Thursday, July 31, 2008

Wild China: Natural Wonders of the World's Most Enigmatic Land

Squished into my tiny and decidedly uncomfortable seat on a red-eye flight high above the Atlantic, I scrolled aimlessly through the menu of the entertainment unit on the seat back in front of me, looking for something to break the boredom. At first there seemed to be nothing but the usual 'canned laughter' sitcoms and other tame products of Hollywood. But hey, what's this? A picture of a Red Panda and the somewhat cryptic title, 'China'. Giving it a go, I watched 'Heart of the Dragon', the first episode of a new six-part television series called 'Wild China'. Almost immediately, I knew this new documentary was a jewel. In fact, I watched it twice and then again without sound as the strangers in the two seats next to me discovered it for themselves.

The Wild China' series is made by the incomparable BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) based in Bristol, England and shown on BBC 2 in the UK and Travel Channel in the US. Release of the DVD edition in the US coincides with the publication of an accompanying book by Yale University Press, which I will review here.

China is an immense country of extraordinary natural diversity, much of which is poorly know outside the country. Habitats range include high altitude plains, steaming tropical forests, immense wetlands and temperate forests. China is home to 534 species of mammals (1/8 of the world total), 1,300 birds, 2,200 fish and 32,800 plants, many of them quite unfamiliar. Among the strange but fascinating mammals we learn about the exquisite Yunnan (Rhinopithecus [roxellanae] bietii) and Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys (Rhinopithecus [roxellanae] roxellana), White-cheeked Gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) and of course, the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). An estimated 2,000-3,000 remain in the wild scattered across 29 fragments of suitable habitat in Sichuan (A. m. melanoleuca) and the Qinling Mountains of (A. m. qinlingensis) of Shaanxi Province in central China. Intensive logging and encroaching farmland have put tremendous pressure on the species but new habitat protection measures and successful captive breeding programs offer fresh hope.

We are also introduced to the Takin (Budorcas taxicolor), a formidable ungulate that resemble Musk Ox (Ovibos moschatus) but in actuality more closely related to sheep. These shaggy, golden fleeced herbivores occur along the edges of dense bamboo forests in mountainous regions, moving to alpine meadows in summer. When threatened, Takins have a tendency to attack using their wildebeest-like horns and on encountering one we are advised 'to climb the nearest tree'!

The avifauna of China is extensive and perhaps most notable for 8 species of crane, immense numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds and an unrivaled collection of 54 species of pheasants, monals and tragopans and the like, many of which are spectacular in both appearance and shyness. Often restricted in range and often inhabiting difficult mountainous terrain, the pheasants are of great allure to adventurous birders. Among the many possibilities, large numbers of the gorgeous White-eared Pheasant (Crossoptilon crossoptilon) can be seen at Zhujie Monastery, a day's journey from Kanding in the mountains of Sichuan, where they are fed by the monks or to Xiongse near Lhasa, Tibet, where nuns feed Tibetan-eared Pheasants (C. harmani) each morning. The only error I noticed was in the section describing the intimate relationship between Miao rice farmers and the swallows that nest in their houses, the photo (pg 167) showed a Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) rather than a Red-rumped Swallow (Cecropis daurica) as captioned. The 'cormorant fishermen' featured in the cover photograph are an unique and ancient example of humans using the superior hunting skills of waterbirds. This ancient practice can still be seen on the Li River where it survives as a tourist attraction.

Six chapters that make up the core of the book lead us on a journey through the main ecological and cultural regions of China (1. The heartland, 2. North of the Wall, 3. The Tibetan Plateau, 4. Yunnan, 5. The Great Rice Bowl, and 6. Crowded Shores). A useful map is printed on the inside of the front and back covers, showing provinces, large rivers, mountain ranges and major cities. A complex overlay of boxes link sections of the map to the chapters that cover them and these sections are reproduced in a gazetteer at the rear describing places of special natural, landscape or cultural interest, including those used for filming. This section will be useful at the early planning stages of a visit to China, highlighting major nature reserves or historical wonders such as the 2000-year-old terracotta army unearthed by local farmers near Xi'an in Shaanxi Province. I would perhaps have liked a little more on the trials and tribulations of filming the series. Given the incredibly remote locations and harsh climates I imagine there are some great stories and the documentary crews must have encountered many extraordinary people in their travels.

Considerable attention is given to the diverse peoples that make up modern-day China and their impact on the visual environment. We glimpse sections of the Great Wall with their forts and impressive backdrops of snow capped mountains, the modern cities with their skyscrapers and the terraced rice paddies that cling to impossibly steep hillsides. The landscape photography is particularly strong with stunning images of the Swan Lake Nature Reserve near Bayanbulak in Xinjiang Province, the mighty Tsangpo Gorge through which the Yarlung River flows towards India, sometimes as much as 17,657 feet below the gorge rim and of course, the limestone (karst) pinnacles near Guilin in Guangxi Autonomous Region, so characterisitic of chinese watercolor paintings.

It is impossible to think about Chinese wildlife and cultural richness without pondering the enormous environmental problems facing the country, 'a cataclysmic change' no less. Other industrialized countries have been through similar industrial revolutions but not at the same rate or on the same scale. With 1.3 billion people and unprecedented growth, China faces numerous challenges. The book tackles some of these issues head-on with discussion of ruination of the mighty Yangtze River, the migration of hundreds of millions of people from rural areas into cities and proliferation of coal-burning power stations. The tone is guardedly optimistic and one can only hope that greater appreciation of the natural wonders of China outlined in this book and the accompanying television series will help in some small way.
Title: Wild China: Natural Wonders of the World's Most Enigmatic Land.
Authors: Phil Chapman and the BBC Wild China Team.
Publication Date: 5 August 2008.
Publisher: Yale University Press (co-published with BBC Books, an imprint of Ebury Publishing).
ISBN-10: 0300141653
ISBN-13: 978-0-300-14165-8.
Paperback with flaps, 224 pages with 209 color photographs and 8 maps.
Dimensions: 9.7 x 7.5 x 0.7 inches
Retail Price: $29.95 (US)

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