China's Endangered Wildlife 2019 Trip Report

By Wayne Lynch on Oct 25, 2019

The giant panda is the rarest of the eight species of bears alive today. They were mentioned in Chinese literature as early as 3,000 years ago. The prized black and white bruins were kept as pets by emperors and even entombed with their owners in royal mausoleums. 
The first panda was introduced to the West in 1869, when a French missionary, Père Armand David, shipped a skin to the Museum of Natural History in Paris. David wrote about the animal in his diary: My Christian hunters return today after a ten-day absence.  They bring me a young white bear, which they took alive but unfortunately killed so it could be carried more easily. The young white bear, which they sell to me very dearly, is all white except for the legs, ears, and around the eyes, which are deep black. Roughly 60 years later Ruth Harkness was the first to bring a live panda to America, when she brought a cub named Su Lin to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Today fewer than 1,500 giant pandas survive in the wild bamboo forests of central China. I have photographed and observed bears for over four decades so I was especially excited when Joe Van Os asked me to lead a photo trip to China with pandas being one of the main targets of the trip. 
Giant panda eating bambooThe group met in Shanghai where the glittering lights of the skyline are a testament to the country’s commitment to economic growth and prosperity. The following day we flew west to Chengdu on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau where the last of the giant pandas survive in the wild. Our itinerary included three breeding facilities where several hundred of these threatened bears are kept in natural enclosures, providing wonderful close-up opportunities to photograph these secretive and elusive carnivores. The most entertaining to watch were the many young bears, 1 ½- and 2-years old, that wrestled and tumbled together, climbed and snoozed in trees, and chewed on bamboo stalks. I’ve photographed thousands of bears in my career but none is more photogenic than a young giant panda. At one of our favorite panda sites, Dujiangyan, the group of us shot more than 10,000 photographs in a matter of a few hours.   What a memorable day it was indeed. 
Join Wayne Lynch for our 2020 China's Endangered Wildlife tourAfter the photo fun with the giant pandas the itinerary moved on to another of China’s endangered species, the snub-nosed monkeys. Five different species of these rare primates live in the temperate forests of China and Southeast Asia. The original plan was to focus on the golden snub-nosed monkey but wildlife has a way of “monkeying” with the best of travel plans. This year, in late September, the golden snub-nosed monkeys suddenly changed their movement patterns and disappeared from the forests they normally inhabit, possibly lured to distant areas of their home range where fruit had unexpectedly become available. Michael Deng, our capable local operator in China, immediately salvaged the situation by proposing that we shift our attention from the golden snub-nosed monkey to the Mother Yunnan snub-nosed monkey grooming youngYunnan snub-nosed monkey, the largest, and for my money the most biologically interesting of the snub-nosed group, as it lives at the highest altitude of any primate and survives on a meagre diet of lichens and leaves. The itinerary change meant we got to fly to Yunnan one of the most southern of China’s 23 provinces. We based ourselves in the small town of Tacheng close to the Tibetan border where the friendly community is strongly influenced by the Buddhism of the legendary plateau. For four days in a row we made morning hikes into the nearby forests that were just beginning to flush with autumn gold, searching for the photogenic monkeys. On each of those outings we had wonderful close-up views of these unique primates that entertained us by munching on lichens, nursing white-haired youngsters, mating, squabbling and leaping through the branches of their forested world. We enjoyed great autumn weather under clear blue skies which made for delightful mountain hiking but a challenging photo quest. The high contrast in such conditions was sometimes frustrating for photography but the experience of spending time with these charismatic monkeys was ample reward. After our mornings with the monkeys we spent some of our afternoons strolling through the local town and visiting farmers in their fields as their harvested their crops of rice and corn. Terra cotta army, Xian, ChinaInvariably we were greeted with smiles and laughter. 
In the final days of the trip we flew to Xian to photograph the famous terracotta army – thousands of clay warriors entombed in 250 BC to guard Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. The clay army, which was only discovered in 1976, is the most visited tourist site in the country and one of the most important archeological locations in all of China. It was an impressive spectacle to see and photograph and a fitting conclusion to a most memorable trip.  

Our group of photographers in China

Related Tags:  china, monkey, pandas, snub-nosed