There’s more to China than pandas: From luscious-lipped monkeys to a giant salamander, a new show tracks down some of China’s most elusive wildlife

Here’s a challenge. Name one of China’s animal national treasures… not counting the giant panda – that’s too easy. ‘I want to get across that there’s much more to China than giant pandas,’ explains wildlife presenter Nigel Marven.

‘There are huge numbers of animals that have never been filmed before and, unlike in the past, we’re now able to film wherever we want.’

Plunging into a freezing cold pool in Yunnan province in north-east China, he emerges with the largest salamander on earth.

Natural wonders: Nigel Marven with a great salamander

Natural wonders: Nigel Marven with a great salamander

The Chinese giant salamander is brown, warty, slippery as a bar of soap and, when fully grown, will be as long as Nigel is tall.

‘They’re highly endangered. In the past they were hunted for their flesh, a delicacy that can fetch around 170 a pound, though I don’t know how anyone could eat an animal as beautiful as this.’

The documentaries Nigel has been making for the natural history channel Eden that go out next week will also be shown across China, where there is a vast new audience with a growing enthusiasm for wildlife programmes.

‘That’s great,’ he says. ‘People don’t preserve what they don’t know about.’

Yunnan is a naturalist’s paradise, and Nigel had the rare thrill of getting close to some snub-nosed monkeys in the Baimaxueshan nature reserve. These monkeys have only ever been filmed once before, he explains, by a BBC crew that only got long-lens shots as the monkeys were so unused to people.

Red panda

Golden snub nosed monkey

The rare red panda easting grass (left) and a snub-nosed monkey, with baby (right)

But to Nigel’s delight, the monkeys are far from wary today, having become used to Chinese zoologists, and he is able to get so close that one of the males catches sight of his own reflection in the lens.

‘He was very funny. He spent ten minutes wondering who this other monkey was. Snub-nosed monkeys are the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen,’ Nigel explains.

‘They have luscious lips that models and actresses would die for. They’re one of the highlights of China. It was a challenge even to catch up with them because they can travel a mile or so a day, swinging through the trees.’

Snub-nosed monkeys are the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen…They have luscious lips that models and actresses would die for

Hainan island, in the South China Sea, is one of China’s last remaining rainforests, and home to endangered rhesus macaques and the world’s rarest ape, the Hainan gibbon.

Although they were once found all over the island, destruction of the rainforest to make way for rubber plantations has forced them into the mountains, and Nigel has to concede defeat on his expedition to find them.

But his gibbon quest is more fortunate in Yunnan, where he’s treated to the dawn chorus of a colony of Hoolock gibbons. Only 150 survive in the whole of China.

‘Few people have had the chance to watch them at such close quarters. They’re amazing acrobats. It’s hard to keep up with them.’ You can’t leave China without trying to find a panda. Only this time it’s not the giant panda, but the cute, cat-sized red panda, and Gaoligongshan Mountain in Yunnan is one of its last strongholds.

The discovery of its droppings proves Nigel’s on the right trail, but shy red pandas spend most of their time in the trees. Nigel doesn’t waste time moping over their no-show though. He’s soon on all fours pursuing a turtle…

Yunnan Adventure and Hainan Adventure are on Eden on 6 and 10 February.