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Nature's nirvana

Updated: 2013-03-15 11:14
By Chen Liang ( China Daily)

 Nature's nirvana

A male Francois' langur found in Nonggang National Nature Reserve in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. Liu Shengyuan / for China Daily

 Nature's nirvana

Rangers on the way for patrol and monitoring work. Provided to China Daily

Nonggang National Nature Reserve is the proud haven of almost a dozen new fauna and flora species that were discovered in the last decade.

While other scenic areas in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region attract the hordes of tourists, Nonggang National Nature Reserve is a magnet for scientists fascinated with its treasure trove of discoveries.

Eight new species of plants, two new species of snakes and most remarkably, a new bird, have been discovered in the last decade.

Although the area is considered the best preserved among 16 national nature reserves in Guangxi, it still faces various threats, some of which "weren't threats at all until several years ago", says the reserve's director Meng Yuanjun.

Hotspot of discoveries

Located only 18 km southeast of the Vietnamese border in Longzhou and Ningming counties of southern Guangxi, Nonggang does not look any different from many of the region's scenic areas to a common traveler.

Sheer limestone karst formations dominate the reserve. In the flat and open valleys surrounded by limestone pinnacles are mainly sugar cane plantations and paddy fields. The scenery is beautiful, but not as picturesque as those found around Guilin, Guangxi's most famously breathtaking city.

What makes Nonggang different is its forest hidden in numerous nong (limestone gullies) and rich biodiversity nurtured by a unique ecosystem. The country's best-preserved karst monsoon subtropical rainforest is home to 28 species of mammals, including six primates, 50 species of amphibians and reptiles, nearly 150 bird species and 1,800 species of plants.

Climbing into a karst gully through a zigzagging trail, one can easily see wild undergrowth, tall trees with their roots sprawling over, bulking or biting into limestone rock formations and rampant creepers intertwining with all of them.

Nonggang's gullies are usually narrow, deep and wet under dense canopy, while trails are always steep, slippery and hard to follow. To explore them, you must get a reserve ranger as a guide.

There are 69 routes in the reserve covering an area of about 10,000 hectares for the reserve rangers' regular patrols and monitoring, says Meng.

"We can only cover a very small part of our reserve," the reserve director says in his office in Longzhou county. "Most forests on top of our hills are inaccessible. Many gullies are so hard to reach they have never been explored by outsiders.

"That's part of the reasons why Nonggang has never been short of scientific discoveries."

Besides the eight new plant species, he says, 11 species of plants found in the reserve are either Guangxi's or the country's new record species.

In November, 2011, Chen Tianbo, a protection station manager, caught a snake during a survey. Chen and his research partners later found out that the reptile was the same as the snake caught a little earlier in a Vietnamese reserve. It is a new species. In October 2012, researchers from both sides jointly published the finding.

"Nonggang's habitats are similar with some habitats in the reserves in Vietnam," Chen says. "In the scientific field, our competitors are often our neighbors."

What has really brought fame to the reserve is the discovery of the Nonggang babbler.

The myna-sized brown bird, with a white crescent-shaped patch behind the ear and some grayish-brown spots on the white throat, is a new bird species discovered by Chinese ornithologists.

It is the second time Chinese scientists have found a new species of bird in the country. The first was in the 1930s.

"Since it was formally published in 2008, the Nonggang babbler has become the reserve's name card," Meng says. "More researchers came. We also began receiving birdwatchers from home and abroad."

Better protection

The director attributes the discoveries to the reserve's better protection.

About 80 rangers work at six protection stations. They use GPS devices and cameras. Data from their daily patrols and monitoring are input into computer and used for the reserve's geographic information system, which is still being built.

Although about 14,000 people live around the reserve's 63 villages, cases of poaching protected animals are rare, Meng says.

"Probably several poaching cases of tokay gecko (Gekko gecko - a nocturnal gecko known for its alleged medicinal value) or gamebirds in a year," he says. "No one dares to hunt such protected animals as monkeys."

Since rangers re-discovered white-headed langurs in the reserve in 2004, they have put the critically endangered monkey under regular monitoring and strict protection.

In 2007, there were only 68 white-headed langurs in eight families. In 2012, a total of 88 individuals in 10 families lived on limestone cliffs of the reserve. "The largest family had 12 individuals," the director says.

Francois' langur, another endangered primate, was distributed in the reserve with 10 families of 64 individuals in 2006. In 2012, the population increased to 14 families of 97.

The oriental hornbill, a large-sized bird with a long, down-curved bill, disappeared for more than 20 years and returned last year. A family of six hornbills has even begun frequenting three big trees at Nonggen village near the reserve since last March.

"This year they have increased to nine birds, eight in a family, one a loner," says Chen Weiqiang, a villager. "They usually come in the early morning. Not afraid of us, they can be very noisy sometimes."

New threats

Although such traditional threats as poaching have become less serious, some new threats have started bothering the reserve managers.

The golden camellia (Camellia chrysantha) is a plant species known for its beautiful flowers, found only in China and Vietnam. Of its 23 varieties, 21 can be found in China and six are spread across Nonggang.

Before 2010, they were just rare ornamental plants, blossoming and withering quietly in forests. "After the flowering season, golden camellia blossoms covered the forest floor in some areas, rotting," Chen Tianbo says. "We often turned a blind eye to them."

Since 2010, some companies in Guangxi have begun to hype up the flower's "magical health benefits", Meng says. "Anti-aging, anti-cancer, similar to the alleged effects of caterpillar fungus or matsutake mushroom," he explains.

As a result, a kilogram of dried wild golden camellia flowers is priced more than 10,000 yuan ($1,607). Half a kilogram of fresh flower is priced at 400 yuan on the local market. A bonsai created with a wild golden camellia tree can be sold for half a million yuan.

"Outside collectors came to Longzhou and some locals would sneak into our reserve at night mainly for flowers, sometimes for trees," he says. "During the flower season, our rangers are exhausted just trying to keep illegal collectors at bay."

Other new threats are macaques and wild boars.

The monkey, a dominant animal in Nonggang with a population of more than 1,000, lives on cliffs, but often feeds close to villages. "A family of macaques often has more than 100 members," Meng says. "When they come, they can easily consume and destroy the crop of a whole plot of field. Wild boars are just as destructive as the monkey."

The increasing conflicts between wildlife and villagers have also become a major problem faced by the reserve managers. "Our compensation fund is very limited. To be honest, we haven't found a good solution yet," the director adds.


(China Daily 03/15/2013 page20)

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