“You’ve been reported as a terrorist!” Shrieked my Chinese research assistant.

I’m a primate scientist, not a terrorist (more about that later!). I study the world’s rarest, smallest and often forgotten apes, the gibbons.

I study three species in China, all with population sizes below 150 individuals! I am incredibly lucky to get the opportunity to see these rare, charismatic animals swinging in the wild, and feel empowered to be playing a small part in their survival.

I have visited more than 65 countries, but Yunnan province in southwest China, home to the Skywalker gibbon, is my favourite place due to the rich memories and unique experiences I’ve gained there.

Female Skywalker gibbon (Hoolock Tianxing). Photo credit: Fan Peng-Fei.

Yunnan province is a stunning part of the world with towering mountains, lush montane forests, sprawling marigold fields, and is largely untouched by tourism.

The 26 provinces in China boast more than 56 different ethnic groups, colourful cultures and 300 local dialects.

Yunnan is no different.

I once had the pleasure of dining with Miao, Lisu, Jingpo, Man, Dai and Han people all around one table. We toasted everyone’s health in our local dialects with a small glass of Baijiu (Chinese rice wine). After the first round I was tipping backwards off my stool…

Even though I grew up in Asia, culturally, China is so different. I love a challenge and a reward in equal measure and think to truly appreciate the soul of a place, you need to experience both.

The Challenges

“A terrorist? Am I to be arrested?!” I asked nervously as I glanced around the room. I was sat on a worn, threadbare sofa in a management reserve office surrounded by on-looking male staff.

Luckily for me, I was not arrested on this occasion. A local farmer had misidentified me as a “Chinese terrorist” (!) from another province because I was working close to the Myanmar border; a place where outsiders rarely visit.

No sooner had I escaped the management office I was invited to dine with a local community. Rural Chinese farmers are the warmest, most generous people you will ever meet. Some earn a mere £100 a year yet will spoil you with a hard-laboured feast gathered from their fields and the forest.

I pride myself on eating anything put in front of me as a sign of respect to my hosts. My culinary limits have been reached on numerous occasions, however.

Have you ever tried the famous 100-year old egg?

An egg is fermented for up to five months (not hundreds of years, thankfully!) leaving a dark gooey green centre and a yellow-to black congealed egg white. Having once bit into a half-developed chick by accident, I know that you should never trust an egg!

The 100-year old egg. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

I can imagine some of you recoiling as you read this.

When trying to understand pressures impacting wildlife, we must work closely with local communities. This means putting personal and cultural views aside and immersing yourself in all aspects of local life to build trust. I embrace local tradition to truly understand how others value their environment and natural resources.

This means I must also embrace drinking Baijiu as it is impolite to turn a drink down! On one occasion, I drank too much and tripped over someone’s chicken! Come morning, my foot was black and the size of an elephant’s!

To make matters worse, the police asked to see me (again). Unable to remove my clothes or walk, I had to pole vault down the street to the police station in my pyjamas using a two-metre bamboo stick!

The Rewards

One of my life’s most memorable moments was meeting an 87-year old elder who had never left her Yunnan village or met a Caucasian woman before. Although bed-ridden, she insisted I visit. She clasped my hand tightly as we talked in basic Mandarin about her childhood, her family and the gibbons.

It is always an honour being invited to stay in a local’s house. In minutes I am treated like family, helping with homework, sipping tea and looking at the sunset.

Yunnan mountain village. Photo credit: Carolyn Thompson.

When dusk falls, the busy villagers amble back from the fields to their abodes, until a blast of techno music can be heard vibrating from the village centre.

Here, hard-working women will dance away their physical and mental aches and pains of the day. I always excitedly join in even with my two left feet (much to the delight of on-lookers!).

At night, I listen to the noisy cattle stirring below me. You can hear mules munching on hay and a screech from a surprised chicken as a pig accidentally stands on it.

By morning, a haunting song carries across the neighbouring forest canopy and into my room. The beautiful, melancholy duet of the Skywalker gibbon.

An important reminder that they’re still here.

  • Carolyn Thompson
  • : Carolyn is a British-Swiss primatologist and PhD researcher studying the world's rarest apes, the gibbons. She spends her time recording gibbon behaviour and working closely with local communities in China and Vietnam to establish sustainable solutions for coexistence. Carolyn grew up in Scotland, Indonesia and Norway and has always had a passion for travelling off the beaten path. When she is not saving gibbons, she is plotting her next sustainable, globetrotting adventure with her fiancé, who recently proposed to her on top of an Ethiopian mountain.
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  • : Ever wondered what it's like to hear an ape sing? Follow a dancing lemur? Or live in a remote forest? Or what a field researcher does when they're not globetrotting? Wonder no further - wander with me instead! ​Follow me on my adventures and find out for yourselves. I share my research journey, including all the unedited highs and lows. A blog for anyone wanting to learn more about our singing, swinging primate cousins and fieldwork life.
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  • : This is the first time this story has been published.