Princess of the Beavers: The young conservationist protecting her endangered ‘babies’
Updated 14:59, 20-Jul-2019
Wang Fan, Zheng Mengmeng
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Chu Wenwen is a wildlife photographer based in the Altay Prefecture of the northern part of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, northwest China. Inspired by her father, a forestry official and renowned wildlife conservationist, the 25-year-old has developed a strong sense of love for the local wildlife.

Chu has accompanied her father on his field research since she was two years old, and was given a digital camera at seven. With it, she recorded an historic event – the group of the incredibly rare Przewalski’s horses being released into the wild for the very first time. Ever since then, she has filmed the various animal inhabitants of the region, especially the Sino-Mongolian beavers.

The beaver is under first-class state protection in China and it is found only along Xinjiang’s Ulungur River. According to Chu, there are just 509 of them left in the area.

She can spend hours on a chilly autumn night, filming the beavers at work, building their dams. These branch-and-mud structures are vital for the species' survival, since they serve to raise the water level sufficiently to submerge, and thus protect the entrances to the lodges they have dug into the riverbank.

A beaver builds a dam before the onset of winter. /Credit to Chu Wenwen

A beaver builds a dam before the onset of winter. /Credit to Chu Wenwen

However, the delight Chu takes in observing her “babies”, as she calls the beavers, is tempered by worry. The beavers’ survival is under threat from the local human population.

In 1980, the Bulgan Beaver Nature Reserve was established. Barbed wire fences were put up around the beavers’ habitat to keep livestock away. Rangers have been hired to patrol the reserve, and every winter, hay is distributed to the local herders to prevent overgrazing and protect the beavers’ food supply.

A beaver in water. /VCG Photo

A beaver in water. /VCG Photo

However, these efforts have failed to put a stop to the deterioration of the beavers’ habitat. A 2017 study that appeared in Arid Zone Research, an academic journal jointly published by Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, and the Soil Science Society of China, which concluded that, “It is of paramount urgency to reconcile the conflict between grazing and beaver protection.”

The reserve does not encompass all the beavers in the region, and for those living outside the reserve, the situation is not optimistic. According to Chu, oxen watering in the river often destroy the beaver dams, leaving the rodents more vulnerable to their predators. Also, many beavers, especially those on the mid and lower streams, suffer due to the low water levels caused by human dam construction.

“Is it their fault they’re living outside the reserve?” asked Chu. Although the beaver reserve has been built, only 38 of the total of 162 beaver families live inside the protected area, she said.

A beaver. /VCG Photo

A beaver. /VCG Photo

In 2018, Chu established an NGO called the True Nature Conservation Association. With the organization, she has undertaken the responsibility to protect the beavers outside the reserve.

Last winter, Chu and her team went from village to village, distributing animal feed and urging the herders to keep their oxen away from the river. She has also launched a campaign to plant willows as a way of boosting the beavers’ food supply.

Chu’s next step is to build an education center in Altay, where visitors can observe and learn about the region’s unique wildlife.

“I think the turning point of wildlife protection in China will only come when people’s awareness changes,” said Chu. “I want to help them understand that wild animals are closely bound up with us, and that we can’t thrive if they die out.”

(Cover image via VCG.)

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