaf Warbler – as well as a host of amazing wildlife, I can’t wait!

Here are a couple of photos of the reserve to whet the appetite…

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