With its main stream stretching 333.8 kilometers, the Nandu River is the longest of its kind in Hainan Province in southern China. The Nankai River, the source of the Nandu, can be found deep in the Yingge Range Nature Reserve, where untouched wild freshwater fish enjoy safe tranquility.
Photographer Xiao Shibai has captured images of rare species of freshwater fish in the crystal-clear river, including the brightly-colored Acrossocheilus iridescens, which is unique to Hainan. Other subjects include Onychostoma lepturum, which is identified by its spade-shaped mouth, and Candidia barbatus, which features red lips and a golden tail when young, but yellow rear fins and green stains when it matures.
Before 2007, people heavily fished the Nankai River, causing catastrophic damage to the local ecosystem: Only a few years ago, a fish big enough to eat could hardly be found in a stream segment as long as dozens of kilometers. In 2005, an investigation of the nature reserve performed by Dr. Chen Beile, a freshwater specialist from Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Garden, showed that of 65 species of wild freshwater fish in the Nandu River, 48 could be found in the source river, accounting for nearly half of all such species in the province. When protection measures are put into place, more than half of Hainan’s freshwater fish will survive.
The year 2007 brought the “Ark Plan,” devised by specialists from the Nature Reserve and Kadoorie Conservation. It prohibited fishing in the section of the Nankai River steps away from Daoyin Village.
A poster was pasted on the wall of the village committee urging residents to: “Protect Our Village.” The only permitted fishing techniques involve nets and lines: Using poison, electricity, or explosives is strictly forbidden. And no fishing at all is allowed in restricted areas.
The prohibited fishing zone in Daoyin Village might be the smallest freshwater reserve in the world. Yet, it has enjoyed a growing reputation thanks to the tireless efforts of conservationists. In July 2008, five additional protected areas were established in Gaofeng Village.
In 2009, more village-level reserves joined the fight to protect fish in Hainan. Some doubt whether there was any hope left for creatures so close to extinction. “The survival situation of freshwater fish in the Nandu can be considered a capsule version of that of many rivers throughout the country,” explains Xiao Shibai, the photographer. “This area has set a good example for protecting freshwater fish.”
December 2006 brought the foundation of the Hainan Yingge Range Nature Reserve, and many young locals joined the team, each earning a monthly salary of 1,600 yuan plus basic benefits. Equipped with cell phones allocated by the nature reserve, they patrol mountains on motorcycles and receive subsidies of 100 yuan a month for gas and communication.
Specialists advise collaboration in establishing such no-fishing areas. “Anguilla marmorata complete an amazing journey to reach Daoyin from so far away,” explained Dr. Chen. “And after all that, we just catch and eat them?” While using emotional appeals to change people’s minds, nature reserve managers have mapped out plans to develop “ecological economy” with less chemicals and fertilizer.
Today, villagers are enthusiastic about protecting fish. “We used to spear fish and make fish tea,” some explain. “The measures don’t really affect those who live in the mountains and fish, hunt, and collect herbs traditionally. But it’s different for those who use electricity and poison to fish. A little poison can kill all the fish in the whole river. Most of these people live elsewhere and find the water without being detected – there is no way to stop them. The establishment of prohibited areas encourages more people to stand up to the outside “invasion.”
Less than a year after establishment, a freshwater fish dubbed “red-faced soldier” by locals appeared in the river, which was once a favorite dish for Li people living on the northern slopes of the Yingge Range. “They weighed as much as 3 kilograms in ancient times,” Fu Jinhai, the village head, remarks.
It has been 10 years since the implementation of the Ark Plan: The quantity of observable fish species has gradually recovered.
Compared to other rivers in the country, the upper reaches of the Nandu enjoy environmental advantages. The tropical rainforest provides endless fresh water to the river. As local residents become more committed to protection, freshwater fish find more room to survive.
Nevertheless, some fish still haven’t found room aboard “Noah's Ark.” They remained threatened by the invasion of alien species such as the mosquitofish, which is native of the Americas, and the hybrid tilapia from Africa, which have been found in growing numbers in the Nandu River. The latter has completely replaced a similar species, the arch-backed black, in the Yingge Range area.