Wednesday, March 25, 2009

King Cobra II

I started walking back to my room at the Chongzuo EcoPark the other evening after watching the langurs come down the mountain to their roost.
It was a warm evening and I'd stayed watching them settle into their cliff face caves a bit longer than usual. By the time I began the roughly 15 minute hike back to the reserve's headquarters, it was already quite dark.
I hadn't bothered to pack a flashlight as I knew the path fairly well and preferred to let the moonlight guide me.
Then, I started thinking about all the warnings I'd recently read about cobras. I flipped open my cell phone for what little light it offered and grabbed the first stick I could find.
After a couple minutes of fumbling around, Jintong, one of the reserve's staff, drove towards me driving an electric cart. He said he'd just run over a snake and proceeded to unfurl a very recently deceased, very large king cobra. He hit the snake on the path I was about to walk down, about 100 meters from my room.
Then, before I thought to ask for a ride, anywhere, he drove on. I froze, convinced every branch and twig I saw on the path before me was a king cobra.

Pan told me afterwards that I needed to be especially careful this time of year. The temperature here on the edge of the tropics was just starting to rise and snakes were beginning to come out in the evenings to lie in open paths warmed by the sun.

Rachel would later tell me it snowed again in Boston and that sounded pretty nice to me.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Chicken Coop

Not far from the entrance to the Chongzuo EcoPark there is a collapsing cinder block building that once served as the living quarters for biologist Pan Wenshi and his students.
I’ve seen animal enclosures in Chinese zoos that are nicer than this.

The building—an abandoned army barracks—had no running water, no electricity, no door, and a gaping hole in one wall. Pan’s bed, shown here, was a thin wicker mat laid over a row of boards. Stumps and logs were used for seats and benches. Field notes were compiled by candlelight, and when it rained, water flowed into the building.
In 2000, the county government took pity on Pan and, to honor what he'd done for surrounding villages, they spent $1 million on park improvements, including a rather architecturally inspired research facility and living space.
Until recently, the cinder block building and its Spartan furnishings served as a museum of the not-so-good-ol’ days of '96 to '00. Since my last visit, it received a long overdue conversion to its current use; a chicken coop.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Pat's

Happy St. Patty’s Day from the PRC. I took a break from monkeying around in Chongzuo to spend a couple days in Yangshuo, China.
Yangshuo was a once gorgeous, now overrun mountain town on the Li river in southern China that has been a backpacker mecca since us laowai started descending on the country in droves in the 1990s.
The place is by no means the quiet retreat it once was, but anyplace serving the pride of St. Jame's Gate on March 17 works for me.
I spent the evening with Paul, an Englishman, and Joe, a local kid all of 10 years old.
Paul has taught English here for the last three years. He makes close to $1000 a month teaching business English in one of Yangshou’s many private schools. At this pay, he says he lives well; enough to eat out each night at the many restaurants catering to foreign tourists. He says he can’t stomach the local food, but he has a Chinese girlfriend and says the weather here beats dreary ol’ England any day.
Paul can’t stay long though as it’s “quiz”, or trivia, night at another nearby pub.

Joe is friend of Paul’s and, based on his English skills, I get the feeling this isn’t his first night hanging out at The Alley Bar. When Paul called him on his lack of green, he ran home and put on the sweater seen here. –When I ask Joe what St. Patty’s is all about, he says it’s when people wear green and drink stuff from Ireland. He says there is more to it than that, but he can’t remember the rest.
Joe first learned English from a Australian and does a wicked rendition of Crocodile Dundee's “that’s not a knife, this is a knife”.
His favorite sport is rollerblading.
“I get nice air,” he says.

Out of the blue, Joe hits me with the following riddle.
“Who is too rich?” he asks.
“Bill Gates,” I counter knowing China’s obsession with the world’s richest man.
“No, a river; it has banks on both sides.”
I go to give the kid a high five but he counters with “down low”, and then, withdrawing his hand, “too slow.”
Something tells me that of the two of them, Joe has the better gig.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

King Cobra

I could see moving to Chongzuo--the weather is nice enough, the food is delicious, and the wildlife can't be beat--if it weren't for the snakes.

The reserve's walking paths are lined with billboards warning visitors of king cobras and urging them to stick to the main paths. Like most people, though, I tend to take warning signs aimed at tourists with a grain of salt.

But just to be safe, I did some Googling the other day to find out just what these snakes are all about.

A children's educational website informs me that;
-The king cobra holds a record length of 5.58 m (18.3ft) for a venomous snake.
-It has a head as big as a man’s hand and can stand tall enough to look you straight in the eye.
-the king’s venom is actually less lethal than a common cobra’s. However, the king makes up for it by delivering more venom per bite...enough to kill an elephant or 20 people.

"Tigerhomes" notes;
-Nearly ALL snakes will avoid man…there are however snakes known to aggressively attack man such as the King Cobra of Southeast Asia…

Medicine On-Line weighs in with;
"The most common and earliest symptom following snake bite is fright, particularly of rapid and unpleasant death. Owing to fright, a victim attempts 'flight' which unfortunately results in enhanced systemic absorption of venom. These emotional manifestations develop extremely rapidly (almost instantaneous) and may produce psychological shock and even death."

And here, again from Medicine On-Line, is the kicker;

"On an average - cobras and sea snakes result in about 10% mortality [28]-ranging from 5-15 hours following bite."

I don't think I'll be straying from any paths again anytime soon...

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bulbuls, Wagtails, and Great Tits!

There is a saying about the people of southern China that they eat anything with four limbs except tables, anything that flies except airplanes, and anything that swims except ships.
Perhaps, but birding in southern China's Chongzuo EcoPark is nonetheless amazing!
Noisy flocks of red-whiskered bulbuls are found in spades in the reserve’s trees and tall grass. The birds remind me of the Steller's jays that steal French fries off the plates of unwary diners at Nepenthe in Big Sur, California.
The following images—courtesy of the Peking University Chongzuo Biodiversity Research Institute—are all birds I’ve seen here this past week.
red-whiskered bulbul above

common tailorbird

great tit

cattle egret

white breasted waterhen

white wagtail

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dr. Pan's Secret Lair

At first glance, the Chongzuo EcoPark, where biologist Pan Wenshi studies white-headed langurs, appears as timeless as a Chinese landscape painting. Rugged karst peaks shoot straight out of rice paddies and sugar cane fields tended by villagers and their water buffalo. It's a scene that seems little changed for thousands of years.

The reality, however, is much more interesting.

The Chongzuo EcoPark is a former military base that was in the process of being decommissioned when Pan first arrived thirteen years ago.
Few signs of the area’s military past remain except for a massive munitions storage depot carved into the middle of one of the reserve’s mountains.

Six-inch-thick steel reinforced cement doors guard the entrance to the now abandoned depot, but much of the inside remains a natural limestone cave.

On one side of the mountain the cave opens to a cliff face about 70 meters above the valley floor where a langur family roosts most nights. Pan's assistants—LiJun, JinTong, and Lin—recently drilled a couple of cameras into the cliff face for some close up observations.

The Chinese biologist is fascinated by sociobiology, the theory that certain social behaviors—such as the practice of infanticide by male langurs—are evolutionarily advantageous.

With these cameras—which connect to a tent-enclosed-desktop inside the cave—he hopes to unlock the secrets of the animal's monkey business.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Back in Chongzuo

I wrote a story last fall on Pan Wenshi—China's founding father of conservation biology—and the white headed langur, an endangered monkey he’s spent the past decade trying to save.

At the time, Pan told me I really should come back in late winter when the year’s newborns still have their bright, canary yellow fur. I knew that Pan and his students also do an annual census of the langurs through the winter months, so when the chance came for me to make a return visit, I jumped on it.

I’m now mid-way through a two-week stay at the Chongzuo Eco Park, a 24-square km nature reserve a stone’s throw from the Vietnam border in southern China. The very phrase Chinese-nature-reserve may sound like a complete contradiction of terms, but this tiny island of biodiversity—in a country that is admittedly otherwise choking on its own pollution—is absolutely breathtaking.

When Pan arrived here 13 years ago, locals were well on their way to poaching the last remaining langurs, felling what was left of their forest habitat for firewood, and blasting their mountain home into limestone quarries.

Over the past decade, however, he’s had phenomenal success working with surrounding villages to help bring them out of poverty and to foster in them an interest in wildlife protection. The end result has been rapid reforestation within the reserve and a five-fold increase in the langur’s population--including one really cute newborn that we’ve been watching the past few days.


Images of langur and reserve courtesy of Peking University Chongzuo Biodiversity Research Institute.

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