Wild China: Heart of the Dragon

Wild China, BBC Two, Sun, 8.05pm
Sunday 11 May, 8.05pm rpt Saturday 17 May, 7.00pm

The improbable egg-carton hills of Southern China seem to float in a sea of glistening rice paddies. This is a landscape full of surprises. Next to peasants ploughing with buffaloes are rivers concealing dwarf alligators and giant salamanders, trained cormorants that catch fish for their masters, bats with unusual tastes and monkeys that hide in caves.

But this isn't a nature park. Almost 300 million people live here, with a tradition of eating wildlife. So what forces have shaped this remarkable landscape and how do farmers and wild creatures manage to coexist among the rocks and the rice fields?

Wild China, the BBC's new nature series, captures a vanishing world
Given the global meanderings of Attenborough and his ilk, you would imagine that there can be few parts of the planet that haven't heard the gentle footfalls of a BBC Natural History Unit camera crew. BBC Bristol, where the production arm is based, must be awash with indecipherable expenses claims picked up everywhere from the Atacama desert to the Tora Bora caves.

But there is one significant area that remains, if not entirely unvisited, then under-explored: rural China, with its remarkably diverse habitats, wildlife and lifestyles. As the BBC's stunningly shot new six-part series Wild China demonstrates, there's much about a life working in, say, the rice paddies of the Yangtze River flood plain, that hasn't changed for hundreds of years. In the wake of China's extraordinary economic expansion, however, these are landscapes likely to change rapidly over the next generation. Experts forecast that, across the next two decades, some 300 million rural Chinese will migrate to the cities in search of better-paid jobs. And all this will have a huge impact, not just on already endangered species such as the South China tiger, but also on many of the rural traditions (such as hunting with golden eagles) that Wild China features.

The attraction of capturing what may well be a fast-disappearing world certainly helped to carry the series producer, Phil Chapman, though the inevitable problems associated with shooting in an environment traditionally suspicious of foreign film crews. “China isn't yet as accessible as many other countries, so it was difficult. The local politics of filming on location there can be very complicated. But by collaborating with China Central Television, an officially sanctioned production company, we got privileged access to many of the country's most remote areas.”

Each programme looks at a different geographical area, and the Wild China team wasn't always sure what they'd find on their travels. “The sub-tropical south is a poor, and poorly researched, area, so getting precise information about what could be filmed, where and when, wasn't easy,” Chapman says. Eventually they fetched up in a remote area of Guizhou Province. “We were taken to Zhongdong cave, where it transpired we were to be lodged. Arriving as dusk fell, we were led under a wide arch beneath a huge cliff to find an entire village of 18 families housed inside the cave, including a school with six classes, plus a menagerie of cows, goats, pigs and chickens.”

Some of Chapman's most vivid memories are of the “remarkable” people he met - not the powerbrokers encountered at the many formal banquets he attended to ease the wheels of the series' production, but the characters encountered out in the provinces. People such as the rice-farming Song family, “who welcomed us into their wooden home, where swallows are encouraged to build nests in the living room”, and three cormorant fishermen on the Li River: “Mr Huang, Mr Huang, and Mr Huang.”

But it's the animals that are the show-stoppers. “Some sequences, such as images of Chiru antelopes filmed in temperatures of -30C in Tibet's Chang Tang Reserve, and male pandas scrapping over a fertile female in the Qinling Mountains, are probably genuine ‘firsts',” Chapman suggests. Other footage required specialist equipment, such as the infra-red cameras that captured a colony of bumblebee-sized bats living inside a hollow bamboo stem.

Sometimes, of course, Chapman and his team had to rely solely on that vital weapon in the armoury of the natural history film-maker - infinite patience. “Red pandas are shy, rare creatures which live in dense mountain forests and spend a lot of time in the treetops. A key to our success in filming them were the Chinese scientists, who suggested we try an area, at a more accessible altitude, where they'd been spotted during the winter. But, even so, we were able to observe them only fleetingly.”

There's a hint of regret in Chapman's voice here, and maybe even a sense of a little bit of unfinished business. Whether he will ever return to China, he is unsure. And with the Chinese economy set to become the world's largest in a couple of years, quite what the Chapmans of the future will find out in the wilds of this vast, beautiful, complex and challenging country is anyone's guess.

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