CHENGDU, China, Aug. 11, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — US photographer Kyle Obermann’s spirit of adventures and tales accumulated over the years, borrow a page from writer Jon Krakauer’s 1990s’ nonfiction work, Into the Wild, in which a young adventurer dives headlong into the unknown of the wilderness of Alaska, and through his explorations, he transforms into the he has always wanted to be.
It is clear that Obermann shares a similar appreciation for the wilderness and nature as does Into the Wild’s protagonist Christopher McCandless, the major difference being his chosen wilderness of exploration, located thousands of miles away from his home in the US: China.
Venturing into the deepest, most remote pockets of nature found in almost all Chinese provinces, the 31-year-old photographer uses images captured to let the country’s biodiversity speak for itself.
The ‘other half’
Obermann, better known by his Chinese name Ouyang Kai, arrived in Beijing as an international university student in 2014, a year after China had affected by air pollution, especially in the central and eastern regions.
It was almost inevitable for Obermann to have noticed the aftermath of such challenging environmental conditions, yet with his burning passion for the Chinese language and Chinese culture, the young American chose to stay in the country and started to explore what he calls the “other half” of China – the country’s vast nature characterized by over 40 percent of hardly explored wilderness – that Obermann said he had “never been taught in textbooks.”
In the years since moving to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, he has traveled to over 20 nature reserves across the country, exploring sites like Shennongjia, a forestry district in Hubei Province and the Sanjiangyuan region in Qinghai, in the Xizang Plateau interior. With rich water resources, Sanjiangyuan is also known as the “Three-River-Source” that nurtures a national-level park by the same name.
His journeys to the five Chinese national parks were “fascinating,” according to Obermann. Known as the “Giant Panda National Park,” photos posted on Obermann’s official website are unique, not least because of their “pandaless” nature, but because the subjects are people, mainly those on the frontlines of conservation efforts deep in the bamboo fields.
Such a “human-nature interaction” captured by the US photographer has guided him to understand the differences between Chinese and Western national parks.
Unlike national parks in his home country such as Yellowstone and the Serengeti National Park found in East Africa’s Tanzania, both of which are considered no man’s land, Chinese parks like the Three-River-Source National Park encompasses around 17,000 households to date since it was designated as a pilot site in 2015. A total of 10 pilot parks across the country are inhabited by over 600,000 people indigenous to them.
“China’s national parks are focused on some of the most biologically diverse regions in the country first and foremost,” Obermann noted.
He told the Global Times that it could be “greatly disparaging” to underestimate China’s abundance in nature if considering the nation’s environmental challenges obscures the larger picture of conservation.
Brotherhood with locals
As a conservation photographer, Obermann always risks his own life to show audiences images of some of the most threatened yet perilous wildernesses. Such bravery is employed in the hopes of raising conservation awareness and aiding non-profits or rangers involved in conservation efforts to not only receive the recognition they deserve, but also raise much-needed funding.
“And often the best way to make someone fall into love is to show them [a] visual story,” Obermann noted.
Describing his chosen career as life-threatening is far from an understatement. From falling into a river to sleeping in caves while soaking wet and with hardly any food, Obermann recalled terrifying moments experienced while documenting the creation of the Giant Panda National Park to the Global Times. The experience, though harrowing, led to the forging of a “brotherhood” between Obermann and local Chinese people.
“For me, going to China was the only way; the answer to the question of why I existed on this planet in this time,” he said.
Obermann’s passion for China was born when he was an 18-year-old fresherman. He even spent his 22nd birthday at the library memorizing Chinese vocabulary using handmade flashcards, and this too, according to Obermann, was still one of his best birthday memories.
From a self-taught Chinese language learner to being able to converse in dialects found in Sichuan Province, southwest China, when sharing hotpot with friends, Obermann’s cross-cultural life experiences allow him to see where China and the US converge beyond the political sphere.
China and the US are among countries that boast of vast lands. With both having implemented nationally characteristic philosophies in managing and conserving nature, a “collaboration” in matters of environment, according to Obermann would be a step toward establishing a friendship between the two nations and peoples.
In July, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry visited China marking the first time face-to-face meeting between the two countries in 2023, to discuss environmental matters.
Liu Shu, a global environmental researcher told the Global Times that the two countries have established working groups for enhanced cooperative mechanisms over environmental issues. The two countries are also the “most capable” at promoting the transition of global energy, Liu noted, to which developing renewable energy has been valued as an alternative path to better the environment globally.
In 2021, China took over the presidency of the COP15, the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Kunming, Yunnan Province, southwest China.
Introducing real case studies at the conference such as the local Honghe Hani Rice Terraces and wild Asian elephants, COP15 revealed China’s commitment to global biodiversity conservation was firm.
“I could go adventure in almost any country, but the relative scarcity of knowledge surrounding China’s natural landscapes and importance to protect them made [an] adventure in China all the more meaningful,” Obermann said.
Diving deep into not only the beauty but also the future development of nature, Obermann’s 21st century journey “into the wild” appears to be more fortunate and optimistic than McCandless who eventually lost his life in the wilderness.
“I am starting a book project about China’s national parks and wilderness that hopefully can bring these places to more people across the world,” he told the Global Times.