With a population of 1.4 billion, people are a major part of the arresting national drama that makes China such an inspiring and intriguing place to travel. Yet this human focus sometimes belies another of the country’s greatest gifts.
As one of just 17 mega-biodiversity countries worldwide, China is home to an extraordinary range of wildlife. Fourteen percent of the world’s animal species are found here. Among these are many iconic and beloved creatures such as the giant panda, logo of the planet’s largest wildlife organization the WWF and one of China’s most cherished national symbols.
Awareness of the country’s rich biodiversity has increased in recent years, and so too have sustainable opportunities to experience China’s charismatic native creatures in the wild. In no particular order, here are five of the best and most responsible places to witness the Middle Kingdom’s remarkable array of wildlife.
1. Black Snub-Nosed Monkey National Park
Three of the locations on this list are in Yunnan, and for good reason. China’s southwestern-most province is largely a rugged, untamed wilderness. Among the forested slopes of the northwest, a two-hour drive from Shangri-La, sits the village of Tacheng, home to a peculiar creature.
Black snub-nosed monkeys are odd looking primates. Their white, mask-like faces, black eyes and hollow slit-like nostrils make them sound almost nightmarish, but these characterful monkeys are undeniably cute.
From Tacheng sightings are effectively guaranteed, since locals began controversially feeding several families in 2009 when the Black Snub-Nosed Monkey National Park was created, a practice which advocates suggest raises the monkey’s profile, improving their chances of conservation success.
Winter is frigid in this part of Yunnan owing to its high elevation, but can make for a quiet time to travel and an atmospheric backdrop for seeing the monkeys.
2. Sanjiangyuan National Park
In China’s western interior, amid some of the wildest landscapes on earth, live most of the world’s snow leopards. Until a few years ago, the prospect of seeing these elusive cats in China was remote, especially in a way that could be considered sustainable. Yet, thanks to a groundbreaking community tourism project deep in Sanjiangyuan National Park, this is now a realistic option for travelers.
The Valley of the Cats project in the ethnically Tibetan village of Angsai has harnessed a reverence for nature inherent in local Buddhist culture to turn wildlife tourism into an engine of snow leopard conservation. Local families take turns hosting visitors in their homes, sharing all proceeds between themselves, a community fund and conservation projects to protect snow leopards.
Not only are visitors contributing to a sustainable future for this community, but leopard sightings are regular, not to mention the incredible array of other creatures like musk deer, blood pheasant and lammergeier that pass through the area every day.
3. Laohegou Nature Reserve
Opportunities to see China’s most beloved animal in captivity abound in Sichuan province, with numerous zoos and breeding centers where sightings of the giant panda are guaranteed. In Laohegou, no such assurances are made, in fact by all accounts the chances are extremely slim.
What Laohegou offers is the chance to traverse real panda habitat, tracking these famous black-and-white bears with an experienced ranger guide through an area that scientists believe has a bigger panda population than any other county in China.
The reserve itself is the first land trust in China, a groundbreaking project managed by The Nature Conservancy and their Chinese operator the Sichuan Nature Conservation Foundation, who took over the area from a logging company to protect swaths of vital panda habitat in the province.
Although not open for general admission, WildChina can arrange special access for visitors. Panda sightings may be unlikely, but Laohegou’s rocky valleys and densely forested slopes are also home to golden snub-nosed monkeys, musk deer, golden pheasant and a host of other creatures.
4. Lashihai Wetland Park
Just ten kilometers from the perennially popular Lijiang Old Town, Lashihai is a haven for migratory birds, with fifty-seven species converging on this high-altitude lake in their tens-of-thousands each winter.
Bar-headed geese – known for flying over the Himalayas – can be seen here, as can Chinese merganser, but the undoubted star of the show is the iconic black-necked crane. Revered from India to Japan, a population of 280 cranes has been recorded wintering at Lashihai in recent years, making it one of most accessible spots to see this elegant bird anywhere in the world.
The lake itself is fringed by mountains, and picturesque villages line its tranquil shores traversable by bicycle or horseback. Thanks to the lake’s proximity to Lijiang, it can get busy at peak times such as national holidays, but it nonetheless remains one of the best places to spot birdlife in China.
5. Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve
The skywalker gibbon sounds like a sci-fi creation, and that’s because it essentially is. Thought extinct until the late 20th century, it was only officially identified and named in 2017 by a scientist who wanted to reflect the primate’s celestial Chinese name with a nod to everyone’s favorite space-opera franchise.
Sadly, there are less than 150 skywalker gibbons left in China, all of them dispersed between the mountains of Gaoligong and the Myanmar border. This makes the chances of seeing the gibbons themselves fairly remote, but a trip to this breathtakingly untouched landscape in western Yunnan is still deeply rewarding.
The Vinetree: Gaoligong Tented Resort, with its treetop walkways and rooms looking onto the canopy of the world’s highest-elevation rainforest, defies belief. With thousands of species of mammals, amphibians, insects and birds, sightings of the region’s other wildlife are extremely likely. Red pandas have even been known to frequent the fruit trees surrounding the low-impact resort.