Valley of the Pandas

The early snow caught us off guard. It would have been romantic, comedic even, but for the full day of relentless rain before it.

Now the rain turned to ice. The dropping temperature bit through our soaked layers and skin, and freezing crystals tumbled their way down our necks. The others argued whether to go left or right in the immense undergrowth – for there was no path – and I quietly retreated into my own mental tomb of misery, stowing away my waterlogged and useless camera for good.


一场突如其来的早雪让我们有点措手不及。这本来挺浪漫的,甚至可以说还有点喜剧性,但偏偏在此之前已经整整下了一天的雨。

现在雨结成了冰。骤然下降的温度渗入我们湿透的衣服和皮肤,冰冷的雪花钻进我们的脖子。在大片的灌木丛中,有人在讨论到底要往左还是往右走,因为地上根本没有路。而我则陷入郁闷的心情中,小心翼翼地藏好已经浸满水、派不上用场的相机。

Zuǒ háishì yòu?” Left or right, they repeated, as if saying the same question once more would make the answer reveal itself out of the damp cold.

Zuǒ. That was the thin consensus, its logic hidden deep within the incomprehensible tones of rural Sichuanese dialect. They moved forward towards the left, one by one willingly entering back into the snow-laden bamboo. Its depths swallowed them each. I sighed, placed all my faith into this exercise of blind trust and tossed myself back into the barricade of mountain woods.

Misery had been what I expected, not getting lost.

We stopped again. More agitated Sichuanese. More brushing off snow from our bodies and packs. Someone close by shivered uncontrollably head to toe; another cut wet stalks of bamboo for kindling; another tried futilely to start a fire with damp tissue and matches. No fire, but my hands and feet burned. The painful beginning of frostbite had set. We were freezing, and the argument as to which way to go continued.


“左还是右”他们反复问道仿佛再说一遍同样的问题,答案就会在这片潮湿寒冷的环境中自动现身。

左。这其实不算很确定的共识,选左边的原因隐藏在他们难懂的四川农村方言的讨论中。我们的队伍朝左前进,一个接一个重新踏入那片覆盖着白雪的竹林。一个个身影陆续隐没在幽深的竹林中。我叹了口气,孤注一掷般地选择相信他们,重新投身山林间去。

我早已预料到这趟旅程会困难重重,但没想到我们会迷路。

队伍又停了下来。又是一轮听上去很激动的四川话。我们再一次掸掉身上和行李上的积雪。有人从头到脚冷得发颤;有人用湿的竹子试图点火;还有人徒劳地开始用受潮的纸和火柴生火。火没生成,但我的手和脚却感到了烧灼感。冻伤的痛苦开始了。我们实在太冷了,但关于走哪个方向的争论还在继续。

These were some of the most arduous moments during our three-day panda conservation patrol in the Hengduan Mountains of China. Our team of ethnic Tibetans in Sichuan entered the woods with the goal of checking infrared cameras that monitor pandas and other rare species like the musk deer and Himalayan takin. Next to that, we had to prevent their greatest threats: the warding off of would-be poachers and illegal logging of the state and provincial-owned forest for timber and expansion of arable land. The presence of officials from the local forestry department with us would give authority to our mission if we encountered any.


这是我们在中国横断山脉为期三天的巡逻期间最为艰巨的时刻。队伍中来自四川的藏民扎进树林检查红外线探测相机,这些摄像机用以观测熊猫和其他稀有动物,比如麝鹿和喜马拉雅羚牛。除此之外,我们还必须提防着最大的威胁:阻止潜在的动物偷猎者和对国家及省属森林的非法砍伐行为。如果我们遇到任何问题,和我们一起的来自当地林业部门的官员,将授于我们官方权威(来处理)。

This patrol should have been routine, but our luck turned with the weather and a wrong turn almost cost us much more than merely a day of time. Our work turned from not only protecting the flora and fauna of the mountains to protecting our safe return home.

After the snow, we descended waterfalls, using live bamboo stalks to repel down cliffs as streams cascaded beside us. At night we made shelter in a dripping cave, once a hideout for poachers who used to hunt the forests seeking the same thing we now labored to protect. We made fire, chipping off wet wood from large, fallen trees and branches, finally using the dry interiors as kindling. The dim cave walls danced with warm, orange glow and the deluge outside which delayed our return home continued.


这次巡逻本该是例行公事,但我们的运气好坏听“天”由命,天气倘若变脸,我们浪费的就不只是一天的时间。我们的工作已不仅仅是保护山区的动植物,更需要保护自身安全以回到营地。

我记得下完雪后,我们开始沿瀑布飞泻的山崖下山,用天然的竹子作为支撑,而悬崖溪流就在我们身边飞流而下。晚上我们在一个滴水的山洞里休息,这里曾经是偷猎者的藏身之处,他们偷猎的对象则是我们现在努力要保护的对象。我们生起了火,砍掉树干和树枝潮湿的部分,终于用干燥的内芯燃起柴火。昏暗的山洞和温暖炽橙的火焰一起舞动起来,外面的洪流也推迟了我们继续往回走的进程。

Pandas are one of the world’s most iconic, elusive species. Their remaining numbers in the wild are no more than a small town, less than 2000. Of this, the majority of them dwell in the Hengduan Mountains of China. And, more than anywhere else in the Hengduan, Pingwu County of Sichuan Province.


这种世界上最具代表性的和难以捉摸的动物之一,熊猫,它们野生的数量比小城镇的人口还少,只剩不到 2000 只。大部分的野生熊猫都生活在中国的横断山脉,其中,四川省平武县是横断山脉地区熊猫数量最多的地方。

Rangers of the patrol gather around to look at GPS coordinates of the locations of cameras placed in the mountains. Every month they go up in the mountains to check the infrared cameras, replace batteries, and install new ones in the forest where they think wildlife might be. / 巡逻者们聚集在一起查看山上红外线摄像机的 GPS 坐标。他们每个月都会上山对相机进行检查并更换电池,并在野生动物可能出没的地方安装上新相机。

Our team was a small collective of ethnic Tibetan villagers from the remote Pingwu County village of Guanba. Guanba isn’t on most maps. It lies hidden away in a precipitous mountain valley that winds its way along river and wood to snow-covered peaks around Jiuzhaigou. But this remote village is a foremost player in the rise of community conservation in China.

Young natives of Guanba who once served as migrant workers around China have been trickling back to this village for the last 10 years. They have returned not only to raise families in their place of birth, but also from a growing sense of environmental consciousness and responsibility to protect the land around their home. In the 70s poaching in the Hengduan Mountains was rampant, and one charismatic species’ pelt brought a particular amount of prestige and profit: the panda.


我们的团队是一群从平武县一个偏僻小村——关坝来的藏族村民。在大多数地图上,甚至都没有标注关坝这个地方。关坝位于一个陡峭的山谷中,这条山谷沿河流和树林蜿蜒伸展,直至九寨沟附近冰雪覆盖的山峰。但是,这个偏僻的村庄是在中国兴起的林区保护地区中最重要的一处。

在过去的 10 年间,曾经进城务工的关坝年轻人纷纷回归。他们回来,不仅是要为了回到家乡组建家庭,更是出于他们日益强烈的环保意识和保护家园的责任感。70 年代,横断山脉的偷猎活动十分猖獗,其中一种动物的皮毛因为珍贵和高利润而成为了偷猎的目标,那就是熊猫。

Pandas in China were poached near the edge of extinction. Foreigners even came to hunt them, with the Roosevelt brothers proudly claiming the first successful panda hunt by Westerners in 1929. Finally, by the 1980s, the number of pandas remaining in the wild neared only 1000, and the national government made all poaching illegal. All the men from a neighboring village to Guanba were charged with illegal poaching and incarcerated. Fast forward to the present, and the national and local government is increasingly supporting environmental protection efforts, including the creation of a state-managed national park that will encompass almost all of the panda’s habitat.

It is under this background that the villagers of Guanba founded the region’s first community nature reserve in 2015. The reserve, while approved by the government, is solely managed by the local people, of whom the effort is led by the millennials who have come back from working remotely far across the country. While the area they protect behind their home village is only 40km wide, it is now home to four or five pandas, one of the highest densities for the species in all China.

However, hunters who create homemade guns and gunpowder still enter into these mountains, and while pandas are no longer hunted, rare takin and white-lipped deer are. These mountains, once a sanctuary for all sorts of wildlife, now lie silent. The forests still seem empty, and the rivers are devoid of fish. The recovery process has begun, but nature requires time.


在中国,大熊猫因为偷猎活动而几近濒危。不啻国内偷猎猖獗,甚至还有专门前来的外国人,在 1929 年,罗斯福兄弟(Roosevelt brothers)就曾自豪地声称他们是第一次成功狩猎大熊猫的外国人。到 20 世纪 80 年代,野生大熊猫的数量已减少到近 1000 只,中国政府下令将所有偷猎行为定为非法。关坝一个邻村里的所有男子都被控非法偷猎而被关押起来。

到如今,国家和地方政府给予了环保方面越来越多的支持,包括建立了一个由中央政府管理的国家公园,这个公园几乎涵盖了所有的大熊猫栖息地。

在这种背景下,关坝村民在 2015 年创办了当地第一个社区自然保护部。这个保护部虽然是由政府批准的,但其管理完全由当地居民负责,而其中的领头人则是一些曾远赴千里进城打工,现在回到家乡的千禧一代。他们负责的保护区在村庄背后,面积仅 40 平方千米,但现在却是四五只大熊猫的家园,这已经中国大熊猫密度最高的地区之一。

然而,并不是当地人都已经放弃了用自制枪支偷猎的行为。仍然有人会用自制的枪和火药进入这些山区,即使大熊猫不再被猎杀,珍稀的羚牛和白唇鹿仍然未能逃过厄运。这些山脉曾是各种野生动物的天堂,现在却寂静肃杀。森林像是一片荒芜,河流里也找不到鱼的踪影。大自然的恢复虽已开始,但整个过程还需要时间。

One of the cameras with infrared capabilities placed on a tree. Even though the straps securing it to the tree have been undone, moss has grown and fixed the camera to the tree. Due to the extremely humid and rainy conditions, plants in this part of the Hengduan grow quickly. / 一个安装在树上的红外线探测相机。尽管安装的绑带还未完全固定,但苔藓已经长牢,且把相机固定在了树干上。因为这里极端潮湿多雨的气候,横断山脉的植物生长速度很快。
These cameras use the same SD cards as regular cameras, so the photos can be checked on-site even if the batteries of the infrared cameras area already dead. / 红外线探测相机使用和普通相机一样的 SD 储存卡,所以即使在相机没电的情况下也能够检查里面的相片。

Still, it was this heroic recovery story that kept me fighting through the endless forest of thorns and wet bamboo. A village whose natives had turned from poachers to protectors was a story too enticing not to investigate and share. In response to the ever-present threat of outside poachers, the Guanba Community Nature Reserve patrols the mountains monthly and have been doing so since 2009. But even the best-laid plans go awry. A wrong turn up a ravine early on led us up to an unknown section of the mountain. An early cold snap turned the rain to snow, and we found ourselves in a position that – although the locals may be too proud to admit – could have cost us our lives. Being cold and wet with no shelter can often mean death up in the mountains.


不过,正是这一鼓舞人心的保护区事迹,让我坚持着在这片布满荆棘和湿竹的森林里奋斗。村庄居民从当初的偷猎者转变为保护者,这样的身份转变着实让人忍不住想要深入调查,并与外人分享。为了应对外界偷猎者的威胁,从 2009 年起,关坝自然保护部门每月定期巡逻山林。

不过,有时再好的计划也不一定能顺利达成。之前在溪谷拐错了弯,导致我们在山上迷了路。提前降临的寒流,让雨水变成冰雪,虽然当地人可能怕丢脸不肯承认,但这一次我们确实让自己陷入了生命危险的威胁。寒冷、潮湿、无所遮蔽,这在山上往往意味着死亡。

At last we returned safely. The patrol was a success. We discovered no signs of poachers or their traps, a sign that the frequent patrols were working, and recovered a photo of one of the wild pandas on an infrared camera. To document this, my gear had paid the price: the Nikon body was focusing poorly, all the internal lens elements of my glass were fogged, and one my of filters had been jammed after hitting my lens on an protruding rock. After spending a night freezing in the wet cave my bed was more than a welcome sight, but I was emotionally spent from fighting through the forest. The fear of real disaster far beyond my gear for three days had drained me.

But those days cannot compare to the years that the locals have been entering the mountains for this cause. When it comes to protecting your home and the environment that supports you, there is little luxury for choice. In the brutal moments of snow falling around us, seemingly lost on a forlorn mountain ridge I was ready to give up. I would have turned back; they did not. In that moment it became evident: this is what conservation looks like. It’s dirty, it’s a mess, but it’s a real adventure. And always worth it.


幸好,最后我们安全返回。这次的巡逻很成功,我们没有发现偷​​猎者或捕猎陷阱的迹象,这意味着频繁的巡逻工作确实卓有成效,不仅如此,在一部红外线探测相机上,我们还捕捉到了一只野生大熊猫的照片。为了记录这一次的工作,我的设备付出了代价:尼康相机已经很难对焦;内部镜头元件被雾化;在我不小心把镜头撞到突出的岩石后,其中一块滤镜也已经卡住了。在潮湿阴冷的山洞里住了一夜后,能睡在家里的床上成为了我最期待的事情,也是我精神上的支柱。在这次穿越森林的战斗中,那种对远超于器材损坏的真正灾难的心理恐惧,在这三天里让我精疲力尽。

但是,和当地人多年来进入山区的工作相比,这三天算不上什么。一旦涉及保护家园和所处环境的问题,本该义无反顾。我们此行面临最艰难的时刻,莫过于当白雪纷纷落下,而我们似乎在一座荒凉的山脊迷了路,这时的我几乎已经准备放弃。如果只身一人的话,当时的我可能已经原路返回,但他们没有。在那一刻,这就成了显而易见的事实:这就是环境保护工作的真实面貌。这项工作就会风尘仆仆、满身狼藉,但它也是一场真正的冒险。而且是有价值的冒险。

Images of wildlife taken from the cameras placed throughout the mountains. / 由遍布全山的相机所拍下的野生动物照片。
Images of wildlife taken from the cameras placed throughout the mountains. / 由遍布全山的相机所拍下的野生动物照片。
Images of wildlife taken from the cameras placed throughout the mountains. / 由遍布全山的相机所拍下的野生动物照片。

In the past, Guanba had another name: bai xiong gou, or, the “Valley of the Pandas.” The road ahead will not be easy for the young conservationists who have returned here, but, as China examines how to build a national park in an area with permanent residents and villages, the positive participation of locals for conservation has never been more important, nor has sharing their story. From poachers to protectors, the young villagers are building a new future for their community and conservation in China.


在过去,关坝有另一个名字“白熊沟”。对于那些选择返乡的年轻环保主义者来说,往前的路并非坦途,然而,随着中国进一步在研究如何在永久居民和村庄地区建立国家公园的项目,当地人对环境保护事业的积极参与,比任何时候都更加重要。与人分享他们的故事也同样如此。从偷猎者到保护者,年轻的村民正在为他们社区以及中国的环保事业,塑造一个崭新的未来。

Mengji, the captain of the patrol team, holds up a successfully captured photo of a wild panda from one of the infrared cameras. / 巡逻队的队长孟吉,举着一个成功拍下野生熊猫的红外线探测相机。

Contributor & Photographer: Kyle Obermann


供稿人与摄影师: Kyle Obermann