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环球资讯 / China / Environment

From saving people to saving snakes

Xinhua | Updated: 2017-11-14 08:09

From saving people to saving snakes

Chen searches for a pit viper in the forest on Mangshan Mountain. [Photo by Zhang Yi]

Former physician's curiosity leads to discovery and protection of Mangshan pit viper

At the gate of the Mangshan Museum of Natural History stands a statue of an elderly man with a snake wrapped around his shoulders.

Crowds of tourists visit the museum in Chenzhou, Hunan province, to see the Mangshan pit viper, a species endemic to China and more endangered than the giant panda.

They are also attracted by the story of the man commemorated by the statue - curator Chen Yuanhui, a 68-year-old former doctor who has gone from saving people bitten by snakes to saving serpents from extinction.

Last month, the museum received media attention after Chen's team observed 10 snakes hatch in a simulated wild situation for the first time.

It marked an important step in understanding the species and increasing its wild population, which stands at between 400 and 500.

Surprise discovery

In 1984, Chen, who was working as a doctor at the staff hospital of Mangshan Forest Farm, treated a worker who had been bitten by a snake. The patient described the snake as "thicker than a beer bottle" with "green markings and a white tail".

"I had never heard of such a snake," Chen said. However, it reminded him of the totem of the Yao ethnic group - a small green dragon, making him wonder if that dragon was really an unknown species of snake. Chen began to search for the snake in the dense primeval forest surrounding Mangshan Mountain.

In 1989, he heard that two villagers were selling rare snakes. Chen found them and discovered that the snakes matched the description given by his patient years before. He spent 400 yuan ($60), which he had set aside to buy a refrigerator for his home, to purchase the snakes.

"I was excited because I thought it might be a new species, but nobody would believe me," Chen said. He sent photos to provincial wildlife experts, but the black-and-white pictures were not enough to confirm the new species.

Chen took the snakes on a two-day train journey to meet the late prominent zoologist Zhao Ermi in Chengdu, Sichuan province. In 1990, the two scientists issued a paper announcing the confirmation of a new species of snake to the world. It was named Trimeresurus mangshanensis, commonly known as the Mangshan pit viper, after the mountain where it was discovered.

Dangerous obsession

Chen was not satisfied with just discovering the species, he wanted to protect it at a time when environmental awareness was not great.

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