Heart of the Dragon Wild China


Heart of the Dragon

The hills of Guilin and the fishermen of the Li River form the heart of this exploration of the rice-growing cultures and strange creatures of southern China.


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Transcript


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BIRDS CRY

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The last hidden world...

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China.

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For centuries travellers to China have told tales of magical landscapes...

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..and surprising creatures.

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Chinese civilisation is the world's oldest...

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and today its largest, with well over a billion people.

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It's home to more than 50 distinct ethnic groups.

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And a wide range of traditional lifestyles often in close partnership with nature.

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We know that China faces immense social and environmental problems.

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But there is great beauty here too.

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China is home to the world's highest mountains.

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Vast deserts ranging from searing hot

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to mind-numbing cold.

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Steaming forests harbouring rare creatures.

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Grassy plains beneath vast horizons.

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And rich, tropical seas.

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Now for the first time ever,

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we can explore the whole of this great country,

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meet some of the surprising and exotic creatures that live here...

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..and consider the relationship of the people and wildlife of China

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to the remarkable landscape in which they live.

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This is Wild China!

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Our exploration of China begins in the warm, sub-tropical south.

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On the Li River, fishermen and birds perch on bamboo rafts,

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a partnership that goes back more than a thousand years.

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This scenery is known throughout the world...

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a recurring motif in Chinese paintings...

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..and a major tourist attraction.

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The south of China is a vast area,

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eight times larger than the UK.

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It's a landscape of hills...

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but also of water.

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It rains here for up to 250 days a year

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and standing water is everywhere.

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In the floodplain of the Yangtze River,

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black-tailed godwits probe the mud in search of worms.

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But it isn't just wildlife that thrives in this environment.

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The swampy ground provides ideal conditions for a remarkable member of the grass family...

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rice.

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The Chinese have been cultivating rice for at least 8,000 years.

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It has transformed the landscape.

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Late winter in southern Yunnan is a busy time for local farmers

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as they prepare the age-old paddy fields ready for the coming spring.

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These hill-slopes of the Yuanyang County plunge nearly 2,000m to the floor of the Red River valley.

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Each contains literally thousands of stacked terraces, carved out by hand using basic digging tools.

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Yunnan's rice terraces are among the oldest human structures in China.

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Still ploughed, as they always have been, by domesticated

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water buffaloes, whose ancestors originated in these very valleys.

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This man-made landscape is one of the most amazing engineering feats of pre-industrial China.

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It seems as if every square inch of land has been pressed into cultivation.

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As evening approaches, an age-old ritual unfolds.

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It's the mating season and male paddy frogs are competing for the attention of the females.

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But it doesn't always pay to draw too much attention to yourself.

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The Chinese pond heron is a pitiless predator.

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Even in the middle of a ploughed paddy field, nature is red in beak and claw.

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This may look like a slaughter,

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but as each heron can swallow only one frog at a time,

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the vast majority will escape to croak another day.

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Terraced paddies like those of Yuanyang county are found across much of southern China.

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This whole vast landscape is dominated by rice cultivation.

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In hilly Guizhou Province, the Miao minority have developed a remarkable rice culture.

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With every inch of fertile land given over to rice cultivation,

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the Miao build their wooden houses on the steepest and least productive hillsides.

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In Chinese rural life, everything has a use - dried in the sun,

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manure from the cowsheds will be used as cooking fuel.

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FAMILY MEMBERS CHAT

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It's midday, and the Song family are tucking into a lunch of rice and vegetables.

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Oblivious to the domestic chit-chat, granddad Gu Yong Xiu has serious matters on his mind.

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Spring is the start of the rice-growing season.

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The success of the crop will determine how well the family

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will eat next year, so planting at the right time is critical.

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The ideal date depends on what the weather will do this year.

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Never easy to predict, but there is some surprising help at hand.

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On the ceiling of the Songs' living room, a pair of red-rumped swallows,

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newly arrived from their winter migration, is busy fixing up last year's nest.

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In China, animals are valued as much for their symbolic meaning as for any good they may do.

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Miao people believe that swallow pairs remain faithful for life,

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so their presence is a favour and a blessing, bringing happiness to a marriage and good luck to a home.

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Like most Miao dwellings, the Songs' living room windows look out over the paddy fields.

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From early spring, one of these windows is always left open to let the swallows come and go freely.

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Each year, Granddad Gu notes the exact day the swallows return.

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Miao people believe the birds' arrival predicts the timing of the season ahead.

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This year they were late,

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so Gu and the other community elders have agreed that rice planting should be delayed accordingly.

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As the Miao prepare their fields for planting,

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the swallows collect mud to repair their nests and chase after insects across the newly-ploughed paddies.

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Finally, after weeks of preparation, the ordained time for planting has arrived,

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but first the seedlings must be uprooted from the nursery beds

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and bundled up, ready to be transported to their new paddy higher up the hillside.

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All the Songs' neighbours have turned out to help with the transplanting.

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It's how the community has always worked.

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When the time comes, the Songs will return the favour.

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While the farmers are busy in the fields, the swallows fly back and forth with material for their nest.

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Many hands make light work -

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planting the new paddy takes little more than an hour.

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Job done, the villagers can relax, at least until tomorrow.

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But for the nesting swallows, the work of raising a family has only just begun.

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In the newly-planted fields little egrets hunt for food.

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The rice paddies harbour tadpoles, fish and insects and the egrets have chicks to feed.

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This colony in Chongqing Province was established in 1996,

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when a few dozen birds built nests in the bamboo grove behind Yang Guang village.

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Believing they were a sign of luck, local people initially protected the egrets and the colony grew.

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But their attitude changed when the head of the village fell ill.

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They blamed the birds and were all set to destroy their nests

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when the local government stepped in to protect them.

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Bendy bamboo may not be the safest nesting place,

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but at least this youngster won't end up as someone's dinner.

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These chicks have just had an eel delivered by their mum,

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quite a challenge for little beaks.

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Providing their colonies are protected, wading birds like egrets

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are among the few wild creatures which benefit directly from intensive rice cultivation.

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Growing rice needs lots of water.

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But even in the rainy south there are landscapes where water is surprisingly scarce.

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This vast area of south west China, the size of France and Spain combined, is famous

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for its clusters of conical hills, like giant upturned egg cartons, separated by dry empty valleys.

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This is the Karst, a limestone terrain which has become the defining image of southern China.

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Karst landscapes are often studded with rocky outcrops, forcing local farmers to cultivate tiny fields.

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The people who live here are among the poorest in China.

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In neighbouring Yunnan Province, limestone rocks have taken over entirely.

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This is the famous Stone Forest, the product of countless years of

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erosion, producing a maze of deep gullies and sharp-edged pinnacles.

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Limestone has the strange property that it dissolves in rainwater.

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Over many thousands of years, water has corroded its way deep into the heart of the bedrock itself.

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This natural wonder is a famous tourist spot,

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receiving close to two million visitors each year.

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The Chinese are fond of curiously-shaped rocks

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and many have been given fanciful names.

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No prizes for guessing what this one is called!

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But there's more to this landscape than meets the eye.

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China has literally thousands of mysterious caverns concealed beneath the visible landscape of the Karst.

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Much of this hidden world has never been seen by human eyes and is only just now being explored.

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For a growing band of intrepid young Chinese explorers, caves represent the ultimate adventure.

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Exploring a cave is like taking a journey through time, a journey

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which endless raindrops will have followed over countless centuries.

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Fed by countless drips and trickles, the subterranean river carves ever deeper into the rock.

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The cave river's course is channelled by the beds of limestone.

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A weakness in the rock can allow the river to increase its gradient

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and flow-rate, providing a real challenge for the cave explorers.

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The downward rush is halted when the water table is reached.

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Here, the slow flowing river carves tunnels with a more rounded profile.

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This tranquil world is home to specialized cave fishes, like the eyeless golden barb.

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China may have more unique kinds of cave-evolved fishes than anywhere else on Earth.

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Above the water table, ancient caverns abandoned

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by the river slowly fill up with stalactites and stalagmites.

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Stalactites form as trickling water deposits tiny quantities of rock over hundreds or thousands of years.

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Stalagmites grow up where lime-laden drips hit the cave floor.

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Oi-oi-oi-oi!

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VOICE ECHOES

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So far only a fraction of China's caves

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have been thoroughly prospected and cavers are constantly discovering new subterranean marvels,

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many of which are subsequently developed into commercial show caves.

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Finally escaping the darkness,

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the cave river and its human explorers emerge in a valley far from where their journey began.

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For now, the adventure is over.

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Rivers which issue from caves are the key to survival in the Karst country.

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This vertical gorge in Guizhou Province is a focal point for the region's wildlife.

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This is one of the world's rarest primates...

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Francois' Langur.

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In China they survive in just two southern provinces -

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Guizhou and Guangxi, always in rugged limestone terrains.

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Like most monkeys, they are social creatures and spend a great deal of time grooming each other.

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Langurs are essentially vegetarian with a diet of buds, fruits and tender young leaves.

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Babies are born with ginger fur, which gradually turns black from the tail end.

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Young infants have a vice-like grip, used to cling on to Mum for dear life.

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As they get older, they get bolder and take more risks.

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Those that survive spend a lot of time travelling.

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The experienced adults know exactly where to find seasonal foods in different parts of their range.

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In such steep terrain, travel involves a high level of climbing skill.

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These monkeys are spectacularly good rock climbers from the time they learn to walk.

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In Langur society females rule the roost and take the lead when the family is on the move.

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One section of cliff oozes a trickle of mineral rich water which the monkeys seem to find irresistible.

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These days there are few predators in the Mayanghe Reserve which might pose a risk to a baby monkey.

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But in past centuries this area of South China was home to leopards, pythons and even tigers.

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To survive dangerous night-prowlers, the Langurs went underground,

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using their rock-climbing skills to seek shelter in inaccessible caverns.

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Filmed in near-darkness using a night-vision camera,

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the troop clambers along familiar ledges, worn smooth by generations before them.

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During cold winter weather, the monkeys venture deeper underground

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where the air stays comparatively warm.

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At last journey's end - a cosy niche beyond the reach of even the most enterprising predator.

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But it's not just monkeys that find shelter in caves.

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These children are off to school.

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In rural China that may mean a long trek each morning, passing through a cave or two on the way.

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But not all pupils have to walk to school - these children are boarders.

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As the day pupils near journey's end, the boarders are still making breakfast.

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In the schoolyard, someone seems to have switched the lights off.

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But this is no ordinary playground, and no ordinary school.

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-BELL

-It's housed inside a cave.

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A natural vault of rock keeps out the rain, so there's no need for a roof on the classroom.

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Zhong Dong cave school is made up of six classes with a total of 200 children.

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As well as the school, the cave houses 18 families,

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together with their livestock.

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These could be the only cave-dwelling cows on Earth.

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With schoolwork over, it's playtime at last.

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In southern China, caves aren't just used for shelter, they can be a source of revenue for the community.

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People have been visiting this cave for generations.

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The cave floor is covered in guano so plentiful that ten minutes' work can fill these farmers' baskets.

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It's used as a valuable source of fertilizer.

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DENSE CHIRPING

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A clue to the source of the guano can be heard above the noise of the river.

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The sound originates high up in the roof of the cave.

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The entrance is full of swifts.

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They are very sociable birds.

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More than 200,000 of them share this cave in southern Guizhou Province, the biggest swift colony in China.

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These days Chinese house swifts mostly nest in the roofs of buildings,

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but rock crevices like these were their original home, long before houses were invented.

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Though the swifts depend on the cave for shelter,

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they never stray further than the limits of daylight, as their eyes can't see in dark.

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However, deep inside the cavern,

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other creatures are better equipped for subterranean life.

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A colony of bats is just waking up,

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using ultrasonic squeaks to orientate themselves in the darkness.

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Night is the time to go hunting.

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Rickett's mouse-eared bat is the only bat in Asia which specializes in catching fishes,

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tracking them down from the sound reflection of ripples on the water surface.

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This extraordinary behaviour was only discovered in the last couple of years

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and has never been filmed before.

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If catching fish in the dark is impressive,

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imagine eating a slippery minnow with no hands while hanging upside down!

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Dawn over the Karst hills of Guilin.

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These remarkable hills owe their peculiar shapes to the mildly acid waters of the Li River,

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whose course over aeons of time has corroded away their bases until only the rocky cores remain.

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The Li is one of the cleanest rivers in China,

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a favourite spot for fishermen with their trained cormorants.

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The men, all called Huang, come from the same village.

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Now in their 70s and 80s, they've been fishermen all their lives.

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Before they release the birds,

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they tie a noose loosely around the neck to stop them swallowing any fish they may catch.

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Chanting and dancing, the Huangs encourage their birds to take the plunge.

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Underwater, the cormorants' hunting instinct kicks in, turning them into fish-seeking missiles.

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Working together, a good cormorant team can catch a couple of dozen decent-sized fish in a morning.

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The birds return to the raft with their fish because they have been trained to do so.

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From the time it first hatched,

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each of these cormorants has been reared to a life of obedience to its master.

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The birds are, in effect, slaves.

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But they're not stupid.

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It's said that cormorants can keep a tally of the fish they catch, at least up to seven,

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so unless they get a reward now and then they simply withdraw their labour.

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The fishermen of course keep the best fish for themselves.

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The cormorants get the leftover tiddlers.

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With its collar removed, the bird can at last swallow its prize.

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Best of all, one it isn't meant to have!

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These days, competition from modern fishing techniques

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means the Huangs can't make a living from traditional cormorant fishing alone

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and this 1,300-year-old tradition is now practised mostly to entertain tourists.

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But on Caohai Lake in nearby Guizhou Province,

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an even more unusual fishing industry is alive and well.

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Geng Zhong Sheng is on his way to set out his nets for the night.

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Geng's net is a strange tubular contraption with a closed-off end.

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More than 100 fishermen make their living from the lake.

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Its mineral-rich waters are highly productive,

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and there are nets everywhere.

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The next morning Geng returns with his son to collect his catch.

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At first sight, it looks disappointing,

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tiny fishes, lots of shrimps and some wriggling bugs.

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Geng doesn't seem too downhearted.

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The larger fish are kept alive, the only way they'll stay fresh in the heat.

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Surprisingly, some of the bugs are also singled out for special treatment.

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They're the young stage of dragonflies, predators that feed on worms and tadpoles.

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Nowhere else in the world are dragonfly nymphs harvested like this.

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Back home, Geng spreads his catch on the roof to dry.

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This being China, nothing edible will be wasted.

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There is a saying in the far south,

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"We will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything with wings except a plane."

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Within a few hours, the dried insects are ready to be bagged up and taken to market.

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It's the dragonfly nymphs that fetch the best price.

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Fortunately, Caohai's dragonflies are abundant and fast breeding,

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so Geng and his fellow fishermen have so far had little impact on their numbers.

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But not all wildlife is so resilient.

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This Buddhist temple near Shanghai has an extraordinary story attached to it.

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In May 2007 a Wild China Camera team filmed this peculiar Swinhoe's turtle in the temple's fish pond.

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According to the monks, the turtle had been given to the temple during the Ming dynasty,

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over 400 years ago.

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It was thought to be the oldest animal on earth.

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Soft-shelled turtles are considered a gourmet delicacy by many Chinese

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and when it was filmed this was one of just three Swinhoe's turtles left alive in China,

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the rest of its kind having been rounded up and eaten.

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Sadly, just a few weeks after filming, this ancient creature died.

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The remaining individuals of its species are currently kept in separate zoos

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and Swinhoe's turtle is now reckoned extinct in the wild.

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In fact, most of the 25 types of freshwater turtles in China

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are now vanishingly rare.

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The answer to extinction is protection,

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and there is now a growing network of nature reserves throughout southern China.

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Of these, Tianzi Mountain reserve at Zhangjiajie is perhaps the most visited by Chinese nature-lovers,

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who come to marvel at the gravity-defying landscape of soaring sandstone pinnacles.

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Winding between Zhangjiajie's peaks,

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crystal-clear mountain streams are home to what is perhaps China's strangest creature.

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This bizarre animal is a type of newt, the Chinese giant salamander.

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In China, it is known as the "baby fish"

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because when distressed it makes a sound like a crying infant.

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It grows up to 1.5m long - making it the world's largest amphibian.

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Under natural conditions, a giant salamander may live for decades.

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But like so many Chinese animals, it is considered delicious to eat.

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Despite being classed as a protected species, giant salamanders are still illegally sold for food

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and the baby fish is now rare and endangered in the wild.

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Fortunately, in a few areas like Zhangjiajie,

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giant salamanders still survive under strict official protection.

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The rivers of Zhangjiajie flow north-east into the Yangtze floodplain,

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known as "The Land of Fish and Rice".

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On an island in a lake in Anhui Province, a dragon is stirring.

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This is the ancestral home of China's largest and rarest reptile.

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A creature of mystery and legend.

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Dragon eggs are greatly prized.

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These babies need to hatch out quick.

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It would seem someone is on their trail.

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For a helpless baby reptile imprisoned in a leathery membrane inside a chalky shell,

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the process of hatching is a titanic struggle.

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And time is running out.

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It's taken two hours for the little dragon to get its head out of the egg.

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It needs to gather its strength now for one final, massive push.

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Free at last, the baby Chinese alligators instinctively head upwards

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towards the surface of the nest and the waiting outside world.

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But the visitors are not what they seem.

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This woman and her son live nearby.

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She has been caring for her local alligators for over 20 years,

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so she had a fair idea when the eggs were likely to hatch.

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Back home, she's built a pond surrounded by netting to keep out predators

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where her charges will spend the next 6 months until they're big enough to fend for themselves.

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TRANSLATED FROM CHINESE

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For the past 20 years small-scale conservation projects like this

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are all that have kept china's 150 wild alligators from extinction.

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Just south of the Alligator country, dawn breaks over a very different landscape,

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the 1800m-high granite peaks of the Huangshan or Yellow Mountain.

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To the Chinese, Huangshan's pines epitomise the strength and resilience of nature.

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Some of these trees are thought to be over 1,000 years old.

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Below the granite peaks, steep forested valleys shelter surprising inhabitants.

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Huangshan macaques, rare descendants of the Tibetan macaques of western China,

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are unique to these mountain valleys where they enjoy strict official protection.

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After a morning spent in the tree-tops, the troop is heading for the shade of the valley

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a chance for the grown-ups to escape the heat and maybe pick up a lunch snack from the stream.

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As in most monkey societies, social contact involves a lot of grooming.

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Grooming is all very well for grown-ups, but young macaques have energy to burn.

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Like so much monkey business,

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what starts off as a bit of playful rough and tumble soon begins to get out of hand.

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The alpha male has seen it all before.

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He's not in the least bothered.

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But someone, or something, is watching,

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with a less than friendly interest.

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The Chinese moccasin is an ambush predator with a deadly bite.

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This is one of China's largest and most feared venomous snakes.

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But the monkeys have lived alongside these dangerous serpents for thousands of years.

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SQUEALING

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They use this specific alarm call to warn each other whenever a snake is spotted.

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Once its cover is blown, the viper poses no threat to the monkeys, now safe in the treetops...

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and life soon returns to normal.

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By late summer, the rice fields of southern China have turned to gold.

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The time has come to bring in the harvest.

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Nowadays, modern high-yield strains are grown throughout much of the ricelands,

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boosted by chemical fertilizers and reaped by combine harvesters.

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This is the great rice bowl of China,

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producing a quarter of the world's rice.

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Insects stirred up by the noisy machines are snapped up by gangs of red-rumped swallows,

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including this year's youngsters, who will have fledged several weeks ago.

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This could be their last feast before they head south for winter.

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Mechanized farming works best in the flat-bottomed valleys of the lowlands.

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To the south, in the terraced hills of Zhejiang Province, an older and simpler lifestyle persists.

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It's seven in the morning

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and Longxian's most successful businessman is off to work.

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In the golden terraces surrounding the village, the ears of rice are plump and ripe for harvesting.

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But today rice isn't uppermost in Mr Yang's mind.

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He has bigger fish to fry.

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Further up the valley, the harvest has already begun.

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Yang's fields are ripe too, but they haven't been drained yet.

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That's because for him rice is not the main crop.

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The baskets he's carried up the hillside give a clue to Yang's business,

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but before he starts work, he needs to let some water out of the system.

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As the water level drops, the mystery is revealed -

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golden carp.

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Longxian villagers discovered the benefits

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of transferring wild-caught carp into their paddy fields long ago.

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The tradition has been going on here for at least 700 years.

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As the water level in the paddy drops, bamboo gates stop the fish escaping.

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The beauty of this farming method is that it delivers two crops from the same field at the same time,

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fish and rice.

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Smart ecology like this is what enables China to be largely self-sufficient in food, even today.

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Back in the village, Yang has his own smoke house where he preserves his fish ready for market.

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Longxian carp have unusually soft scales and a very delicate flavour,

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perhaps as a result of the local water.

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Meanwhile, outside the smokehouse, there's something fishy going on.

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To mark the harvest, the village is staging a party.

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Children from Longxian School have spent weeks preparing for their big moment.

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Everyone from the community is here to support them.

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The rice-growing cycle is complete.

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By November, northern China is becoming distinctly chilly,

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but the south is still relatively warm and welcoming.

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Across the vast expanse of Poyang Lake, the birds are gathering.

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Tundra swans are long-distance migrants from Northern Siberia.

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To the Chinese, they symbolise the essence of natural beauty.

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The Poyang Lake nature reserve offers winter refuge

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to more than a quarter of a million birds from more than a hundred species,

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creating one of southern China's finest wildlife experiences.

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The last birds to arrive at Poyang are those which have made the longest journey to get here,

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all the way from the Arctic coast of Siberia.

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The Siberian crane, known in China as the white crane, is seen as a symbol of good luck.

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Each year almost the entire world population of these critically-endangered birds

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make a 9,000km round-trip to spend the winter at Poyang.

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Like the white cranes, many of South China's unique animals

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face pressure from exploitation and competition with people over space and resources.

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But if China is living proof of anything, it is that wildlife is surprisingly resilient.

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Given the right help, even the rarest creatures can return from the brink.

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If we show the will, nature will find the way.

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The fairytale hills of Guilin and the cormorant fishermen of the Li River form the heart of this exploration of the colourful rice-growing cultures and strange creatures of southern China - a land of endless hills, mysterious caverns, spectacular rock pinnacles and traditional cultures with a taste for wildlife.


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