Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Timberland Earthkeepers: Like the deserts miss the rain...

Over the last two days, as part of Timberland's contributions towards fighting desertification, we helped to prune poplars, and also planted pine saplings. Today, we bade farewell to Inner Mongolia, and embarked on the next leg of our journey, to the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province.

To find out why I'm so gleefully holding a leafy branch, read on.

Once again, we got up early, had breakfast, and boarded the buses that took us out of Ganqika and back to the city of Shenyang. Since we were going to spend much of the day on the road, I was prepared to make use of every opportunity to spot animals and insects, even in the urban areas. At some point, there was a brief stopover, and I took the chance to poke around in a small patch of grass nearby.

I found this mantis.

As well as a wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi).

Most abundant, however, were the many grasshoppers, belonging to several different species, that were leaping and flying about everywhere.

We eventually reached Shenyang Taoxian International Airport, where we boarded the late morning Air China flight to the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province.

Here's a photo of Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport.

And yes, there's a revolving giant panda in front. The Sichuanese are understandably proud of their giant pandas.

One obvious difference between Chengdu and Ganqika is the weather; the heat and humidity in Chengdu are comparable to that experienced on an ordinary day in Singapore. However, there is little wind in Chengdu, and so it is constantly muggy and stuffy. It made me miss Inner Mongolia, where there was usually at least a slight breeze.

We checked into the Millennium Hotel Chengdu, a place that truly earns its five-star hotel status. A darn pity that we would staying here for just one night.

We met in the lobby, where there was another creature comfort we'd taken for granted: free Wi-Fi. I didn't have the time to make a quick dash to the Starbucks just outside and grab a white chocolate mocha frappuccino though, because we had other plans for the evening. Dinner was in a restaurant situated in one of the heritage and cultural areas of the city.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your palate), dinner wasn't the notoriously spicy Sichuan hot pot.

After dinner, we visited the famous Shu Feng Ya Yun Teahouse, to enjoy one of Chengdu's attractions: Sichuan opera.

As we entered, we had to walk past the performers, who were busy preparing for the show.

(Photo by Jervis Mun)

Here's some shots of the interior.

The show began with a musical piece, followed by an introduction by the compere. Note the electronic signboard at the back of the stage.

We were treated to a variety of performances, and while I can't honestly say that I have a newfound appreciation for traditional Chinese culture, it was an interesting time, and I think it's better to let the photos speak for themselves.

There was a stick-puppet segment, which was impressive, considering that it could perform fire-breathing and even face-changing, switching masks in a fraction of a second!

(Photo by Jervis)

Awesome hand shadow performance.

The final item was the most spectacular, involving near-instantaneous changing of costumes and masks.

After that, we were brought to Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi (宽窄巷子; translated as Broad and Narrow Alley) for a bit of shopping. The buildings have been refurbished, but they still retain much of the traditional architecture from the late Qing Dynasty. The place is a mixture of souvenir shops, teahouses, cafes, and clubs, and we spent a fair bit of time taking in the sights and sounds. I wasn't able to take many nice photos of the busy street, but here's an older post showing the same place during the day.

(Photos by Gillian Wu)

Many stores still use old wooden planks as shutters.

This one had faded paintings of door gods (门神) to attract good luck and fend off evil spirits.

We caved in to temptation and visited the local Starbucks.

(Photo by Gillian)

For my friends who failed Chinese in school, this must be a nightmare (Note: I don't know what it says either!).

The city tree of Chengdu is the ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), and I was very pleased to finally find a ginkgo tree in the area.

The modern day ginkgo is actually the sole survivor of an ancient lineage of non-flowering plants, with fossils dating as far back as the Early Jurassic period of Central Asia, some 190 million years ago. This means that once upon a time, dinosaurs would have fed upon ginkgo trees very similar to the ones we have today.

(Photo by Nodens2k)

(Photo by Moon Rabbit)

Fossil of ginkgo leaf dating to Eocene period, 50 million years ago;
(Photo from Virtual Fossil Museum)

We found a gelato store that seems to have been... heavily inspired by Ben & Jerry's and Wendy's.

Even the interior of the store was oddly familiar.

These giant panda keyrings remind me of the logo of a certain international conservation organisation...

Well, it is China.

There was a long stretch of old brick wall with information panels about the history of Chengdu, but unfortunately, we didn't have the time to read all of them and better understand the city's past.

When I returned to my room, I found out that Timberland had given us 3 more T-shirts, to be worn for the rest of the trip. Nice.

I bought a handful of gifts for my sister, and for some close friends. Unfortunately, we weren't able to include places like the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding and Wolong National Nature Reserve in the itinerary, so this was probably the closest I was going to get to seeing a giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) on this trip.

Captive giant panda, Wolong;
(Photo by rchanphoto)

(Photo by fruitnveggies)

I'm still keen on visiting Wolong one day, not just for the giant pandas in the captive breeding facility, but also because of the small chance that I might encounter a wild giant panda in the forest.

Wild giant panda, Wolong;
(Photo by siwild)

Since I wasn't going to be crossing paths with an actual giant panda, what does a naturalist like me do when bored in the hotel room? I attempt to recreate wild animal behaviour using soft toys.

Like I said, I was bored. And besides, we all know that giant pandas have a reputation for having a poor captive breeding record (although that situation has been improving).

And here's a tongue in cheek look at encouraging mating in captive giant pandas:

Giant panda courtship is largely similar to that seen in other bear species; being solitary by nature, scent marking is an important form of communication.

When a female is approaching estrus, males in the area home in on her scent. If she's not ready, she will keep her distance, and he will have to chase her through the forest. Because she is receptive for only two to three days in a year, the male often stands guard, waiting for the right time to mate. However, he may have to fend off rival males, and this leads to noisy and even violent brawls. People often think of giant pandas as placid and adorable animals that do nothing but sit around eating bamboo all day long, but you have to remember that they're still cousins of grizzlies and polar bears.

Here, two males wrestle for dominance.

The male that manages to win these fights may still face some initial resistance from the female before she finally gives in.

ARKive video - Giant panda pair in courtship ARKive video - Giant panda pair in courtship
(ARKive is an excellent repository of information, images, and videos of various endangered species. Here are a couple of links to BBC footage of giant panda courtship)

Once mating is over, they part ways, with the female taking sole responsibility of raising the young. Usually, giant panda mothers raise one cub every two years.

Yes, I know giant pandas are irresistible. But there's so much other fascinating wildlife to see in this part of China.

Wild China: Natural Wonders of the World's Most Enigmatic Land by Phil Chapman was an excellent choice of reading material to bring along for this trip. Published to accompany a BBC documentary series of the same title, this book showcases a stunning variety of China's natural landscapes, cultural heritage, and fascinating wildlife, covering diverse regions, from the taiga forest, steppes, and deserts north of the Great Wall, to the lush subtropical rainforests of Yunnan, and from the mountains and plateaus of Tibet to the fertile floodplains of the Yellow River and Yangtze.

Based on this book, there are a number of important wildlife sites in the region. For instance, Mount Emei, the tallest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, and home of the famous Emei Sect made famous by martial arts novels and drama serials, is just a couple of hours' drive from Chengdu. Here, besides Buddhist monasteries and temples, one can also find troops of Tibetan macaques (Macaca thibetana).

Tibetan macaques at Mount Emei;
(Photo by dave & jen lou)

(Photo by timquijano)
Like their counterparts all over Asia, these monkeys are often fed by people, and as an unfortunate result, have been known to harass tourists.

(Photo by oaxacakid)
I for one wouldn't be very amused if this happened to me, even if the macaque was merely curious and meant no harm.

A far more benign encounter with primates can be experienced at Zhouzhi National Nature Reserve, on the northern slopes of the Qinling Mountains in neighbouring Shaanxi Province. Four hours by road from Xi'an, there is a troop of habituated golden snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana).

Golden snub-nosed monkeys at Zhouzhi National Nature Reserve;
(Photo by gcmaxwell)

(Photo by floridapfe)

Unlike the more omnivorous macaques, this endangered species is vegetarian, feeding on items such as lichen, leaves, and bamboo shoots.

(Photo by Kevin Messenger)

The Qinling Mountains are an excellent place to find another large herbivore, albeit one that's somewhat more dangerous: the golden takin (Budorcas taxicolor bedfordi).

(Photo by makitani)

The takin is a relative of sheep, and is native to the mountain forests of the Himalayas and western China. It also happens to be Bhutan's national animal. Reaching 1 to 1.3 metres in height, and weighing up to 350 kilograms, it's far too massive to leap amongst the crags and cliffs like some of its kin, but is nonetheless an agile and surefooted climber on the forested slopes.

There are four subspecies of takin.
Upper Left: Bhutan takin (Budorcas taxicolor whitei) (Photo by Bhutan Times Ltd)
Upper Right: Mishmi takin (Budorcas taxicolor taxicolor) (Photo by cadviodi)
Lower Left: Sichuan takin (Budorcas taxicolor tibetana) (Photo by Kjell_Doggen)
Lower Right: Golden takin (Budorcas taxicolor bedfordi) (Photo by urasimaru)

The golden takin is found only in the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province. As the seasons change, herds of takin travel up and down the slopes, creating well-worn paths in the forest. In the summer, they may graze in the alpine meadows above the treeline, descending into the forested valleys when winter arrives.

(Photo by Xi Zhinong, taken from ARKive)

On the southern slopes of the Qinling Mountains, an hour's drive from Hanzhong, lies the Yang Xian area of Shaanxi Province. It too is an important site for a notable endangered species, the crested ibis (Nipponia nippon).

(Photo by Quan Min Li, from National Geographic)

Historically, this bird could be found breeding in China, Japan, and the Russian Far East, but due to factors such as hunting, the use of chemicals in agriculture, deforestation, and destruction of wetlands, populations crashed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1981, with just five birds remaining on the island of Sado in Japan, the decision was made to bring them into captivity, with the hope that they could be encouraged to breed and increase their numbers. With this act, the crested ibis was feared to be extinct in the wild. However, later that same year, a tiny remnant wild population, consisting of only four adults and three young, was discovered in Yang Xian.

(Photo by Mike Endres, from IUCNweb)

A species conservation programme was put in place, with the county government of Yang Xian announcing enemy regulations that prohibited logging, the use of chemicals in ricefields, and the use of firearms for hunting. Captive breeding was also implemented. It's just as well that the Chinese birds were rediscovered and protected, as the five birds caught from Sado failed to reproduce. The last surviving Japanese male, named Midori, was mated with a female brought over from China, and a clutch of eggs was finally produced in 1995, but they were infertile. Midori had died by then, leaving behind a female named Kin as the sole representative of the population of crested ibis that once bred in Japan. Unfortunately, Kin was too old to breed, and she died in 2003. If not for the recovery of the crested ibis in Yang Xian, this might have signaled the end of the entire species.

(Photo by andy_li)

Since then, their numbers have steadily increased, and while the crested ibis is still endangered, its situation is no longer as critical as it was before. By the end of 2008, the total wild population stood at 628 birds, with an additional 424 individuals in captivity. Yang Xian is listed as an Important Bird Area, and remains a stronghold for crested ibis, with a core area designated as the Shaanxi Hanzhong Crested Ibis National Nature Reserve. Here, much of the world's remaining crested ibis breed in tall trees, often close to human settlements, and feed on small fish, frogs, and aquatic invertebrates in the ricefields. In the evenings, a number of birds fly in to roost at Caoba Village, less than a kilometre away from a captive breeding facility. Crested ibis have since been reintroduced in other parts of China, and on Sado in Japan. The crested ibis is a conservation success story, showcasing how local communities have been engaged in the protection of this species.

(Photo by stanleyugia)

One final wildlife facility is much nearer to Chengdu, being just forty-five minutes away, but it stands testament to the cruelty that animals often suffer at the hands of human exploitation. The Moon Bear Rescue Centre, set up by Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia Foundation, is a sanctuary specially set up to rehabilitate Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) rescued from bile farms in China.

(Photos by Barry Yeoman)

The inhumane conditions involved in the "farming" of bears for their bile for traditional medicine in countries like China, Laos, Vietnam, and South Korea (and the rampant illegal trade in bear bile products) have been covered extensively elsewhere, but suffice to say that it is a horrific and unnecessary practice that needs to be eradicated.

Asiatic black bears caged and milked for bile;
(Photos from Born Free Photos)

Many of the bears rescued from these farms are sent to the Moon Bear Rescue Centre, where they can live out the rest of their days in a semi-natural environment. There, they receive medical treatment, and for some, this is the first time they ever get to feel the grass beneath their feet, take a dip in the water on a hot day, or interact with other bears.

(Photos by Barry Yeoman)

The Chinese love their giant pandas, but for some reason, the Asiatic black bear has not shared the same degree of national affection and attention.

(Photo by jeanette.mcdermott)

Tomorrow, we'll be carrying on with our journey towards the Jiuzhaigou Valley in northern Sichuan. While I doubt I'll be able to encounter giant pandas, Asiatic black bears, takin, or golden snub-nosed monkeys, it gives me some joy to think that I will be venturing into forests where these magnificent creatures are known to roam. Besides, based on what I've read, the scenery is going to be spectacular.