The Wa minority are the major ethnic group of the Cangyuan area. Their culture is defined by colorful hand weaved clothes, dance and traditional storytelling. They don't have a written language unique to the area like Burmese, but they use English letters to form words. There were American missionaries that arrived over 100 years ago and then left, and there are Catholic churches here in the city. From what I'm told, Wa culture primarily resides in Myanmar with a population of over 600,000, and in China the numbers are much smaller with around 400,000 people. They get kind of a bad rap because their culture was previously cannibalistic and they are still involved heavily in the opium/heroin trade in that area. Cangyuan is the biggest city in the county.
The construction in Cangyuan is part of the national development for the entire country, so the new airport and corresponding shopping malls and hotel complexes all concerted together are radically transforming this off the map town into a modern city. We drive past rows and rows of shops, some selling fancy clothes, household items, and other wares, English pubs or café's, and of course Chinese food restaurants. I notice wooden housing on stilts simply thrown together amidst the major construction, with narrow brick streets leading into the suburbs with gated houses. It's common to see the Wa or Dai minority villagers here amidst the crowds sitting on the side of the street with their produce or otherwise handmade goods which they brought from the rural areas. In the morning, I eat a normal Chinese breakfast of mushroom baozi, which are bread rolls with a savory mushroom filling, and rice porridge. Then I take a walk around and check out the shops. Some of the traditional clothing shops have black, red, and deep purple colored clothing weaved into skirts and shirts, which is the Wa style. Their clothing has their cultural symbol of the bull embroidered on the front. This symbol is also found throughout the city in sculptures of bulls together or bulls heads, adorning the outside of the county buildings, and overall ingrained in the cultural heritage of the area.
The vendors outside are mostly ladies, some are Wa minority people, and some are Dai minority people. At first, I couldn't tell their was a difference, but after a few days of exploring the area it became obvious which minority they were from from their clothing. Wa people usually wear a colored head wrap, often have a long pipe, and embroidered or woven brightly colored often neon bright clothes. Dai people often wear white, grey or pink colored head wrap. They often have Buddhist clothes, and often wear lighter colors. The shops with Dai clothing have pastel dresses which are etheric and outerwordly. The vegetables they weigh with a rudimentary, tarnished, often broken scale and weights. Most of the younger women don't like to get their picture taken, but luckily the older women don't mind. Since they speak Chinese I can have a conversation if they ask me questions, and once I was invited to a wedding by a complete stranger!
I go meet up with the director of one part of the nature reserve who likes to begin work after lunch around 12:30 giving me my entire morning free. It makes me laugh that this is how to fieldwork done. I'm used to waking up at 7am at least to go into the field on any field job in America, and this is a field crews dream. Apparently, they're paid about 50 kuai a day (roughly 7 USD), which is considered a half day of work for them.
We travel in a big team of over 5 people including myself, all of whom speak Chinese (Not to brag or anything), and everyone except me can also speak a local dialect called Wa. I found it totally unnecessary to have such a large team, but they insisted it was to keep me safe! There was one trained tracker/hunter, the director, one guy to come along for the experience?, myself, and my assistant Xiaobao, who came along to simply interpret everything from my simple Chinese into more fluent and advanced Chinese the team can understand. Although at first Xiaobao was coming along because she spoke English, she never speaks any English at all to me, but none the less she is helping me with my Chinese. Teams of 5 people is how they like to organize, and so I would ask them to carry a few things, and hang up the camera traps. Having a 5 person crew is kind of disruptive to the environment and dangerous, because someone could get hurt and it's also a lot less stealthy meaning that the trail could easily be followed by another tracker.
I'm also worried about the security of the cameras as they are easy to find, and also once stolen we never get them back. People live adjacent to and also within the nature reserve. I often see rice fields in the nature reserve, and an occasional hunters lookout platform. In one of the previous camera traps studies done in this county, over 20 out of 40 of the camera traps were stolen. Camera traps are somewhat expensive ($100-200) and anyone who wants to steal them will and can resell them! What I did as my only precaution was to carve a phone number in the side and cover them with tape. I also put the phone number and name of our Beijing Forestry University Wildlife Institute on the bottom, so everyone would be clear who they were stealing from if they took it. It's my biggest fear actually that my project will be canceled because of theft! If we need to figure out some extra security precautions I'm sure we can.
My challenge is setting the cameras in a suitable area to find animals and also avoid theft. I have to trust the field staff to know the area enough to put them in a good area for finding leopard and clouded leopard. Not only that, but the clouded leopard is partially arboreal, and almost completely nocturnal.
On that first day, we immediately got lost for 3 hours trying to find the first grid cell, and while I thought it was wise to trust the local staff knew where they were going, I eventually realized that I had the compass and the GPS and should have been more vigilant in using them both. I thought they knew where they were going and they kept getting us lost 3 or 4 times after I showed them the map. I eventually whipped out the compass and every 100 m tell them if we were going in the right direction. I haven't done fieldwork in a while, although I have over 6 + years of fieldwork experience, so it was obviously my fault for not being diligent. We saw places with animal activity, but I felt the places I chose to put the camera traps were mediocre. I was really disappointed with the second spot and even told them later on in the evening that I thought that it should be moved to a new place. Being flexible is a great way to get things done properly! I realize now that had I been more flexible I would have had a better camera trap setup that first day. Rigidity, in this case, spells defeat!
On the second day, our new field guide in this new area attempted to get us lost again, and right off the bat he got us lost, so I had to be a little more strict with them this time. Telling them in Chinese "Come on guys we were lost for three hours yesterday how could we possibly repeat that mistake again." So he started listening to me on which direction I thought we should go. Although in his defense, he was taking us to place that had previously found and camera trapped a leopard, but it was outside of the nature reserve and outside of the project area.
After we're finished setting the first 6 camera traps, I move to another location. I woke up in another field station, where the local resident and his family live. I stay with them in their one room bedroom. I had the feeling they gave me their bed! The scrawny 52 year old man doesn't like to eat, but he likes to drink hard liquor and drink cigarettes. His wife has a hardened strong body, and a rough crass voice. Their daughter is there, as well as two grandchildren that are both under 7. Unfortunately, he chain smokes night and day inside of the house we're all at. They are all sitting around the TV dozing off right now at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. They wake up at 8am and he starts smoking in the house. By 10am he is drinking hard liquor, and this is their life where drinking is considered an important custom. I ask him why he doesn't eat. He tells me he doesn't want to. A 23 year old boy came to the house today and he immediately start drinking shots of baijiu together. I hang out and drink tea and try to hold a conversation. They show me some of their handmade tables and chairs, which are weaved out of some kind of rattan. I can barely understand half of what is said to me. We chat about the local customs here, and I ask about things like Wa minority arts and culture. I'm curious about Wa people arts and stories, and want to come back for their festival at the end of April. They tell me they have a storytelling culture, and I'm interested in what kind of stories they tell. It's interesting to be on the border of Myanmar, as the Wa share the border area.
The next day, the two different completely new field guides weren't listening to me. I feel like they do it on purpose to show me the most interesting lookouts or waterfalls. It's frustrating to be hiking so hard all day lost and not on track. It was my third day in a row hiking, so the frustration builds when the team wastes time. They assured me there was a nice trail that went to exactly where we wanted to go, and that same trail took us so far off track we barely had enough time to set one camera trap and make it back. I was so frustrated that I found porcupine quills on the ground. It's funny how animal energy will be attracted to us because of our energy. We took a nice long trail around through the reserve, and went into the elephant areas of the nature reserve, which the director of the nature reserve told me was too dangerous for me to enter. It was so entirely different from the other parts of the forest. It was real jungle. I can imagine the tiny fragment of actual jungle is less than 40km2, which is unfortunately the plight of the world's rainforests to be so fragmented. It was wet, lots of jungle plants, lush, green, water everywhere. We saw a lot of elephant tracks. I started to feel the energy and my limbs became heavier, I started walking with heavy legs. Partly because I was frustrated after several days of hiking to be lost for half a day. I can imagine the size of the Asian elephant was about 7 or 8 feet tall, not huge. After being lost all day we finally placed one camera in a really good area with 3 different animal trails. Hopefully we'll get some data from the cameras. Halfway through the day I had a breakthrough and was no longer as frustrated. I started to feel a lot better. I try my best to communicate with the staff, but I know that I'm not doing a very good job. My Chinese is terrible, although people are telling me it sounds okay, I struggle with having the right words or sounding too simple. I can hold a conversation, and it's good that I don't have a lot to communicate anyway.