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At age 64, Yu Jianhua is still a forest ranger with the Weixi Division of Baima (White Horse) Snow Mountain National Nature Reserve in Deqen Prefecture, Yunnan Province. A member of the Lisu ethnic group, Yu once subsisted on hunting and farming. Since 1998, when he joined the Weixi Division as a member of its first group of forest rangers, his focus has shifted to the protection of Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys, an endangered species under first-class state protection in China.
A French missionary first discovered the animal in Deqen during the 1880s. In 1897, French zoologist Alphonse Milne-Edwards (1835-1900) wrote the first scientific description and officially named it Rhinopithecus bieti. However, so few could be found anywhere that many assumed they were already teetering on the brink of extinction. Chinese zoologists didn’t acknowledge them until 1962 and finally began conducting scientific investigations in the late 1970s.
The White Horse Snow Mountain National Nature Reserve was first established in 1983 as the first area for Yunnan snub-nosed monkey conservation in China. Many joined the efforts to protect the forests in the nature reserve, including Yu Jianhua from Xiangguqing Village, a place where there is a forest ranger in almost every family.
Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys are primates that only inhabit alpine areas between 2,500 and 5,000 meters above sea level. Every day at 5:00 a.m., Yu Jianhua carries 10 to 15 kilograms of foods such as peanuts, pumpkin seeds and lichens up the mountain paths to feed the monkeys. Now, many of the monkeys are familiar with him, and some even take food straight from his hand.
Yu doesn’t return home until near bedtime and considers feeding those monkeys a serious business. Sometimes he has to follow the monkeys through the forests. To reach higher elevations, he must go all the way through the neighboring county. If he takes too long, it gets dark, preventing him from returning home. In that case, he spends the night in a simple cottage erected for forest rangers.
Yu still recalls one particularly snowy winter day. As usual, he prepared food for the day and set off hiking. After he left, however, the snow began falling more and more heavily, eventually blocking every path down the hills. He managed to build a fire in the cottage and spent four days trapped in the hills before he could get down.
Yu was once the captain of the forest ranger team, which has grown from four members to 26. Today, he works at the protection station under the administration of Tacheng Yunnan Snub-nosed Monkey National Park, established in 2009. “Visitors can see more than 50 monkeys there,” Yu explains. “The other 400-plus live somewhere outside the park. I go and check if they are safe twice or three times a month. Before 2004, there were only about 300 monkeys, but today the population has grown to 450 and just keeps growing.”