Xi Zhinong: Saving Yunnan snub-nosed monkey

Local officials figured they’d have no problems switching logging operations to another tract of forest. Enter Xi Zhinong.

Local officials figured they’d have no problems switching logging operations to another tract of forest. Enter Xi Zhinong.

Set in a far-flung corner of Yunnan province, barely a stone’s throw from Tibet and northern Burma, Deqin County is one of China’s most remote places. Search for it on a map, and you find little but the county town, and mountains cut by the upper reaches of three great rivers: the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze. Beijing lies some two thousand miles to the northeast. So when a logging concession was heading for exhaustion, local officials surely figured they’d have no problems switching operations to another tract of forest. True, given the forest is home to a species listed as nationally protected—Yunnan snub-nosed monkey—they should first obtain permission from the Ministry of Forestry. But, as they say in such parts of China, “The sun is high and the emperor is far away”. The forest was theirs to exploit as they wished.
How wrong they were. From being an obscure administrative district that even many Yunnan people barely knew existed, Deqin has found itself the focus of national attention. Television and newspaper reports have told of officials bending and breaking rules with the aim of exploiting one of China’s beleagured old-growth forests—and have explained that this would push the rare monkey closer to extinction. Directives have come down from the very top tiers of government. A logging ban has been imposed. Heads have rolled.
A complex chain of events unravelled the officials’ plans. Happenstance played a part. So too did environmentalists, wildlife experts, journalists, students, government leaders and others. But trace the chain back to its origin and you find one man: Xi Zhinong, a cameraman with a passion for wildlife whose actions have made him one of China’s foremost conservationists.
[Written for BBC Wildlife magazine in 1999.]

Cameraman with a passion for wildlife

The 34-year-old Xi hails from near Dali, a rural town in western Yunnan. As a small boy, he played with farm creatures like ducks and chickens, and developed an affinity for animals. At seven, he moved with his family to the provincial capital, Kunming. “I felt like a bird in a cage,” he recalls. “But in summer, I used to cycle into the countryside and watch birds and other wildlife.”
Leaving school, Xi worked with his father, an architect. Then came one of the seemingly chance encounters he evidently has a knack of exploiting. His mother arranged a meeting with a renowned ornithologist, and he put Xi in the care of a former student of his, Wang Zijiang, who had become a professor at Yunnan University. Over the next five years, Xi spent many of his holidays studying migratory birds with Wang. He also had his first experience in natural history filming, which sparked his desire to become a cameraman.
{{{When a crew from Kunming Film Studios made a film on birds, they asked Wang to act as scientific adviser, and he took Xi along as an assistant. For a segment showing a songbird feeding young, the cameraman tied nestlings to the nest. “Afterwards, he didn’t untie them, and the next day they were dead,” says Xi. “I was so shocked that I decided to spend my life filming free birds.”}}}
Helped by a correspondence course, Xi began teaching himself photography. In 1989, he joined Kunming Educational Television as a video cameraman. There was no call for pure wildlife film making, though the experience helped him become cameraman for a team that studied black-necked cranes the next year, which in turn proved a boon when, during a trip to Beijing, he called in at China Central Television and told the producer of the one of the country’s top documentary series, Animal World, “I very much want to film animals.” “We haven’t covered Yunnan,” the producer said. Xi was given a film camera—his first—along with sound recording equipment, and sent back down to his home province. He was there over a year, making films on two places and on the slow loris.
His Yunnan project over, Xi left Animal World. Yunnan Forestry Department was about to establish a film crew, and invited him to join. “We bought a camera, editing equipment and so on, and enjoyed a certain degree of freedom to film what we liked,” says Xi. There would be obligatory sequences of officials’ meetings, but they could also head out to cover nature reserve staff. And Xi decided he would film wildlife in Yunnan. As his first species, he chose the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey.
“I’d first heard about the monkey when I was making the slow loris film, and met Professor Long Yong-cheng,” says Xi. “He told me he was studying the monkey, and that it’s very rare and almost unique to Yunnan. But though Yunnan’s Asian elephants and green peafowl are widely known, and the province is hailed as the “Kingdom of Wildlife”, hardly anyone knew about the monkey. I vowed to document its life, so that people would regard it as the ‘King’ of the kingdom.”

Relative of the golden monkey

Though the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus [roxellanae] bietii) has lately garnered a measure of fame in China, you may not have heard of it till now. But you surely know of its close relative, the golden monkey (Rhinopithecus [roxellanae] roxellanae), which is one of three forms of snub-nosed monkeys—which are treated by some zoologists as sub-species, by others as species. All are unique to central and southwest China; all are robust animals with shaggy fur, a couple of bumps that pass for a nose, and countenances suggesting they have far more weightier things on their minds than do other, more regular monkeys. Although one form—the grey snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus [roxellanae] brelichii)—is now restricted to just one mountain, the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey was until very recently the least known of the three. Indeed, with none seen for 70 years until eight pelts were bought by Deqin residents in 1967, it had been feared extinct.
Early this decade, Long Yong-cheng and American zoologist Craig Kirkpatrick cooperated in a two-year survey sponsored by WWF and the Kunming Zoology Institute. During it, they recorded 1000 to 1500 Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys living in fir forest on mountains separating the upper Yangtze and Mekong rivers. Once, the forest would have been almost continuous, a great ribbon of evergreens between the alpine meadows above and oak and pine forest below. But felling to make way for fields and for timber had chopped it into isolated patches, and the monkeys were in 13 “islands”.
This fragmentation of habitat likewise afflicts the giant panda, whose range starts some 300 miles to the north. And when Long and Kirkpatrick followed the survey by investigating the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey’s behaviour, they found it shares another trait with the giant panda: an odd, highly restricted diet. But instead of bamboo, the monkey specialises in eating the lichens that hang like old cobwebs from the branches of great fir trees.
The monkeys in the study area also proved unusual as they lived in one great band of about 175 individuals. This was divided into 16 or 17 groups, each with a male and up to five females and their young. Though groups apparently ignored each other most of the time, the band roamed the forest as a unit. Long and Kirkpatrick speculated this behaviour was related to their diet: the monkeys could pick an area virtually clean of lichen—which might take a couple of decades to recover—then move on to a place where the lichen was intact.
Although the behaviour study was conducted in a nature reserve, Baimaxueshan (White Horse Snow Mountain), the monkeys had at times been hunted—for pelts that were reputedly good for babies to sleep on, or simply for meat—and the researchers found them wary of people. This wariness, coupled with the steep terrain and dense cover, was to thwart Xi’s plans to film them. During three years, he made six visits to the reserve, each lasting between 20 days and over two months, and each requiring four or five days’ travel there from Kunming, yet he encountered the monkeys only twice. “They were very alert, and usually stayed high in the trees,” he says. “I did film some, but they were far away.”

Letter to a high official

In 1995, shortly after the research ended, Xi learned of plans to log a nearby forest that was home to over 200 monkeys. He was filming a meeting near Deqin, and found the Baimaxueshan director marking a map with lines showing where the reserve boundary lay, and telling logging company staff they could cut no further than this. Xi asked about the logging plan, and the fate of the monkeys. “I know it’s wrong,” said the director. “But the area’s under the control of the county government, and we have to obey their instructions.”
Xi contacted Long Yong-cheng, and found he already knew of the forthcoming destruction, but felt powerless—how could he stop a government decision?
“I felt very angry,” says Xi. “I asked the director of the prefecture’s forestry bureau, ‘Do you know the logging company is about to cut a forest that’s home to Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys?’” The director told Xi, “It’s beyond my power.” Xi persisted in asking him about the decision, until the director replied, “Unless you can obtain the eight million yuan we need for the county budget each year, how can we stop this?”
Back in Kunming, Xi told the provincial forestry department’s conservation section about the logging plan. “The forest is outside the nature reserve, so we have no authority there; we can’t interfere with the county,” they said. The vice director of the bureau said much the same thing. Xi tried the media in Kunming; they worried that the issue would be too sensitive as the Tibetan minoritywas involved. A reporter from China Central Television visited Yunnan, agreed to make a programme, but returned to Beijing and didn’t contact Xi again.
Maybe that would have been the end of Xi’s campaign, had it not been for a letter by a friend of his to one of China’s leading environmentalists, Tang Xiyang. Writing to say he had greatly enjoyed a book by Tang,the friend mentioned Xi and his struggle to save a forest that held Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys. On receiving the letter, Tang phoned Xi and suggested he write to state councillor Song Jian, who was especially interested in conservation. Xi drafted the letter, and Tang and friends helped polish it. Even with their help, Xi found it tough to actually sign the letter. “In China, with memories of times like the Cultural Revolution, common citizens still consider it risky to confront the government,” he says. “When I typed the final draft on a friend’s computer, he joked that if I went to jail, he would come to see me.”
The letter to Song Jian proved the key to protecting the forest. Song passed it on to the Ministry of Forestry, telling them that it was a last, desperate cry for help, and suggesting they investigate the issue. Via Tang and conservation group Friends of Nature, copies reached the media, and the logging plans were reported in the international press then a few Chinese publications; students from several colleges in Beijing responded by organising a meeting to pray for the monkeys. Tang conceived a “Green Camp”, during which he would lead students to the forest, adding to the publicity.
Shortly before the Green Camp—in July 1996—the forestry department sent two investigative teams to Deqin; they reported back, and the ministry ordered a halt to the logging. Xi visited with a crew from the central television station; the report on national news increased the pressure to protect the forest and the monkeys. And yet, the county officials seemed intent on proceeding with their plan. “We were told the construction of the logging road had been stopped, but found this wasn’t true,” says Shelly Shi, who was among the 23 students on the Green Camp. “The local officials tried to stop us going to the monkeys’ forest, even blowing up the road to it. But we walked there, and afterwards gave newspaper and television interviews.”

A great effect on Yunnan

The next month, work on the road stopped. The county’s 8 million yuan budget was covered by compensation from the central government. Xi sourced a grant of US$9000 for Baimaxueshan Nature Reserve, to fund a programme to educate local people about the Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys. But while he had become a hero to some people, his efforts were far from appreciated at the Yunnan Forestry Bureau, where he found the locks were changed the lock on his equipment store. Xi left the bureau, and headed to Beijing, where he joined China’s main current affairs series—and married Shelly Shi, who says Xi has inspired her to become a dedicated conservationist.
Shi has since worked with WWF’s China programme, while Xi has at times filmed conservation issues, including the plight of the Tibetan antelope. But both remain closely tied to the forests and monkeys of that remote corner of Yunnan province.
Last spring, Xi learned that the logging company was still operating in the almost exhausted forest that it had been set to leave, even though the government compensation was supposedly given on condition of an end to felling. He told a reporter from national television, who took a crew that secretly filmed operations.
“We were on holiday in the forest when the programme aired,” recalls Shi. “When we returned to the county town, it was as if an earthquake had happened. The Yunnan Forestry Department’s vice-director had come out from Kunming, and held a meeting at which the county governor had to confess his mistakes.” Even then, Deqin was not out of the spotlight. Last summer, China was hit by devastating floods last summer that were largely blamed on deforestation in river catchments, and in their wake the central television station made three documentaries explaining the problem. One of these focused on Deqin. “China’s vice-premier Zhu Rongji saw it,” says Shi, “and asked his secretary to call the governor of Yunnan province, who immediately wrote to the Yunnan Forestry Department, recommending the programme be watched by all forestry officials, so they could reflect on past mistakes. So, there’s been a great effect on Yunnan.”
In Deqin, the vice-county governor was since demoted. Given the “earthquake” and accompanying ructions, officials there may well wish they never see Xi again (indeed, he has heard rumours of threats against him). But Xi and Shi plan to spend far more time in the county.They aim to return over the next few years, to educate the villagers and other locals about conservation, and to try establishing nature tourism. From this spring, they’ll be based in Kunming, where Xi and friends recently founded an NGO, Action for Green (“It sounds less radical in Chinese,” says Shi). “We’ve found college students who are very enthusiastic,” says Xi. “We want to increase international attention for species like the Tibetan antelope and the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey.”

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