China's Endangered Snub-Nosed Monkeys 2017 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on May 26, 2017

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…."  Ewoks—those furry meter-high bipeds that dwell on the forest moon of Endor—helped the Rebel Alliance defeat the forces of the Galactic Empire in the Star Wars saga Return of the Jedi.  Who knew an outpost of these charismatic woodland denizens lived right here on Earth in the forested Qinling Mountains of central China?
 
In May 2017, our intrepid photo tour group sought them out on our China's Endangered Snub-Nosed Monkeys trip.  Instead of Ewoks we found two exciting species of Star Wars-like Earth-bound primates that few Westerners have ever photographed, let alone seen!  And our photography tour provided wonderful access to golden snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana) as well as their southern cousins, the Yunnan (black) snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus bieti.)
 
After meeting in Beijing, our group flew to Xi'an, Shaanxi Provence, located almost dead center in the middle of China.  A lengthy, but very scenic, bus ride delivered us into the vast Chinese wild lands.  Travelers to "tourist China"— who typically pass through extensive areas of development and agriculture—would be stunned to see such an immense region of spectacular wilderness.  The Qinling Mountains are seemingly ridge upon ridge of near vertical mountains that provide virtually no opportunity to establish any farms or human settlements.  Instead, this unspoiled densely forested habitat is left to creatures better adapted to a perpendicular environment—birds, pandas and monkeys.
 
Golden snub-nosed monkeysOur remote upscale hotel served as the perfect base for our twice-daily treks up a winding mountain path to the spot where a troop of 80 golden snub-nosed monkeys are fed by "forest rangers" in the morning and afternoon.  In general, the five species of snub-nosed monkeys are adapted for high-altitude habitats.  Yet the "golden hair monkeys" in this region tend to spend time in lower elevations.  We found them at 4,500 feet, more or less.  This was great for us as we acclimated "quickly" to this altitude and the uphill "almost a mile" hike each way was manageable for all of us.
 
The monkeys were awesome!!!  Scrambling down from the tree canopy, they quickly began to gather up and feed on the chunks of apples and dried corn that the rangers had provided—right among our group of photographers.  And photogenic they were!  Right alongside us, big blue-faced shaggy-haired males sat on boulders as juveniles crawled over them, and females nursed tiny babies sometimes as close as an arm’s length away.  The males would occasionally hold our hands (a big dilemma—hold his hand or take his picture?).  I have photographed primates (excluding humans) on three continents and never once have I encountered monkeys as unwary and docile as these golden snub-noses.  While any lens in the pack could be used to photograph them, wide-angle shots showing the rocky woodland habitat were my hands-down favorites!
 
Terracotta warriors in ChinaAfter four days of photography we drove back to Xi'an and experienced a very productive photo shoot with the famous Terracotta Warriors.  Platoons of clay soldiers—now protected by an immense international-airport-sized canopy—were unearthed after being discovered in 1974 by farmers digging wells.  Created for China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, to defend him in the afterlife, as many as 8000 figures were buried along with clay horses and other artifacts.  At their interment the warriors were painted in bold, almost life-like polychrome colors, but after 2000 years buried underground, most of the paint has long washed away, leaving just the red-blue-black colors of the fired clay.  Qin's tomb itself remains unexcavated, and ancient texts suggest even greater treasures may be buried within.

From Xi'an we flew to Yunnan Province to "shoot" another snub-nosed monkey species.  Yunnan (black) snub-nosed monkeys in this area generally live at a much higher altitude than the "golden hair” monkeys.  Another lengthy drive took us through villages and farms.  Everywhere we went on this drive we passed massive infrastructure construction projects.  You could not go a mile virtually anywhere without seeing huge new bridges, beautiful new roads and highways, high-speed rail pylons, massive shiny new apartment complexes, shopping areas and spectacular airports.  China has used more concrete for building projects in three years than the United States used during the entire 20th Century.  We passed scores and scores of cement trucks on every drive.  Our participants who had never traveled to China before were amazed at their expectation and misperception versus the reality of what was actually happening in China—and why American urban infrastructure, by comparison, was falling behind.

snub-nosed-monkey-3-(1).jpgFrom the newly-renovated, comfortable, yet somewhat Spartan (compared to some of the 5-star accommodations during the rest of the trip), guesthouse where we stayed in the remote village of Tacheng, it took us 30 minutes to get to the departure point for our uphill hikes to reach the "black golden hair monkeys."  Here at 9,500 feet, the trek might prove a bit more exhausting than our hikes at about half that elevation for the golden monkeys.  But two things worked in our favor: 1) We already had time to acclimate to altitude by visiting the golden snub-noses first and 2) The monkey rangers coaxed the black snub-noses down to a slightly lower elevation with food—shortening our four morning uphill hikes considerably.
 
We didn't get as close to these "black monkeys" as we did the golden monkeys.  The golden monkeys were fed apples and corn, but the rangers gave these black monkeys large strands of Usnea lichen (old man's beard) as their incentive to come closer to our group of photographers.  It didn't take long to figure out that a nice juicy apple was much more of an enticement than a glob of lichen that was even less of a temptation than a stale, dry biscuit of the shredded wheat I hated as a kid!
 
Nevertheless we had excellent photo ops with the monkeys there and, as an added bonus, the clouds drifting over these higher mountain slopes presented wonderful foggy landscapes to shoot when the monkey action slowed down.
 
red-panda-china.jpgA landscape shoot at Shangri-La (formerly Zhongdian until 2001) featured the Tibetan Ganden Sumtseling Monastery and chances to wander around town to shop and shoot.  Shangri-La is, in many ways, like the Vail or Aspen of China where there are numerous boutique gift shops and dozens of places to get a latte or find almost any cuisine imaginable in the scores of restaurants throughout the city.  After two weeks of Chinese food, pizza was a big favorite!
 
A last-minute forced change in our flight schedule allowed us a somewhat impromptu opportunity to visit the Chengdu Panda Research Base and a chance to shoot giant and red pandas in their breeding facility in the outskirts of Chengdu.  These days I normally refrain from shooting at zoos, but we experienced pretty good photography of these iconic and charismatic species as they climbed the trees planted in their enclosures.  A peacock strutting around the grounds was also a popular distraction.  A convoluted bus ride amidst the weekend Chengdu traffic delivered us to the airport for our late afternoon flight to Shanghai where we checked into our airport hotel, had dinner, and said our farewells.