Every year WildChina offers a USD$5000 travel grant to an adventurer looking to Explore China Differently. For 2017, environmental photographer and writer, Kyle Obermann, was named the winner. Kyle will be using the WildChina Explorer Grant to travel into the beautiful but little-known Hengduan Mountain Range and document the region’s grassroots conservation efforts.
This week, Kyle popped into our office to do some final checks before heading off on his adventure. We took advantage of the opportunity and sat down with him to learn more about his nine-month expedition.
Kyle, thank you for taking the time to chat with us today. Can you please start by explaining why telling the story of environmental protection in the Hengduan Mountains is important to you?
My interest in the region started in college. I was hiking and exploring beautiful areas of China which made me think, ‘why don’t we see this in the media?’
The Hengduan Mountains to me are a very special place because I feel it’s undervalued. The Hengduan are actually part of the same geographic feature as Tibet and Nepal. It’s part of the same system but has a much higher elevation gradient than the Himalayas and there’s so much biodiversity of species there. Because the mountains are overlooked by tourists, it’s also so unexplored and just absolutely beautiful.
Overall, there are three things I want to achieve with my project. First, I want to change the way people think about China’s wild. Second, I want to give people a vision of what the rest of China could be like if you protected it and kept on that track. Finally, I want to show people, with my photography, what we and our children stand to lose.
What are you most looking forward to about the project?
Getting an in-depth look at what it actually means to do the thankless job of conservation. The hardest part will be the language barrier with local dialects and cultural differences. I’m looking forward to learning from them, seeing how they interact with the environment and how they view it. I’m most excited to share my photos and stories and see people’s reactions. Whenever someone comments on my work saying, ‘I can’t believe this is China!’, that’s when I feel it’s all worth it.
What are you looking forward to about working with WildChina?
WildChina has a great sustainable message and although you’re not an environmental organization per se, you have an environmental message.
Aside from working with an organization that has a good message, you can reach people that I can’t. With all your awards and listings and partnerships, I can reach people who I could frankly otherwise not reach and that’s what’s going to give this whole project power and momentum.
How did you first become interested in China?
Originally, studying Chinese was just something that I loved, and then after graduating college it made sense to come and see China for myself. So I came to China, and I loved speaking Mandarin, but it’s only in the last few years that I’ve found this direction of environmentalism, which combines my love for international relations, photography, and writing.
And the Hengduan Mountains?
The first time I went out hiking there, I was a student at Peking University. It wasn’t until I went to read more Chinese media that I found out it was called the Hengduan and I thought, ‘why didn’t I know that? Why don’t my friends know that?
Then I found out about the Hengduan’s hiking trails, that it has pandas, a national park. A lot of Chinese people don’t know about it and certainly most Westerners have never heard of the range.
You’ve been preparing this project for a long time now, what has the process been like for you?
It’s been a crazy ride! Especially now that the project is actually going to come to life. I had the passion but I needed to educate myself so I started using my free time to read and learn about conservation, because you need to be informed. I asked myself the question, “why don’t people know about it?”
I’ve been working with Conservation International for the last few months which has been great. It has given me a foundation for the project. I’ve now been in nature reserves and have had to apply to local governments to get in.
Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of support and this already feels like a big accomplishment but the biggest step is yet to come!
How does it feel to be the WildChina Explorer 2017?
It’s been pretty overwhelming. When I found out I was so excited because the trip was finally going to come true. I finally got to see all my work starting to pay off. There had been so many late nights working on the (WildChina Explorer Grant application) video, and the voiceover, trying not to butcher the tones on my Mandarin!
My brother gave me some really good advice after I found out. He said, ‘savor the moment.’ I’m overwhelmed by thankfulness to everyone who has supported me.
What does China’s future look like in the area of environmental protection?
So Shanshui Environmental Protection Centre just put out their 2016 Biodiversity Report. They had a big sharing session which I went to and actually, in a lot of ways, things are still getting worse for China’s environment in terms of deforestation, or biodiversity in numbers, which is obviously the news you don’t want to hear. But on the other hand, if you look at the support of the government and the numbers of nature reserves (自然保护区) and the number of volunteers and the trends even though things are slowly getting worse, I think the movement pushing it to get better, is still growing.
Also, I think China’s problems are very specific to China. For example, in the Hengduan Mountains they want to create a Panda National Park (大熊猫国家公园) and it’s one of the nine national parks that they’ve been talking about for a while. It begs the question, how can you make this national park in a place that has villages and people living in it? There are a lot of problems that are still up in the air but I also see a ton of energy. NGOs now often have support from the local government so now it’s just really figuring out how to do it.
There’s a lot of potential for change. That’s what I’ve seen in my own talks with environmental NGOs out there.
So I never want to whitewash it, the problems are there, but I’m optimistic for sure.
We’re excited to be joining Kyle on this adventure and will be broadcasting updates via our Facebook and Instagram while he’s on the road. Kyle will also be acting as our guest blogger for the duration of his trip so be sure to check back here to see how his project progresses.
The WildChina Explorer Grant is an annual travel grant that helps empower adventurers to achieve their exploration dreams. To receive updates regarding the WildChina Explorer Grant 2018 email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo Credit Kyle Obermann