Saturday, February 19, 2011

China: Drowned Majesty - the Three Gorges

Eileen and I left Malaysia in mid-June 2010, bound for our next major stop on our way back to Canada - my first trip, other than stops in Hong Kong and a few scattered airport layovers, to China. Our plan was to meet my parents in Shanghai for a cruise on the Yangtze River. At the last moment, unfortunately, my mom took ill (she is better now, and just celebrated her 89th birthday), so on June 19 Eileen and I found ourselves flying west to Chongqing, the port for our cruise, on our own.

Only a few months earlier, I had barely heard of Chongqing. It is, however, an urbanization so huge that the Government of China has split it from its former province of Sichuan into it's own region, where some thirty- two million people live astride one of the greatest rivers in the world. Here we, like hordes of other tourists both foreign and Chinese, boarded a ship that was to take us downriver down the mist-enshrouded waters of the Yangtze and through the great natural wonder that is - or was - the Three Gorges. 

A tourist trip along the Yangtze is not billed as a wildlife experience, and for good reason. The river, after centuries of human occupation - over 200,000,000 people live along its banks - is far from pristine, and in recent decades it has been degraded to such an extent that it seems less a river than a gigantic industrial ditch. A vast number of ships, from coal barges to cruise vessels, sail it every day, but the chief agent of change in the river's fortunes has been the recent completion of the Three Gorges Dam, a structure that has the dubious distinction if being the largest slab of concrete on the face of the earth. 

Perhaps the dam was necessary, both to supply power to China's immense population and to control flooding in the river's upstream passages. But the ecological loss, from the dam and from other human activities, has been devastating. The Yangtze dolphin or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) was declared extinct in 2006, despite heroic efforts to save it.

The obituary turned out to be slightly premature - a baiji was spotted in the river in 2007 –but the surviving population is probably so tiny, and its habitat so degraded, that's final disappearance cannot be long in coming.  The Chinese paddlefish (Psephurus gladius), one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world, is probably gone too, and the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) is down to a tiny relict. The fate of the Yangtze is a depressing tale.  You can read about it here

The most obvious sign of the change along the river has been, of course, the submergence of the better part of the Three Gorges beneath the rising waters behind the dam. The remarkable thing is that even after drowning  beneath some 130 metres of muddy water, the gorges are still impressive enough to satisfy boatloads of tourists -- not excluding, I should add, Eileen and I. 

Wildlife, though, still clings on along the Yangtze, even in urban areas.  At one of our first stops, the “relocation city” of Fengdu ( the original city, once known as the “ghost city” of China) lies completely below the waters), I was able to take a stroll along the embankment, and turned up a number of things including this dragonfly which I believe to be a male Crocothemis servilia.

Butterflies, too, clung to the weedy patches along the roadside. This is one of the sulfurs, but I am not sure which.

After hearing for years about the general birdlessness of the settled parts of China, I was surprised to see how many species I was able to identify in the course of our voyage.   I even saw a few in the strip of lawn and planted trees between the river's edge and a row of new apartment towers during my walk at Fengdu.   One of the commonest – or at least one of the most obvious – species was the Long-tailed Shrike (Lanius schach), a ubiquitous bird throughout much of China.

 You may have noticed that the shrike was sitting in a ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba).   Normally, I would not take too much notice of this. Ginkgos are planted in cities around the world, often because they are particularly tolerant to polluted air. This, however, was China, the only country in the world where ginkgo trees still grow in the wild (in a remote area that I did not see). This photograph, therefore, is a reminder of China's incredible natural heritage, including the oldest (in evolutionary terms) woody tree in the world.

Among the other birds that braved the riverside concrete were White Wagtails (Motacilla alba, presumably of the race leucopsis)...

An Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis), here near the northeastern limit of its range...

And several Chinese Grosbeaks (Eophona migratoria).  These birds are particularly fine songsters, and were a pleasure both to see and hear.

Downstream from Fengdu, our ship entered the Three Gorges proper.  The scenery was still splendid, but try to imagine what this region must have looked like when the water level was some 130 metres lower (the high point of 140 metres is reached during the rainy season; you can see the waterline easily in these photographs).

From the city of Wushan, well into the gorges, we transferred to smaller vessels for a side excursion into one of the Little Three Gorges -- a trip that once required visitors to travel by tiny longboats hauled upstream on ropes by teams of naked men.  Our visit was altogether more sedate.

The Little Three Gorges boast both cleaner water and wilder scenery than the main channel of the Yangtze.

Close passage to the banks gave us the opportunity to appreciate the geological upheaval that went into the formation of the gorges.  Uptilted strata told of mammoth folding forces at work in the past.

The geological saga of the Gorges may not be over; a new report (publicized by Probe International, an organization long opposed to the dam) warns that the sheer weight of the waters behind the dam could unleash "tsunami-causing landslides and reservoir-induced earthquakes" some 3-5 years after they reach their maximum level of 175 metres (a level that was attained last fall).

Meanwhile, on our visit, the forest along the walls of the Little Three Gorges continued to ring with the songs of (frustratingly unidentified) birds.

Even mammals were not entirely absent. At xx we transferred to smaller launches for a side trip up one of the Little Three Gorges, and into (as the sign implies) rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) habitat. 

I even saw one - very briefly, as it dashed into the covering foliage. I had time to get off one shot - not great, but enough to prove that Homo sapiens isn't the only primate along the Yangtze! 

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