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Zhao Ermi-Dancing with Snakes
    2009-08-24 18:13:10     CRIENGLISH.com

If there were a competition for "Godfather of snakes," Zhao Ermi would probably win the Chinese title. An internationally famous expert in amphibian and reptile zoology, Zhao has stayed true to a lifelong affection to animals most find frightening. How did he take up this extraordinary profession and what difficulties has he conquered along the way?


Zhao Ermi doesn't look like the 79-year-old academic he is. The glimmer dancing in his eyes demonstrates passion that can only be found in the young, and he has the easygoing attitude and frankness of a next-door neighbor. It is this amiable man, however, who made some of the most significant discoveries about China's snakes and published his findings as a world-renowned expert on amphibians and reptiles.

Zhao was born and bred in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. He spent most of his life in the "oasis of bliss", as the area around Chengdu is known. Like Chengdu locals, Zhao inherited a laidback vision, reflected in his choice of life career.

"Back in my day, it was general knowledge that law majors from Sichuan University could get ahead with prestigious governmental jobs, like a county magistrate. West China Union University also had one of the best stomatology departments in the country. But the corrupt Nationalist government and complicated interpersonal relations made me want to stay away from people. Besides, I had a strong love for the natural sciences and finally chose biology in the latter school, in spite of strong disapproval from my family members all around. I did have my regrets at first, but eventually a professor who returned overseas changed my mind, and I became more attached to the subject than ever."

Judging from his words, you may see Zhao as one of the lucky few with an enjoyable job, but insiders know how difficult, exhausting, and dangerous the work really is, from gathering and recording all kinds of information on crawly creatures to searching out snakes on expeditions.

In 1979, Zhao made a trip to "Snake Island" in Dalian, Northeast China, where some tens of thousands of snakes huddle on less than one square kilometer of space. Geared from top to toe in huge glasses, a hat and a face mask, Zhao hoped to uncover the secrets of the island. A Japanese scientist named Hasegawa Hideji, the first to arrive on the island, declared the snakes the Pallas' pit viper, a kind of poisonous viper primarily found in Russia and China. But to Zhao, this explanation didn't seem likely.

"I first went to Shenyang to take a look at the snake specimen taken from the island, but there was something wrong the moment I set my eyes on them. According to my knowledge, what was on exhibit wasn't the Pallas' pit viper I had in mind. They were of a completely different species, one I had not ever seen in my entire research life."

This stimulated Zhao to observe carefully what could have been a new discovery. He found that the snakes on the island had gray skin that resembled old tree barks, and when they climbed on the trees, they blended right in. The Pallas' pit viper, on the other hand, had sandy yellow skin and mostly lives around bushes and stone walls. The clear distinction in appearance and behavior between the two types of snakes deepened Zhao's suspicion of the accepted classification.

And so Zhao, avoiding the eye of the train conductor, took with him a whole duffel bag filled with snakes back to Chengdu, where further research affirmed his guess. The snake was a brand new variety which was different from any other known pit vipers in China, which Zhao then named the Chinese pit viper. With his article published in "Asian Herpetological Research" in 1979, a 40-year-old misconception was at last cleared up.

Another outstanding achievement, and perhaps the most dangerous, was the discovery of the King Cobra in Medog, Tibet. Before Zhao's journey, no Chinese had done large-scale gathering and research of amphibians or reptiles in Tibet. Located at the foot of the Himalayas, Medog then was the only county in China that wasn't open to traffic due to extremely adverse weather conditions. As a result, Zhao and his teammates had to traverse it on foot.

"We went there in the summer and the mountain was covered in snow. We had to slide down the mountain into the hollows, into more snow. So we had to copy mountaineers and use what we could to cross that pass. Knives, spades, anything we would come up with. After that we went along a river and headed on for three days straight, before we reached our destination."

The capture of the King Cobra was merely a coincidence. Li Shengquan, Zhao's assistant, one day saw a young man running up to him, hurriedly telling him about a giant serpent he had seen. Li followed him to the spot and stuffed the cobra into a bag. Before, the King Cobra's range was deemed only to cover South and Southeast Asian territories like India, Malaysia and the Philippines. The finding of Zhao's group has for the first time pushed its distribution area four latitudes north to include Chinese territory.

The snake had been recorded in Chinese history as far back as the Yin dynasty, when a character in the shape of "ta," the Chinese word for "it," was found on the oracle bone descriptions and later recognized to be the symbol for the snake. Also, ancient Chinese works, including "Compendium of Materia Medica," or "Bencao Gangmu," one of the most famous works concerning Chinese medicine, included detailed descriptions of the snake. In modern times, China's research into this field has been less developed, but Zhao has helped fill in this gap. The top shelf of his bookcase is lined with journals neatly categorized by year.

"These have lots of species in the reptile and amphibian house recorded. Frogs, toads, salamanders and turtles. As for snakes, I've recorded their appearance, prey, living environment and manner of movement. I began doing field work in 1956, when I was only 26 years old, and from then on, I've gone out into the open to do research almost every year."

Today, Zhao has achieved great fame and earned many prominent titles such as visiting scholar at Cornell University and UC Berkeley, honorable member of Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society, and former deputy of the National People's Congress. But the venerable elder remains a child at heart. Aside from mastery of Chinese and English, he surprised me with his familiarity with Russian, Japanese, German and French. Music is his favorite hobby, he says, as he has been taking in the music of Mother Nature for 50 years, and notes and melodies fill him with bliss.

But he remains faithful to his true love: frogs, lizards, and snakes. His family acknowledges this by bringing him new snakes every time they see one, while a thoughtful friend from the United States flattered him by placing a cobra on top of his birthday cake. Watching him as he became immersed in fond memories of chasing tadpoles and running from blood suckers, I thought I heard a gentle nocturne, with God working his magic.




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