Photographer Xi Zhinong uses camera to protect wildlife

Chinese Culture

Photo from Wild China Film

Xi Zhinong, China’s well-known wildlife photographer and conservationist, spent more than 30 years in the wild to capture images of rare wildlife. He is famous for taking the first video footage of the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey and raising public awareness about environmental conservation and endangered species in China. He is also the founder of Wild China Film, an organization that promotes natural conservation through wildlife photography.

Xi visited the United States in April to screen his latest documentary film “Mystery Monkeys of Shangri-La“, which revealed the secret lives of a Yunnan snub-nosed monkey family.

During Xi’s 30-year-career filming China’s wildlife, his photographs have captured valuable endangered species and also won world praise and honors. View this photo gallery of his most well-known shots of China’s beautiful natural creatures.


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CCTV America’s Hua Ming interviewed Xi about his work and his thoughts on wildlife conservation in China.

How did you get into wildlife photography?

It started simple. I think I was lucky, because I grew up in an environment with blue sky, green mountains, and clear water [in Yunnan province]. So I think my childhood environment has impacted the rest of my life. So I had strong interests in nature. Later, I moved with my mother to Kunming, a bigger city. Even though Kunming was very lovely at that time, it still scared me as a big modern city. I was like a free bird kept in a cage, so I always wanted to set myself free and go back to nature. In 1983, I got a chance to participate in photo shoot, and it was the first time I touched a camera. It was a film about bird, but I couldn’t bear the way they filmed the bird. They caught the bird and tied it with rope to film it. So I decided in my mind that I had to learn photography, so that I could film free birds flying in the sky. It took 30 more years to create a job for myself as a professional wildlife photographer, because there was no such a career in China.

Can you describe the first time you saw a snub-nosed monkey?

We spent about one week to search carefully for every potential habitat for the snub-nosed monkey, but didn’t find anything. On our way back home, everyone was too depressed to speak. Then someone shouted: “Monkey feces!” I thought it was a joke. But when I saw the fresh monkey feces, I squat down and looked at it for a long time. I acted like I found a treasure. We were at the bottom of a valley, and we needed to climb to the crest line, which usually talks a half an hour. But that day it only took us half the time, when we heard the monkeys’ calls? as we were climbing through azaleas and firs. But we didn’t even stop to listen more carefully because we were so afraid we’d miss the monkey. When we get to the crest line, I saw the monkey in the corner of my eye? but I couldn’t even look longer because I had to turn on the camera, and adjust the lens, and focus, and record. Only when the film was recording, did I really take a look at the monkey through my viewfinder.

What was the most difficult challenge in filming this documentary?

This documentary was too easy to make, because there’re already so many research teams studying the monkeys there. The monkeys are not afraid of people, and we got full support from the nature reserve. Compared to my first documentary, this film was not difficult at all.

What types of difficulties do you usually encounter?

The only difficulty was finding the monkeys.

What is the longest time you spent in the wild?

Three months. We could not find monkeys for three months because their activity range is more than 100 square kilometers (37 square miles) within mountains that are more than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) high. Also, I can only go with a research team and only if they find the monkeys can I film them. I can’t search by myself or interrupt their research work, because I am just there to record.

What was the most memorable moment during your career?

The most memorable moments always happen in the wild, but you need a long time to get to those moments, so they’re more exciting. It is far more difficult to see wildlife in China than North America. It took three years from 1992-1994 to find the snub-nose monkey, but I’ve only see them twice. I think wildlife in China might be the hardest to film.

What are the challenges for China’s wildlife conservation?

I’ve seen two important changes to environment protection in China. In the past, China’s wildlife conservation was very top to bottom. The slogan “Protecting the wildlife is protecting ourselves” was everywhere, but people would only passively participate in the giant panda conservation in those years – such as donating money to pay for bamboo for pandas.

In contrast, conservation for the snub-nose monkey started from bottom up. It had grassroots support from the people, and lots of media attention that changed the government’s decision making. This happened also for conservation efforts for the Tibetan antelope. So I am so happy to see this.

Challenges to wildlife conservation have been around for years. With the growth in economic development, the conflicts between conservation and development is becoming bigger. There are many environmental policies and slogans, but when it comes to concrete examples, economic development seems to overpower everything.

Another problem is that China’s Wildlife Protection Law still has very detrimental provisions. Many of these provisions protect industries that harm endangered wildlife. For example, the laws support commercial breeding of captive endangered wildlife. These terrible bear farms, fox farms, and giant salamander farms are all legal. In my view, if these evil laws are not amended, there is totally no hope for China’s wildlife conservation.

Why did you create the WildChina organization?

Because one person’s power is limited, so if I can aggregate more people who share the same interests and build this platform, our influence can grow. We have wildlife photography training camp every year to grow our team to use images to protect nature.

Who is do you admire?

George Schaller [American mammalogist and conservationist]. He’s already 80 more years old, but he still spends around eight months in the wild. He’s my benchmark, so all the difficulties I seen aren’t worth mentioning compared to his experiences.