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.
“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.
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.
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.
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。
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.
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。
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。
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。
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.
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.