Tuesday 12th January 2021

In the virtual footsteps of 19th century natural historians in East and North-east Asia

During these days of enforced immobility, even if my body cannot range across the world, at least my mind can.

One of the activities that has kept me from going mad with frustration has been reading, annotating and transcribing the entomological journals of my great great uncle, Cdr James John Walker FRES FLS MA (Honoris Causa) OXON, 1851 – 1939. I have been examining his voyages on board HMS Kingfisher between 1881 and 1884 (UK, Azores, Cape Verde, Uruguay, Straits of Magellan, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, USA, Canada, Juan Fernández (Robinson Crusoe) island and then home again via the Straits, Cape Verde and Madeira), and HMS Penguin, which arrived in Hong Kong in December 1891, following a long voyage from the UK to Uruguay, Chile, Peru and western Canada, then across the Pacific via French Polynesia, to New Zealand and Australia, and then through the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. She remained in Hong Kong until April the following year, when she departed and sailed to Shanghai, and was then engaged in charting the Zhoushan (Chusan) archipelago until December 1892. J J Walker then remained in Hong Kong until May 1893, and then finally returned home via Ceylon (Sri Lanka) the following year.

HMS Penguin

The period that he spent in Hong Kong and eastern China is of particular interest to me at the moment, as I have done my own most recent exploring in that area between 2017 and 2020, and am familiar with virtually all the butterflies he recorded, although not the beetles.

One of the fascinating things I am finding is that by researching Walker’s journeys, I am discovering an amazing series of links to other pioneers and natural historians, and thanks to the fact that most of his contemporaries’ writings are now in the public domain and available to read on the internet, I am able to voyage by means of their descriptions through Zhejiang, Manchuria, Ussuriland, Sichuan, Tibet and along the Yangtse river, all in the 1880s and 1890s. I am spellbound, in fact!

The first book that attracted my attention was “An Irishwoman in China”, by Emily de Burgh Taylor, who describes J J Walker, who visited her and her husband in the mountain hamlet of Da-laen-saen, near Ningbo, in November 1892.

We entertained guests in our bungalow that year, amongst them a fellow of the Linnean Society known to his intimates as ” Bug W.” He was a keen naturalist, and extremely well-informed, but “bugs” were his speciality. With a bottle of chloroform in one pocket wherewith to quiet his specimens, a bottle of ammonia in another wherewith to cure stings or bites, he fared forth in quest of beetles and beasties.

“You will find such and such a beetle under that stone,” he would remark, pointing to an apparently very ordinary one, and he was invariably right. He was greatly interested to find sea-water crabs at such an elevation, saying their family tree must date back to the time when those mountains were under the sea.

On leaving, he shook hands heartily with me, saying he had enjoyed himself immensely, and had discovered sixty new specimens of bugs during his stay in our house!


After her stay in Ningbo, Mrs Daly and her family moved north to the treaty port of Newchwang (now known as Yingkou), in Manchuria, where like J J Walker’s brother Harry, she lived through the Boxer Rebellion and both the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars.
A guest of hers was the remarkable lady traveller Isabella Bird, who visited Newchwang in 1898 en route for Korea, a journey which see describes in her book “Korea and her Neighbours”, published by John Murray in 1905:


Thrilling though these volumes are, it is really the entomologists that I have been concentrating on in recent weeks, and one mentioned by J J Walker is his contemporary, John Henry Leech (1862 – 1900), whose masterpiece “Butterflies from China, Corea and Japan”, published in 1892, contains a description of Leech’s own travels in the region, but also mentions his two most valued collectors, Antwerp E Pratt and Albert Kricheldorff, who travelled extensively in western China, amassing a huge collection of insects.

John Henry Leech

It turns out that A E Pratt also wrote a fine volume describing his adventures in those remote regions, published in 1892, “To the Snows of Tibet through China”, which I am currently deeply engrossed in reading:


Antwerp Edgar Pratt

One of the characters with whom Pratt came into contact while collecting in Sichuan was another intrepid naturalist-explorer, Prince Henri d’Orléans (1867 – 1901), who travelled from Paris to Vietnam overland with Gabriel Bonvalot, who described that extraordinary journey in his book “De Paris au Tonkin à travers le Tibet inconnu”:


Prince Henri d’Orléans became famous in 1897, due to a duel which he fought, and lost, against Prince Vittorio Emanuele, Count of Turin. In several articles for Le Figaro, Prince Henri had described the Italian soldiers being held captive in Ethiopia, during the first First Italo–Abyssinian War, as cowards. Prince Vittorio Emanuele thus challenged him to a duel. The sword was agreed upon as the weapon of choice, as the Italians thought that duel with pistols, favoured by the French, was worthy of betrayed husbands, not of princes of royal blood.

The duel with swords, which lasted 26 minutes, took place at 5:00 am on 15 August 1897, at Vaucresson, France. Vittorio Emanuele defeated Prince Henri after five reprises. Prince Henri received a serious wound to his right abdomen, and the doctors of both parties considered the injury serious enough to put him in a state of obvious inferiority, causing the end of the duel, and making the Count of Turin famous in Europe (source Wikipedia).

Prince Henri d’Orléans

Even if I never travel again, at least in spirit I am on the move. Although I have no intention of ever fighting a duel, I would dearly love to visit some of the places described in these volumes, and perhaps I will really have a chance to do a serious study of the life and works of J J Walker at some future date, particularly if the opportunity to enter China again crops up once the virus nightmare is over.

A plate from Leech’s Butterflies from China, Corea and Japan


Tuesday 8th December 2020


Today’s post concerns a project I hope to do at some stage in the future, but I will need funding and to find a university through which to do it. It will involve travelling in the footsteps of my great great uncle J J Walker (G C Champion’s brother-in-law – for a full explanation of the family relationship, please see the section “In the Beginning” at the top of this page). I have chosen his explorations in China for my potential study simply because I have been in China recently and have already started to follow in his footsteps there (see my post of Friday 2oth November 2018), but a similar type of study could equally be done in other parts of the world that he visited and collected insects in, notably Uruguay, Chile and Peru, French Polynesia (where I also retraced some of his footsteps in December 2017), New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, many European countries, the Azores and Western Canada). The concept of conducting searches in the localities where he collected in the 1880s and 1890s to try to relocate the species of insect that he found there seems highly valid to me, illustrating the effects of habitat and climate change. We will see how this idea develops!


James John Walker (JJW) (1851 – 1939) was an engineering officer and ship’s naturalist on board the survey ship HMS Penguin, which was engaged in charting the Zhoushan archipelago in 1892. He wrote detailed journals describing not only his natural history observations, but also his general impressions and activities during his stay in China. His original journals, penned in beautiful handwriting, are now kept in the library of the Royal Entomological Society in St Albans, UK, and many of his insect specimens are housed in the Oxford Museum of Natural History and the Natural History Museum in London.

The Walker family came from a relatively humble background, and JJW did not have an opportunity to study at university, yet his publications on entomology amounted to some 180 published notes and articles. He was awarded an honorary MA by the University of Oxford in 1905, and he was a Fellow of the Entomological Society of London from 1878 (President 1919-20; Vice President 1916, 1921; Secretary 1899, 1905-18; Council 1894, 1921, Special Life Fellow 1933). He was a Fellow of the South London Natural History Society (from 1880). He was also a Fellow of the Linnaean Society from 1889 (Council 1913-17), and of the Society for British Entomology from 1933 (Vice President 1937).

James Walker was an Engineering Commander in the Royal Navy, and his voyages around the world allowed him extraordinary opportunities for exploration and as he was also Ship’s Naturalist, like Charles Darwin, he was authorized to go onshore whenever his ship was in port, to collect insects and other natural history specimens. He amassed a huge collection from all round the world, and discovered many new species for science.

James Walker made four major world tours, in HMS Kingfisher (September 1880 – August 1884); HMS Grappler (October 1886 – April 1889); HMS Penguin (1890 – 1893); and HMS Ringarooma (Australian journal and observations of natural history, December 1899 – July 1902), collecting insects at every opportunity.

JJW’s journal from HMS Penguin 1890 – 1893

HMS Penguin at Sydney

J J Walker’s ship arrived in Hong Kong on 14th December 1891, then moved on to Zhoushan, arriving on 18th May 1892 to conduct a survey of the islands and take soundings for a chart. The ship remained in the area until November 1892, when she returned to Hong Kong. She remained in Hong Kong until 20th May 1893. J J Walker collected hundreds of insect specimens here, and wrote the first list of the butterflies of the territory.

JJW’s manuscript on the butterflies of Hong Kong

When HMS Penguin anchored opposite the Bund in Shanghai on 12th June, 1892, JJW was delighted to find that the Chinese cruiser Lai-yuen was also on a visit to Shanghai, and his brother Harry Walker was serving on board as an instructor on secondment from the Royal Navy. Harry Walker went on to become Professor of Marine Engineering at the Tien-tsin (now Tianjin) Naval Academy, and served there until his death in 1905. The two brothers spent several days together in Shanghai, not having seen each for many years.

Harry and Jim Walker

Chinese cruiser Lai Yuen

The Bund, Shanghai, c1890s

June 12, 1892 JJW meets his bother, Harry Walker

July 4 HMS Penguin departs Shanghai for surveying
grounds in Zhoushan (Chusan) archipelago

September 24 Return to Shanghai

October 2 Start on journey to observe the tidal bore

October 3 Arrive at Hang-chao (Hangzhou)

October 6 – 9 Observation of the Qiantang Tidal Bore

October 19 HMS Penguin departs Shanghai. Further
surveys of Zhoushan (Chusan) archipelago

November 2 Ningpo (Ningbo)

November 6 Excursion to Daleishan (Da-laen-sean), a
mountain valley SW of Ningbo

December 10 Dongyin (Tung-yan) islands (observed the
Short-tailed Albatross)

JJW’s journal entry describing his arrival at the Tung-yan Islands

Entries from JJW’s Journal describing his visit to the Tung-yan islands, with his sketch of the Short-tailed Albatross

On the excursion to Hangzhou and Haining, to observe the Bore, JJW accompanied the captain of HMS Penguin, W U Moore, and a Shanghai-based photographer, a Mr E Q Cooper, who apparently meticulously photographed all items of interest observed along the way. These photographs may still be in existence, but they have yet to be relocated.

J J Walker took every opportunity to go ashore and collect insects, often accompanied by “The Doctor” (Sir) Percy William Bassett-Smith, who later went on to become an eminent bacteriologist and chair of Clinical Pathology at the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich. He collected large numbers of specimens, of all groups of insects and molluscs, though his particular areas of specialization were Lepidoptera and Coleoptera. These are detailed in his journals, and the complete lists and original specimens are held at the two museums previously mentioned in Oxford and London.


My aim would be to visit each of the locations visited by JJW, preferably on the same days or as close to these as possible, to search for the same species, using his notes as a guide. A complete list would be compiled beforehand, and the original specimens examined in the museum collections in Oxford and London, together with data collection of habitat types in which these species occur, using JJW’s notes and other sources.

A drawer of specimens of Melanitis leda, mostly collected by JJW

A specimen of Melanitis leda caught by JJW in Hong Kong

Armed with this data, the locations concerned in China would be visited, and where the habitats can still be expected to harbour insects, a thorough search made. Some offshore islands may be difficult to access, but an attempt will be made to visit as many as possible. The onshore sites should pose little difficulty.

A comparison will be made between the state of the habitats as described by J J Walker in 1892 and their condition now, 130 years later. The data collected will illustrate any changes in the insect (and other) fauna and flora that have taken place in the intervening years, be they due to habitat alteration, either manmade or natural, or changes in the climate. I already noticed in my own time in China the absence of several species of butterfly that he mentions (Gonepteryx rhamni, Polygonia c-album, Dercas sp), as well as the presence of some species that are common now, but did not feature in his journals. He also records several bird species as being seen by himself or procured by “The Doctor”, but which are no longer to be found, the most charismatic of which was the Crested Ibis, Nipponia nippon, which is now reduced to one tiny relict population in distant Jianxi province. Such changes can provide useful evidence of decline in species diversity, or indeed enrichment in some cases, and can be of use in the formulation of conservation strategies, particularly in areas of great biodiversity, which these areas of (south-) eastern China are.

The data and conclusions drawn from this study will be made available to Chinese wildlife conservation and academic bodies, as scientific studies from the 19th century are lacking there, and the journals of JJW covering his time in China will be published as well, both for their intrinsic and scientific value. They will add to the existing knowledge of the exploration of natural areas in the age of discovery in China (at least from a European knowledge perspective).

The unique combination of a genuinely useful scientific analysis with an additional sociological and historical element, conducted by a living relative of the explorer concerned, will make the study accessible to a much wider audience than a purely scientific study would otherwise be, capturing the interest of the general populace, and this will help to highlight the need to preserve insect and other biodiversity in these areas.

JJW collecting in 1911


Sunday 9th August 2020

An inspiring ecotourism project in Yunnan

In December 2019, just before the Covid crisis, I flew from Shanghai to a remote corner of south-western China, for a week of intensive birding in the Yingjiang area, right up against the border with Myanmar/Burma.

A view of one of the great rivers of Yunnan from the air

I was picked up at Tengchong airport by my guide, Du Yinlei, who does not speak any English, but who knows the birds well and who had been recommended to me by two of my birdwatching friends. He did not disappoint, and given the chance, I would certainly bird with him again. Indeed, if visas for China become easy to obtain in the future, and I am working as a tour organiser, I would love to lead a group to this fascinating area, with Du Yinlei as our local guide and ground agent. I will not give a full blow-by-blow account of the entire trip, but I would like to highlight an extraordinarily far-sighted ecotourism project in this area, which brings benefits to both local communities and birds.

An extraordinarily beautiful evening sky welcomed me to Yunnan

One of the trends in the Chinese birding world is that bird photography has become remarkably popular, and wealthy city-dwelling enthusiasts have bought expensive camera gear, and now devote themselves to travelling around China in search of ever better pictures of rare and in some cases spectacular birds. Although there is something of a rift between the “true”, more traditional bird-watchers and these camera-wallahs (partly because some of the photographers are inclined to leave piles of plastic trash wherever they set up their tripods, a habit which I personally find extraordinary as surely they themselves do not want to take pictures of birds among trash and rubbish, but partly also out of some sort of rivalry), the effects of this trend have certainly brought benefits to the birds.

Bird photography is growing in popularity in China

To cater for these photographers, a network of bird hides with pools and feeders has been set up, and the photographers pay an hourly or a daily fee to sit in these hides, which are manned by locals who keep the feeders stocked with food, venturing out when the mealworms or other delicacies have run out. As they restock the holes in the branches with wriggling bait, they whistle, which signals to the birds that more snacks have arrived. No sooner has the guard returned to the hide, than the birds hop or swoop back into view, and a barrage of machinegun-like rapid exposures are taken.

The hides are well constructed and quite comfortable

The clearings in front of the hides are well stocked with drinking and bathing areas for the birds, as well as food

Although this type of bird observation might not be to everyone’s taste, in this area of south-western China, previously poverty-stricken communities have literally been lifted out of their previously poor existences by the money that the photographers bring into the villages.

The prosperity of the area has increased, at least partly thanks to the money this type of tourism brings into the local economy

The particular area we visited is known as Hornbill Valley as it hosts no less that three species of hornbill, which have virtually disappeared in other parts of China due to the twin threats of the felling of the tall trees that they nest in holes in, and persecution (the casques of these spectacular birds are carved into intricate and expensive decorative trinkets), but here they are protected as a source of income for the villagers, as they are the flagship species that attract the photographers to the area. Ironically, none showed during my visit.

The approach to Hornbill Valley leaves one in no doubt as to which birds are the stars here

Centred around the unfortunately named village of Shiti, numerous steep tracks lead to the hides, each of which can accommodate between five and ten photographers. Low seats are laid on, and in some cases snacks are available for sale. The photographers pay the 60RMB fee, and sit down behind their cameras, huge lenses (mostly 500mm) and tripods with fluid heads, and wait. Some smoke and chat rather noisily, but eventually the birds appear, and then the atmosphere becomes electric with anticipation as to what will appear next.

Shiti village consists of attractive houses provided by the government

The photographers sit and wait

Long lenses are de rigueur here

This project is, in my view, “ecotourism” at its very best. Many of these local people now manning the hides would otherwise have trapped these birds either for food or to sell as cagebirds, but now instead they protect them. In addition, the birds’ habitat is preserved, and the villagers take pride in their wildlife. This is truly a win-win situation for all concerned. I think this model is one that could be exported to other poor regions of the World, and I hope that other regions will take it up as a way of boosting tourism and protecting their environment at the same time.

The local restaurants are decorated with posters of bird photographs

The tall trees contain the hornbills’ nests, and the project favours their protection