Jianfengling, China’s natural rainforest nearest to the coast, lies within Ledong county 1 in Hainan province. Hainan, the country’s southernmost province also known as Chinas “Hawaii”, is an island in the South China Sea. Visitors can travel to Jianfengling via the western expressway from Sanya, a city at the southern tip of Hainan.
Zoologists studying insects and amphibious reptiles find Jianfengling to be a natural laboratory for rainforest biodiversity research. Characteristic steep peaks in the upper part of Jianfengling act as a natural barrier, isolating some species into very particular regions. With an area of260 square kilometers and elevations reaching one thousand meters, many subspecies are quietly preserved in a natural Noah’s Ark.
In June 2013, some like-minded naturalists and I began work on our plan to launch a project called The Ark, a photographic collection of endangered species. Scientists, photographers, and even hunters took part in the project. We set up a studio in the wild and collected as many species as we could capture in pictures. With each living thing we found, from tiny insects to large mammals, we took great care to photograph them as if they were the last ones of their kind created by nature.
Although Jianfengling is a protected rainforest, poaching remains a problem. This has lead to a sharp drop in population among several animals to include the palm civet, giant red flying squirrel, and several types of monkey. Fortunately the number of birds and reptiles remain at healthy levels. One of my missions is to document reptiles including snakes, lizards, and turtles, which is not always easy. Even the most experienced researchers depend on luck to find them. One evening, a beautiful and rare black-banded trinket snake；Elaphe porphyracea suddenly appeared in my line of sight. It quickly hid in the crevice of a rock and I had a hard time figuring out how to retrieve it for a photograph without causing harm. Someone advised using smoke to draw it out, but I thought this might cause it to retreat farther. Finally, a guide placed some woven herbs in the gap and soon the snake slithered out of its hiding place. It took no more than 20 minutes to solve the problem.
The Li ethnic group is the indigenous people of Hainan. They have an amazing method for catching turtles. Usually in rainforest streams it is impossible to find any clues about the whereabouts of turtles. Unlike farmed turtles that stay along the riverbed, aquatic species quietly hide at the bottom among the sediment. Li people put a configuration of plants and snails as the bait in the river shallows to attract four-eyed turtles and the big-headed turtle. Four-eyed turtles got the name from the two spots on the backs of their heads that look like a second pair of eyes. We were able to capture a rare portrait of the turtles by using this indigenous baiting method.
Directing our attention upward to the trees, we occasionally observed the Scolopendr subspinipes mutillan. This large centipede with a potentially painful sting emerges from the leafy canopy while giant grasshoppers chirp in the forest to attract mates. A group of light grey birds dash around madly, collecting Guanglang fruits, to eat. We see palm civets and flying squirrels in the evenings as well as giant squirrels in the daytime.
We enter GPS coordinates for each tree that had mature fruits growing on it to help us find wild animals at night. At an altitude of 800m in the monsoon forest the mammals are the most active from nine to eleven in the evening, so we must seize every opportunity within this period of time. Our flashlights expose glowing eyes in the darkness, letting us know where to set up the cameras. Pupils in nocturnal animals shrink rapidly when subjected to light, giving a ten-second transition period when we have the chance to photograph and record them.
At midnight I find and photograph a pair of bright eyes hiding under a pine tree, though I cannot tell what animal it is from such a long distance. A look at the enlarged picture shows it to be a subspecies of leopard that is found only in Hainan. Compared to the mainland leopard, the Hainan clouded leopard is much smaller, about the size of a puppy, and the subspecies leopard adult is the size of a domestic kitten. It is unknown why there are such significant size differences within the species. The Hainan leopard is also not faring very well.
When something suddenly flies overhead, we suspect that it is a red giant flying squirrel, which makes its home within the canopy of the tall trees. After a bit of investigating, the crew soon discover that their assumptions were correct as they found a male flying squirrel is the largest in its category. When the squirrel unfolds its gliding membranes, the span measures almost a square meter. In just five years, the number of flying squirrels has almost been halved due to the timber industry cutting down many of the tall trees. I am optimistic and think flying squirrels can remain a relatively healthy population if the Jianfengling reserve maintains a certain density of trees.
Our herpetologist finds a king cobra and installs a small radio transmitter under its skin. This transmitter allows us to map the animal’s activities and is used as a reference for certain forest regions. In just six days’ time, this male snake travels 2.3km, averaging about 400m per day. It does not eat at the altitudes of600 to 1,000m, though his ultimate objective is to hunt and feast on other snakes. Once he does, he hides and sleeps in a cave for several days. Three weeks after release, we discover our snake swallowing a beautiful Mandarin rat snake on a path just 18km away from camp. King cobras can represent a diverse degree of regional snakes, a benchmark in the diversity of reptiles. Some of the species here have a complementary relationship with each other.
The most difficult part of creating and filling The Ark is finding each creature and getting a good picture. Additionally, the work cycle is long and grueling. As with most conservation work, time is limited and the schedule is grueling. With hard work and dedication, The Ark will continue to sail, preserving these animals for future generations.