Meet the man who shoots China’s rarest animals to save them from extinction

Wildlife photographer Xi Zhinong has been working to protect endangered species for decades. Now he’s on a mission to save the green peacock, whose habitat is under threat from a hydroelectric plant

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 July, 2017, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 July, 2017, 6:33pm

For more than three decades, wildlife photographer and conservationist Xi Zhinong has been trying to protect nature by capturing it on camera. He told the story of the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey in the 1990s, when the endangered species that lives in the remote mountain forests of southwest China was little known to the public. He lobbied the authorities and managed to save the monkeys’ habitat – old-growth forest – from being logged. Xi also campaigned to protect Tibetan antelopes, which were under threat from poachers shooting the animals for their woolly coats. His reports raised awareness of the fur trade and protection of the animals, which are native to the Tibetan plateau, was stepped up.

Xi has been recognised for his work with numerous international awards. In 2001, he became the first Chinese to receive the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Species, and he was also named Wildlife Photographer of the Year – a global competition held by the Natural History Museum in Britain. He is the only Chinese photographer in the International League of Conservation Photographers, a non-profit organisation dedicated to environmental and cultural conservation through photography. Xi also founded Wild China Film, which for the past decade has been recording species in the country that are on the edge of extinction. His latest mission is to save the extremely rare green peacocks, which are native to China and endangered – and their Yunnan habitat is under threat from a hydroelectric plant being built on the Jiasa River.

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What made you start the green peacock campaign?

For a long time, peacocks have been the symbol and mascot of Yunnan and people have taken it for granted that there are many peacocks in our province. But this is not the situation now. Green peacocks, China’s indigenous species, have almost disappeared from this country. What we see in zoos are blue peacocks, from India. The Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens told me there are no pure green peacocks in mainland zoos – the main difference between blue and green peacocks is the colour of their necks.

A study in the 1990s estimated the number of green peacocks in China at 800 to 1,150. That’s dropped to no more than 500 in recent years. In 2009, the green peacock’s status was raised from “vulnerable” to “endangered” on the red list of threatened species put out by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The first time I took a picture of a green peacock was 17 years ago in Weishan county, in Dali. It was a male peacock flying down from the top of a small hill to a nearby creek to drink water. I took some pictures – this was before digital cameras – and watched it through a telescope as it flew so elegantly with the beautiful sunset in the background. That scene is among the most unforgettable memories of my three-decade career. In February this year, I visited a green peacock protection zone in Dali. The person who runs it is a friend of mine and told me no green peacocks had been seen in the zone for many years – how sad is that? Around the same time, a wildlife researcher in Yunnan told me that the upper and middle sections of the Red River – a major river in the province – have China’s highest density of green peacocks. But this haven will be engulfed by water at the end of the year because a hydropower station is being built there. So I realised it was imperative, and high time, to protect this rare and graceful bird.

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What are you doing to protect green peacocks?

At the end of March, three environmental organisations – Friends of Nature, Shanshui Conservation Centre and us at Wild China Film – jointly sent a letter to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, urging it to stop construction of the hydropower plant on the Jiasa River, on the upper reaches of the Red River. We hope the authorities will re-evaluate the ecological impact of this project, especially for the habitat of the green peacocks. The habitat – which is actually located inside a natural protection zone – will be flooded once the project is completed in a matter of months. On June 5, World Environment Day, we held a forum about the birds’ habitat and experts concluded that the hydropower project should be put on hold for now. We also put up ads in subway stations in Beijing last month to raise awareness. We have also spoken to the plant’s state-owned investor, China Hydro Engineering Consultation Group. They admitted that the project’s installed capacity of about 200,000 kilowatts was just a tiny proportion of its total electricity output. But the other side of this story is this precious haven for the extremely rare green peacocks. It’s obvious which is more important. Yet, outrageously, they haven’t stopped building work on this plant for a single day.

Have you taken any pictures of green peacocks in recent years?

In the middle of March, I went with two colleagues to a valley near a small tributary of the Red River on the border of Xinping and Shuangbai counties. We were lucky to photograph at least three green peacocks and we found a few feathers and footprints, too. But we were shocked to find that a small hydroelectric plant was being built just a few hundred metres away from where we saw the peacocks. Trees had been bulldozed and there were heavy vehicles and machinery there. After we exposed this project, the local government put a stop to it. A local farmer told us that decades ago, she often saw flocks of green peacocks – dozens of them – flying to the river to drink water and look for food. She heard their birdsong in the evenings as it echoed across the valley. Now, she sees just a few, only occasionally. And she often heard shots being fired by hunters. I’m worried that if the Jiasa River hydropower plant goes ahead, and the hunters aren’t stopped, our photos might be the last ones of China’s green peacocks.

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Compared with decades ago, is it easier or harder to protect the environment in China today?

If you look at public awareness, it’s much better than before. But regarding what the government does in this area, things are different. Twenty years ago, I sent a letter to Song Jian, who was then a state councillor, seeking his support to protect Yunnan’s snub-nosed monkeys. His reaction was that this letter was an appeal from Xi Zhinong, and days later a central government inspection team went to the forest where the monkeys lived – and that was the end of the logging plan. The government was efficient then. What’s the situation now? We sent letters to the environmental protection authority in March. Our concerns were widely covered in the media. But the authorities did nothing, and the plant is still being built. Is China making progress on environmental protection or lagging behind? The answer is obvious.

What’s it like being a wildlife photographer in China?

It’s a big challenge taking pictures of wild animals in China, for two reasons: you don’t see them most of the time, and they are extremely fearful of humans. On the Tibetan plateau, animals are so scared of humans. In China there is also a mindset of chasing big profits in a short time, so very few people are interested in this sort of work. But I wouldn’t want to do anything else. China has unique natural landscapes and wildlife, but many mainlanders don’t recognise this. If we don’t know about our assets and protect them, we’ll lose them. I see my responsibility as presenting this picture and raising awareness. The thing that makes me happiest is to keep learning from and be moved by nature. I want more people to appreciate these moments.

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