She Shizhen (L) and her son patrol along the Hongxing Reservoir in rural Xuancheng, east China's Anhui Province. (Xinhua/Wang Haiyue)
78-year-old She Shizhen has been caring for the endangered Chinese alligators for 37 years in east China's Anhui Province.
HEFEI, Sept. 6 (Xinhua) -- As the calendar turned over to September, She Shizhen, 78, stood anxiously awaiting a trip to a nearby island to check if the newborn baby alligators were safe and sound.
"It's time for the eggs to hatch, but the new boat I booked hasn't arrived yet," said the grey-haired woman in the city of Xuancheng in Anhui Province, who has been caring for the Chinese alligators, a rare species endemic to east China, for 37 years.
She and her son live near the Hongxing Reservoir in rural Xuancheng. This reservoir is part of the Anhui Yangtze Alligator Reserve, where there are over 20 wild Chinese alligators, also known as the Yangtze alligator, a critically endangered crocodilian.
A Chinese alligator in the Hongxing Reservoir. (Xinhua/Wang Haiyue)
Decades ago, the mysterious species was called tulong, or earth dragon, by the local farmers. It was considered ugly and harmful as they dug tunnels in the rice fields.
The mystery of the tulong was revealed one day in 1982 when She's son discovered a nest of strange eggs on an island in a lake. Zhang Xuhong, She's husband, sent the eggs to the local forestry department. Researchers confirmed that they were the eggs of the Chinese alligator, a first-class protected animal in China.
Hongxing Reservoir was hence established as one site of the Anhui Yangtze Alligator Reserve and the couple were entrusted by the department to protect this precious species. As voluntary protectors, they could get a subsidy of around 80 yuan (11.2 U.S. dollars) per month.
As ordinary farmers, the couple knew little about Chinese alligators at the beginning. They hung a thermometer in front of their door to monitor the temperature, wind and humidity. They also patrolled the reservoir on a daily basis to record the sound and activity of the reptile.
They carefully wrote down their observations in notebooks. A total of 23 diaries were kept, which helped them become self-taught experts on the species.
"They usually hibernate in late October until April and build nest to lay eggs in early July. Baby alligators emerge from their eggs in early September," said She.
She Shizhen is interviewed by Xinhua. (Xinhua/Wang Haiyue)
The hot summer always used to be a busy time for the couple. "We need to row to the island frequently to check if the nests composed of rotting plants are wet enough so that the plants can ferment and produce a higher incubation temperature," She said.
A wild Chinese alligator can produce up to 30 eggs but few baby alligators survive. She explained that egrets and a lack of food are the main threats to their survival.
In 2005, her husband died and the responsibility to take care of the alligators was left to She herself. Under the suggestion of the reserve, She dug a pond in front of her home to keep the baby alligators so as to increase their survival rate.
"We bring the newborn Chinese alligators from the island to the pond and feed them with shrimp and insects until they are big enough to protect themselves," said She.
She Shizhen (L) and her son patrol along the Hongxing Reservoir. (Xinhua/Wang Haiyue)
Though laborious, this experience offered She a precious opportunity to foster a closer relationship with the species.
"They are meek and cute. Those baby alligators would wait under the lamp for me to feed them with worms. I could hear them smack their mouths as they gobbled the worms down, which was fun," She laughed.
She's role as the mother of the alligators was brought to a temporary halt eight years later as the pond was severely damaged by the young alligators who dug holes in it. But her hard work paid off, the number of wild Chinese alligators in the site rose from eight in 2013 to 20 in 2015.
Besides going to the island to check on the babies, another important task for She has been patrolling the habitat to ensure a safe and undisturbed environment for the alligator.
She recalled that in the past the locals would cast nets in the reservoir to catch fish, which could also trap the baby alligators.
She would take away the nets as soon as the fishermen left. To her relief, the nets are rarely seen nowadays as people are gradually becoming aware of the value of the Chinese alligators.
Chinese alligators in the Hongxing Reservoir. (Xinhua/Wang Haiyue)
The Anhui Yangtze Alligator Reserve was established in 1982. Currently the reserve has employed 21 local farmers as "ecological patrollers" to take care of the alligators. Each farmer can earn 2,000 yuan a month.
Thanks to the continuous efforts of the locals like She and the staff of the reserve, the number of wild Chinese alligators has reached nearly 200 and that of the captive-bred Chinese alligators in the breeding center of the reserve is over 16,000.
Now, the aged woman is no longer as vibrant as she used to be. Her elder son has taken over her post as a protector of the alligator. But She still sticks to her endeavor and patrols the habitat every day with her son.
"It has become a habit of mine. I will keep on taking care of them as long as I live," said She.