A Wonderful Conservation Story

The Panda TwinsW8

This blog post is not about me or any of my photographs. It is about a wonderful thing that my good friend Dr. Katherine Feng did to help preserve the White-headed Langur Monkeys in China while at the same time coming to the aid of a local farmer and his son.

For those of you who do not know Katherine, at the bottom of this blog, I have included a couple of bios written about Katherine as they appear on the Harper Collins and Strabo Tours websites.

The shlepper

The White-headed Langurs are a Critically Endangered Species. “A critically endangered (CR) species is one which has been categorized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature  as facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild.” – Wikipedia

There are fewer than 1,000 white-headed langurs in the world and all of them are located in the White-headed Langur Nature Reserve near Chongzuo, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  This makes them more endangered than the giant pandas. – Katherine Feng

Adult and infant white-headed langur

Hopefully this story will inspire someone to help conservation in some way.

What follows is a letter that I recently received from Katherine.

Hi Bob,

The Chongzuo White-headed Langur Nature Reserve is unique in China in that although the bureau has authority over the karst rock formations, the land belongs to the farmers. The Bureau has no jurisdiction over the land up to the base of the mountains.  Also, their budget is very small.

So, as I was photographing the langurs over several days, I saw that a farmer and his family were clearing their land in preparation of planting a species of eucalyptus trees which is used commercially.  The trees are densely planted and grow quickly so the farmers can cut down the trees in about 6 years.  The problem was that this alcove is vital to the langurs in this area.  They depend upon the vegetation for food, their sleeping area is along the side of the mountain (cliff on right side) and they must have clear view of the surrounding mountains for the sake of avoiding competing males.  A stand of eucalyptus trees would not have allowed the sun to reach the vegetation needed for the langur’s survival and the density of the stand would have obliterated any view of the surrounding mountains.

What to do? I sent the above photos to the nature reserve which shows not only the nature reserve boundary but a lot of the land that was already cleared.  For three days I did not get a response. Near the end of my stay I realized the situation was critical.   Neither the driver or the local nature reserve staff would help me communicate with the farmer and so in my horrible Chinese I asked the son (older generation only understand the local Zhuang dialect) how much it would cost to have him not plant the eucalyptus trees but let someone rent the land.  He said 1,000 yuan per year which is about $160/year. Time was of the essence as I was leaving on Friday and it was Wednesday.  So I called the Nature Reserve and spoke to the one person who understands some English.  I offered to pay the $160/year for a period of 10 years!

The nature reserve director (who started just 3 months ago) agreed to my proposal.  He came out to the field on Thursday and we pretty much spent the whole day surveying the area and negotiating with the farmer.  The father, who was the owner of the land, wanted to continue planting the trees or wanted a lot more money.  I could not offer more that the amount the son quoted me.  After a lot of negotiating, the farmer agreed to rent to the nature reserve for 1,000 yuan/year  a piece of land that was actually a bit larger (but just a critical to the langurs) than I had initially planned.

Turns out that the Nature Reserve Director is a local Zhuang person who speaks the local dialect and understands the farmer’s situation.  He pointed out that the market value is variable and if he accepted our offer, he could be assured of a decent reliable income.  To our favor, the father is 65yrs old and he wanted his son to continue farming the land.  But the son wanted to go into the city to find work, not continue the hard work of farming with little income.  The son pointed out that if the father accepted our offer, he could go to the city and his father would have a reasonable income during his old age when he could no longer work the land.

So, in the end, the father accepted our offer.  Actually the nature reserve wanted the contract to be for 30 years instead of the initial 10 which I offered to support.  He hopes that at the end of 10 years the nature reserve will find a means to continue renting the land.  Everyone concerned reached a verbal agreement which was written on a piece of paper with everyone’s signature.  An attorney will draw up a final contract and when it is signed by all concerned parties, a scanned copy will be sent to me.  To seal the deal, I had to hand over the first 5 years’ worth of rent (5,000 yuan or $800).  Not really what I had budgeted for this year but necessary for everyone to feel comfortable about the deal.

Instead of the eucalyptus trees, the nature reserve will plant trees and vegetation that the langurs will eat.  That will be especially important during the winter months when a lot of trees lose their leaves.  It is a win-win situation for all involved:  the langurs, the environment, the nature reserve, the old farmer, his son and me.  I am happy to have the opportunity to do some good and I am now in solid with the nature reserve.  Also, as I hope to do a story about the langurs, it will be good to add how the nature reserve works with the local people to help protect the langurs.

I just thought you would be interested in this story.

From a more recent email from Katherine

Saved Land_2I am attaching two images (saved land) taken with my smart phone.  They show the alcove surrounded by three mountains on which one group lives.  The family overnights on the cliff to the very left.  Challenging males will approach the family from the mountain on the left or in the center.  The images also show the area the farmer has cleared and dug holes for the eucalyptus trees which he had intended to plant.  In addition to all the vegetation the farmers cleared, they also cut down trees which were very close to the rocks/mountains. The vegetation and trees are important food for the langurs, especially in the winter when food is scarce.  On behalf of the farmers; their work is extremely had.  The work was done by the 65 year old father, his 62 year old wife and his son (who wants to move to the city). 

Saved land

From a subsequent email a few days later after I told her that I would like to post her story on this blog:

A friend read the written agreement from which an attorney will draw up the legal contract.  If she understood it correctly, it turns out the nature reserve will rent the piece of property I agreed to save at 1,000 yuan/year plus another larger section for an additional 3,100 yuan/year. And the contract will be for 30 years.  The reason they wanted my 5,000 yuan up front was because the nature reserve did not have the funds to pay the farmer the entire 4,100 yuan and wanted to use my money to give the farmer at the signing of the contract.  He hopes to use the fact that the granddaughter of Feng Yuxiang who lives in the USA was willing to spend 1,000 yuan/year to save the langur’s habitat and the nature reserve should surely do what it can to protect the langurs.  The nature reserve took a copy of my passport and donation receipt as proof I was there and used my own money for langur protection.

 Whatever, at least I know that I instigated the whole transaction and in the process, not only the critical piece of habitat will be saved, but also some adjoining land that is also important but that I could not afford to pay the rental fee.  And it is still a win-win situation for everyone that would not have happened if I had not been there.  It was something that was meant to be!

 You can use the story on your blog.  If It can inspire someone to help conservation in any way, it will be great.

The agreementKatherine’s caption for the above image.

  • One photo shows the farmers (father on the left, son on the right), the nature reserve staff drawing up and agreement and the nature reserve director in the background.  A formal agreement drafted by an attorney will be the final document.  When it is signed by all involved parties, the farmer will receive my $800 (5,000 yuan)

Coming up with $800 was a bit of a hardship for Katherine. Marilyn and I have made a donation to help pay some of this amount. If anyone else wants to also help they can send a check to me or directly to Katherine at PO Box 4597, Durango, CO 81302

Burned eucalyptus grove

I have included two images of eucalyptus groves.  They are not great due to the weather and timing but they show what I wanted.  One is that the trees are densely planted and that they are very tall.  You can imagine how the trees would have impacted the langurs had the farmers planted them.  The trees would have blocked the views of the surrounding mountains making the langurs vulnerable to challenging males.  As with other species, if a new male takes over the group,  all the young offspring from the defeated male will be killed.  One image is of a burned eucalyptus grove.  It is significant because the farmers burn the sugar cane fields before replanting and sometimes the fire can get away from them, as did the fire that caused this eucalyptus to burn.  Again, one can imagine what would happen to the langur habitat if an eucalyptus grove caught fire in the alcove.  The green grove has a stone wall around it.  – from a recent email from Katherine

Eucalyptus grove

Harper Collins bio: Dr. Katherine Feng was a veterinarian before a photo safari to Kenya inspired her to pursue a second career as a photographer and tour escort. When she traveled to China in 1982 for a memorial ceremony in honor of her grandfather, General Feng Yuxiang, she felt an immediate connection with the country. Her passion for wildlife brought her to the Wolong Nature Reserve, where she formed a long-lasting bond with the pandas and researchers. She now escorts guests to the Reserve several times each year. Dr. Feng lives in Durango, Colorado.

Strabo tours Bio:TOUR ESCORT In 1982 Katherine Feng was invited by the government of the People’s Republic of China to participate in a memorial ceremony in honor of her grandfather, General Feng Yuxiang (General Feng is a national hero famous for ousting the last emperor from Beijing’s Forbidden City and setting up the Imperial Palace as a museum for the people of China, his battles against the Japanese during World War II, and the great love he had for his country). Katherine immediately fell in love with China, its people, landscape, and ancient heritage. She has since traveled to China numerous times to discover her roots and learn of her grandfather’s legacy. Katherine’s family ties have granted her unique access to locales and events that remain hidden from the majority of travelers to China – hidden secrets Katherine is excited to share.

Katherine has been leading international tours since 1993. She has led both photographic and special interest tours to China, Tibet, and East Africa. She is known for her ability to connect with the local people and to give her groups a more intimate experience in the countries they visit. Her aim is to show people the beauty of the world and to inspire others to learn about, understand and respect the different cultures in it.

As a photographer, Katherine’s photographs have won numerous awards including first place in the National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest and Best of Show in the International Wildlife Film Festival. Her photos have been published internationally in magazines, books (including National Geographic Magazine, International Wildlife, the cover of Frommer’s 1999 China Travel Guidebook), and numerous calendars. Dr. Feng’s documentary photography of the Giant Pandas at Wolong Nature Reserve has earned her international recognition and acclaim.

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