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A man and his monkeys on an island

By ZHENG CAIXIONG in Guangzhou | China Daily | Updated: 2022-12-16 09:15
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Liu Qingwei feeds macaques on Dangan Island in Zhuhai Special Economic Zone in Guangdong province. CHINA DAILY

Bond between keeper and macaques so strong after 33 years that they often follow him around

"Ah Shan, Ah Hai, come and get your food."

Groups of wild macaques come bouncing in from the trees and rocks to surround the caller, Liu Qingwei. Some even jump up on his shoulders.

At about 10 o'clock every morning, the 56-year-old macaque keeper and forest ranger on Dangan Island, located in Guangdong's Zhuhai special economic zone, takes a bucket to a clearing in the woods and scatters kernels of corn on the ground. The island is 13.2 square kilometers in size and about 47 nautical miles from urban Zhuhai.

Ah Shan and Ah Hai — meaning "mountain" and "sea" in Chinese — are the names given to the two groups of wild macaques on the island. The Ah Shan tribe mainly lives in the mountains and dense forests, while the Ah Hai tribe mainly live by the sea.

Liu, who is called the "father of monkeys" by locals, has been feeding the macaques for more than 33 years.

"Corn is the best food for them, at least for the macaques that like corn, and dried kernels can be kept for up to three months," Liu said. "Peanuts make great snacks, but we can only give them peanuts the villagers have dried. If we feed the macaques fried peanuts, they get hemorrhoids."

As a result of efforts by Liu and his colleagues to protect the island's environment and wildlife, Dangan's population of wild macaques has grown from 300 to nearly 2,000 since he first arrived to work as a macaque keeper and ranger after retiring from the army in 1989.

Over the last three decades, forest coverage has also increased from less than 50 percent to 96 percent on the outlying island of Lingdingyang in the Pearl River estuary. Now, rare animals and plants — including pythons, pangolins, Besra, greater coucal, azaleas, eaglewood, bark cone and white cinnamon — can be found on the island.

After decades of feeding the macaques, Liu has established a close relationship with them. Many will squat around him when he sits on the beach to sing and play his guitar. He has even joked to colleagues that the macaques once saved his life.

This happened one day when he accidentally disturbed a beehive and was stung hundreds of times. Before he lost consciousness, he remembered seeing macaques using the juice of a plant to treat stings. He immediately asked colleagues to pick some of the plants and wring their juice into a glass of baijiu, a type of Chinese alcohol.

He smeared the liquid on the affected parts of his body, countering the bees' venom.

Liu has come to believe the macaques have the intelligence of a child of 7 or 8.

He said that experiments have shown that macaques can recognize human faces, and that if the face is covered, they can distinguish different people by smell.

Liu said that the macaques are particularly playful with him.

When he rides his bike, they squat on the back seat and go for a ride. The more daring even jump onto his shoulders to cover his mouth and eyes, and they once raided his house and ran off with fruits and vegetables.

"It usually only takes a few minutes for the macaques to snatch packets of biscuits or peanuts from my hands and tear them open," he said. "They're not easy to get along with, they're one of the more violent monkey species."

According to statistics, there have been 5,927 attacks on humans by Dangan's macaques since 2004.

The monkeys are under State protection, and Liu jokes that if he ever fought with the macaques, he would be sent to the hospital if he lost and sentenced to prison if he won. "All I can do is make sure they're happy," he said.

Whenever he returns to the island from Zhuhai city, Liu brings fruit and snacks for the monkeys.

"No matter what I buy for the macaques, they like it, and they bare their teeth and smile at me when I feed them," he said.

The ranger finds it hard to leave the macaques, and they have also gotten used to him. He was once so sad to be leaving the island to treat his gout that he felt like crying. He quickly returned to the island afterward without waiting to recover fully.

Liu said that researchers have told him that the macaques are the original inhabitants of Dangan, and their presence there dates back to prehistoric times, trapped on the island as the continents formed. They are highly adaptable; when there is no wild fruit available, they eat leaves to survive.

Liu has won a series of honors and titles for his work over the years.

He received the National Moral Model title in 2013, the National Model Veteran title in 2019 and the most beautiful retired serviceman last year.

He said he plans to continue to live on Dangan to protect the island and feed the macaques after he retires.

Lian Keyin contributed to this story.

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