Around Southern China in 20 Days

Heidi Ma
by Heidi Ma on

Heidi Ma, Hainan Gibbon Project Coordinator

Heidi Ma, Hainan Gibbon Project Coordinator at ZSL, on her trip in southern China to learn more about its habitat and forge new conservation partnerships.

Hainan gibbons
Hainan gibbon female with infant.

Just before the start of a new year in the Chinese lunar calendar - the Year of the Monkey - I joined colleagues Sam Turvey, Jessica Bryant, Becky Chen, and Clare Duncan on a whirlwind journey through southern China. 

While I grew up in Beijing and have been a rather intrepid traveller, this was my first trip working as the new coordinator for the ZSL Institute of Zoology’s Hainan gibbon project. 

The Hainan Gibbon (Nomascus hainanus) is the world’s rarest ape and primate species, restricted to one forest patch on China’s Hainan Island. Since 2010, Sam and Jessica have been conducting research on this species on the brink of extinction; two months ago, I joined their team. 

The main purpose of this trip was to strengthen existing relationships with our collaborators in academia, government, and the non-profit sector in China, to explore new partnerships, and to continue vegetation mapping and acoustic monitoring in the Hainan gibbon’s home in Hainan Province. 

A full itinerary of meetings, guest lectures by Sam, and field visits took us on a grand tour of Guangzhou, Dali, Xishuangbanna, Haikou, and Bawangling National Nature Reserve over the course of three weeks.

The tropical rainforests of Bawangling National Nature Reserve
The tropical rainforests of Bawangling National Nature Reserve

To any traveler, the sheer diversity of flora, fauna, landscapes, and culture across southern China is mind-blowing. Guangzhou, known for its insatiable appetite for exotic wildlife consumption, is also home to the picturesque Sun Yat-Sen University, where our collaborators Professors Fan Pengfei and Zhang Peng, are based. 

In Dali, we forged connections with the Institute of Eastern-Himalaya Biodiversity Research at Dali University and local NGO Cloud Mountain Conservation. 

At the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, also a Chinese Academy of Sciences research campus, we met with Professor Richard Corlett’s research group at the Center for Integrative Conservation which included previous collaborator Dr Zhang Mingxia.

In the following days, we visited the Golden Peacock Tour Group, who jointly manages one of the reserves that contain the last remaining wild Asian elephant populations in China. In this hilly frontier region bordering Myanmar and Laos, human-elephant conflict is serious and takes a heavy toll on local villagers and elephants alike. Becky led discussions on the potential of assisting their conservation work.

After 10 days of visiting universities and research institutions, productive discussions, and Sam’s four guest lectures, we were able to solidify existing partnerships and establish further common research interests and goals. 

We then finally made our way to the Bawangling National Nature Reserve, where Jessica began piloting acoustic monitoring techniques for the Hainan gibbon last year. Jess’ goal this time was to trouble-shoot the programs of the five Song Meter SM3 bioacoustics recorders and bring in three brand new ones, recently awarded by Wildlife Acoustics, Inc. 

The Song Meters are specialized audio recorders for wildlife research that are designed to record at specific time periods each day, and are able to withstand long periods of deployment in the field. They have been used successfully for a variety of animals detectable by their sound, including birds, bats, insects, and amphibians, but are now just being tested for gibbon monitoring.

The acoustic data can then be analysed with a customized software, and we hope they will yield vital insights to gibbon activity and possibly even discover new individuals and family groups. 

Jessica, Clare, and Heidi ground-truthing land cover in the Miao villages bordering the Bawangling National Nature Reserve
Jessica, Clare, and Heidi ground-truthing land cover in the Miao villages bordering the Bawangling National Nature Reserve

Additionally, with the help of Clare’s expertise in remote sensing and vegetation surveys, we attempted to ground-truth different types of land cover, such as rubber plantation, pine plantation, banana stands, villages, and roads. However, the hard part wasn’t setting the recording programs right, nor was it collecting GPS waypoints; it was explaining to the reserve management bureau why gathering a scientific evidence-based for conservation management was necessary at all!

Without receiving access permits in time for more fieldwork in the reserve’s core zone, we found ourselves looking at the Futouling ridge across a gully from the road, standing opposite from the entire home range of possibly the world’s rarest mammal. Even though I didn’t see the elusive Hainan gibbons on this trip, taking in such a view was a solemn moment to remember—and to be reminded by of how much work needs to be done.

  • The Hainan gibbon is the world’s rarest ape. Through its research and conservation efforts, ZSL is hoping to save it from extinction. Read more.
  • Become a Wildlife Champion to help ZSL work for some of the world’s most endangered animal species.

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