The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter -

China's re­cently dis­cov­ered Gaoligong gib­bon is a rare beast in­deed, one that might never have been no­ticed at all, were it not for the ef­forts of an in­trepid teacher-turned­wildlife-watcher. TWOC ven­tures into the rain­for­est with the dis­cov­erer of China's new­est pri­mate


Some 20 years ago, Li Ji­a­hong heard a siren song deep in the for­est, and an­swered it. When­ever lo­cal farm­ers told the school­teacher that they had heard or even spot­ted “black mon­keys,” he tried to track the crea­tures down.

It took him eight years be­fore he even­tu­ally caught one on cam­era—a gib­bon in the Gaoligong Moun­tains (高黎贡山) on the bor­der of Myan­mar. Slowly, the in­ter­na­tional re­search ma­chin­ery cranked into gear. In May 2017, spe­cial­ists from four con­ti­nents pub­lished the re­sults: Teacher “Gib­bon” Li had dis­cov­ered an en­tirely new species of ape.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. The Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Pri­ma­tol­ogy lists 15 anatomists, ge­neti­cists, tax­onomists, and evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gists who were in­volved in the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Hoolock tianx­ing (天行 “Sky­walker”) gib­bon. A trib­ute to the I Ching, or Book of Changes, as well as the Jedi hero of Star Wars, the name is an ac­knowl­edge­ment of the gib­bon’s mastery of ac­ro­bat­ics.

But the most im­por­tant part of the name is its in­con­spic­u­ous ap­pen­dix, sp. nov, or species nova. Nowa­days, most bi­ol­o­gists are sat­is­fied to dis­cover an ob­scure cave moth or a deep-sea jel­ly­fish; China’s dis­cov­ery of a new ape could likely only be sur­passed by find­ing a yeti or Mar­tian.

Li’s pic­tures had first found their way to Fan Peng-fei, at the time an as­pir­ing young wildlife bi­ol­o­gist at Dali Univer­sity. Fan tried to match the im­ages to one of the two species of hoolock gib­bons al­ready re­ported in the area, but was un­able to find a fit. Could it be a third species? Dur­ing the lengthy process of ex­am­in­ing the cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence, Fan mo­bi­lized spe­cial­ists in skulls, furs and teeth, ex­am­ined ex­cre­ment, and pulled up com­par­a­tive ex­am­ples from zoos in Bangladesh and mu­se­ums in Philadel­phia.

But it all started with Li Ji­a­hong. We ar­range to meet him in Bai­hua vil­lage (百花村), one of 11 sta­tions in the Gaoligong­shan Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve that serve as stag­ing posts for the war­dens and fire ser­vices, and as con­tact points for vis­i­tors. What are the odds of meet­ing a Sky­walker, I ask him? “That de­pends on whether the apes are in good hu­mor,” Li replies with a twin­kle. “And whether you are lucky.”

On our first day of search­ing, we are def­i­nitely not lucky. But I still en­joy prowl­ing through the bush


with “Gib­bon” Li, a na­ture lover and au­to­di­dact, easy­go­ing but pro­fes­sional. Li works for the park ad­min­is­tra­tion pho­tograph­ing and film­ing what­ever he en­coun­ters, from gi­ant squir­rels to red pan­das. He camps out in the bush sev­eral nights a month, ex­plain­ing, “I am not afraid of the an­i­mals, but rather hu­mans.” A teacher by train­ing, he has also been in­stru­men­tal in de­vel­op­ing a “school of na­ture” for fam­i­lies and groups ven­tur­ing up the moun­tains.

In re­cent years, many new species have been dis­cov­ered in the area, and some that were thought to have be­come ex­tinct have been spot­ted anew. “Ev­ery­where species de­cline,” re­marks Li with a smile, “only here they in­crease.” He says that when the di­rec­tor of Yel­low­stone Na­tional Park vis­ited re­cently, he con­fessed that this was the kind of na­ture he’d al­ways dreamed about.

In the dim moun­tain for­est, first im­pres­sions can seem rather con­fus­ing though. Ev­ery­thing sprouts, grows, blos­soms, and rots si­mul­ta­ne­ously; you can­not see the trees for the wood. Mag­no­lias and camel­lias try to outdo one an­other, lau­rel and thea­ceous plants get tan­gled up. The tree trunks seem to serve merely as a frame­work for ten­drils, lichen, and lianas.

With a healthy dose of re­spect, Li points out bear scat on the way­side— some of his col­leagues have been badly in­jured by Asian black bears, also known as “moon bears.” Up on the ridge, peas­ant women gather tea leaves. It was here that Li had his mem­o­rable first en­counter with a Sky­walker on the morn­ing of May 16, 2005. “I heard their calls and ran up­hill,” he re­calls. “Two apes scram­bled about in the tree­tops.” They fled, with Li in pur­suit. When the male called out to his mate, she looked back—and Li shot the first pic­ture of a Sky­walker gib­bon.

Later, he re­turned with Fan and his stu­dents. At first, the apes were very reclu­sive, be­cause they were still oc­ca­sion­ally hunted. But with Li’s pa­tient tute­lage, the an­i­mals grad­u­ally lost some of their fear of hu­mans. On our trip, we had hoped for a sim­i­lar leap of faith, but it seemed in vain. Nev­er­the­less, Li is still con­fi­dent that an en­counter can be brought about.

Fur­ther west, a lo­cal man named Jiang Zi’an combs the for­est. “He is one of my best men. I reckon he will find them,” Li tells me. Li re­cruited Jiang per­son­ally dur­ing one of his vis­its to the neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties. He usu­ally asks for “ex­pe­ri­enced men”—that is to say, ex­pe­ri­enced hunters, even though hunt­ing has been of­fi­cially banned in these parts for 20 years now. But hav­ing taught some of their chil­dren, Li has gained the lo­cal farm­ers’ trust and re­spect.

As night­fall ap­proaches, we de­scend to one of the sta­tions. Our ac­com­mo­da­tion is quite rus­tic:

run­ning wa­ter on the bal­cony, shared toi­lets in the yard, hard pal­lets for beds. The wife of one of the park war­dens heads up the kitchen, an­other looks af­ter the rooms. A ranger earns about 1,500 RMB a month, but the job is en­hanced by the fact that his rel­a­tives might find em­ploy­ment with the park too. The uni­form brings fur­ther pres­tige, even though the ad­min­is­tra­tion does not have suf­fi­cient means to out­fit all 200 em­ploy­ees.

The next morn­ing, break­fast seems to be drag­ging on. Some more noo­dles? No thanks. How about a pa­paya? Yes, please. Do you want to talk to some rangers? Maybe later. Would you like to have some time for your­self ? No need for that. Fi­nally, Li comes right out with it: “We have lost them.”

So in­stead, we de­cide to pro­ceed to Bai­hual­ing (百花岭), about a hun­dred kilo­me­tres to the north, on the slopes of the Nu River val­ley. The vil­lage be­came known na­tion­ally af­ter its res­i­dents took a high-rank­ing of­fi­cial to court for il­le­gal log­ging in the com­mu­nal for­est dur­ing the 1990s. The oc­cu­pants of Bai­hual­ing had other plans for their land. The farm­ers planted trees and bushes that at­tracted birds; birds at­tract bird-watch­ers, and they be­came the com­mu­nity’s main source of in­come. There are not too many places on earth where you can spot 40 to 60 dif­fer­ent species of bird within a few hours. About 530 have been iden­ti­fied so far, and ex­perts es­ti­mate that these forests might host around 600 species al­to­gether—more than all of Europe.

So far, the Gaoligong­shan sanc­tu­ary only holds the sta­tus of a na­tional na­ture re­serve. But its enor­mous bio­di­ver­sity, along with Li’s newly dis­cov­ered species of gib­bon, could help turn it into a na­tional park. We roam the ro­man­tic for­est for two days, but the gib­bons here also re­main in­vis­i­ble. Even­tu­ally we re­turn to Bai­hua vil­lage, dis­ap­pointed.

The next day, break­fast ends abruptly. “We have found them!” ex­claims one of the rangers. We rush to the car, drive a short dis­tance up­hill, and hit the bush. In the shadow of a gi­ant gin­ger plant, Jiang Zi’an is wait­ing for us. He points out four shapes high up in the tree­tops. The mother has a baby at­tached to her chest, while the se­cond in­fant and its fa­ther are mov­ing through the crowns at a leisurely pace. They feast on ten­der leaves as if ev­ery sin­gle one is a del­i­cacy, and ig­nore us en­tirely. Now, we are lucky in­deed.

The apes scram­ble through the branches as if grav­ity does not af­fect them. We for­get the time com­pletely. Jiang re­turns to the sta­tion to grab some­thing to eat. Game­keep­ers like Jiang are the true he­roes of these moun­tains: They defy the down­pours of mon­soon in sum­mer, and hold out in the clammy cabi­nets of their stag­ing posts dur­ing win­ter. They risk get­ting stuck in the swamps, or spiked by the bam­boo stalks that point up like spears in the brush­wood. And all the while, they jeal­ously guard a small pack of apes for pal­try pay.

Less than 200 Skywalkers roam the Gaoligong woods. The gi­ant panda, the most high-pro­file of en­dan­gered Chi­nese wildlife, has a pop­u­la­tion at least 10 times that. Three-quar­ters of all ape species in Asia are threat­ened with ex­tinc­tion, and 95 per­cent of their habi­tat is dwin­dling away. A planet of the ape-less? A March sur­vey by the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Sciences con­cluded that hu­man­ity has “one last op­por­tu­nity” to save “our clos­est liv­ing bi­o­log­i­cal rel­a­tives”.

Jiang re­turns to take our place. At our farewell, I thank him for his com­mit­ment. “That’s OK,” he jokes, “Teacher Li has promised me an ex­tra por­tion of zhou,” re­fer­ring to the thick rice por­ridge that is very pop­u­lar in the south. Other rangers may ask for ex­tra pay when they have to work over­time; Jiang just re­gards it as his duty to keep an eye on the an­i­mals. I want to ex­press my es­teem, but what­ever comes to mind seems ei­ther pompous or triv­ial. Whether I am au­tho­rized or not, I thank him on be­half of all mankind. He just shrugs his shoul­ders and goes to fol­low his pro­tégés deeper into the for­est.


A Sky­walker gib­bon se­lects a juicy fruit


The land­scape of the na­ture re­serve is stun­ning at dusk

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