Journey to the East: Collaborating for Conservation in China

Heidi Ma
by Heidi Ma on

Heidi Ma, Hainan Gibbon Project Coordinator

ZSL's Heidi Ma blogs on the recent Scientific Event: Collaborating for Conservation in China, giving an overview of conservation projects being conducted to protect its unique biodiversity. 

Scientific event recap

The Scientific Event “Collaborating for Conservation in China” held recently at the Zoological Society of London brought together leading academics and conservationists to take a fresh look at what UK organisations have achieved in supporting biodiversity conservation in China. The well-attended evening of public lectures focused on how collaboration is key to overcoming challenges –  collaborations within and between countries, across academic disciplines, and involvement of various sectors of society beyond the scientific community. As one of the event’s organisers, I was fortunate to acquire first hand insight into how determined individuals and groups are trying to address pressing conservation issues in China. 

PhD candidate Yifu Wang presents her research at ZSL

PhD candidate Yifu Wang, University of Cambridge and the Institute of Zoology, presenting preliminary findings from her research on the demand for pangolin scales in the Traditional Chinese Medicine market and its implications for conservation. 

China is considered one of the world’s most species-rich countries, yet its unique biodiversity is relatively underrepresented in scientific research and public awareness. Some of the most iconic species are, paradoxically, extremely enigmatic and poorly understood due to their rarity. The snow leopard’s (Panthera uncia) last stronghold may possibly be in Western China and the Tibetan Plateau. The largest amphibian, the Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus), is nearly extinct in the wild. The only freshwater porpoise and critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis), is surviving on the brink in the same ecosystem that it once shared with the doomed Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer). Reduced to the last 26 individuals of an entire species, the world’s rarest ape, the Hainan gibbon (Nomascus hainanus), is restricted to a single patch of forest in a single nature reserve; none are in captivity. Various groups of scientists and organisations are working on saving these species and their ecosystems, but there is undoubtedly no room for complacency. 


Sand-dredging vessels

Sand-dredging vessels fill our horizon line and dwarf small fishing boats on the shore of Poyang Lake, Jiangxi Province. Poyang Lake is home to an estimated 450 Yangtze finless porpoises, nearly half of the critically endangered species’ remaining population based on the most recent estimate. 

Despite these dismal examples, there are also incredible stories of species being brought back from near-extinction through international collaboration. One such example is the curious fate of Père David’s deer (Elaphurus davidianus). They were only first known to western science when French missionary Père Armand David saw them in the Imperial Hunting Park on the outskirts of Beijing in 1865, but soon after went extinct in China from hunting during famine and warfare. A captive herd was later assembled by the 11th Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey in England. In the 1980s, the deer were reintroduced to China in wild conditions and populations have grown to over 2,000 individuals today. 

While the UK is renowned for its legacy in pioneering the natural sciences, it may be less well known that UK organisations also have active and diverse roles in conservation in China today, from shaping national and international policy to directly working with rural communities. By convening these organisations that all share a common interest in supporting capacity building, ZSL’s scientific meeting also served as a catalyst for promoting British-Chinese collaborations and sharing experiences for what works in such a challenging and complex system. 

Collaboration with China and within China

Collaboration is not only vital for international organisations; perhaps more importantly, both Chinese-Chinese and Chinese-international partnerships should be actively forged to mobilise more potential from within the country. Last summer, the Institute of Zoology formalised its academic relationships with two leading Chinese institutions, the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Hydrobiology in Wuhan and the School of Biological Sciences of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. While Dr. Sam Turvey, IoZ’s Senior Research Fellow, and his research group, has previously worked with both of these institutions on multi-year projects, our recent formalised relationships will help open doors to more opportunities, especially capacity building for Chinese scientists and the exchange of knowledge and expertise. 

In addition to academic institutions, successful grassroots conservation organisations such as Peking University’s Shanshui Conservation Center and Cloud Mountain Conservation are increasingly gaining support in the public and private sectors. Both founded by esteemed Chinese ecologists and grounded in evidence-based conservation, they are inspiring young people to pursue careers in conservation. Others such as Birding Beijing, a public outreach initiative promoting the appreciation and conservation of rare birds in and around the capital city, maintains a steady crowd of enthusiastic followers through citizen science projects. Linking-in to such organisations has lent us valuable insights into what, why, and how the next generation of Chinese students, scientists, and conservationists are committing their careers to safeguarding the unique biodiversity of their homeland. Making these connections has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job. 

Hope for the future

Tibetan gazelle

Tibetan gazelle (Procapra picticaudata) on the Tibetan Plateau. Spotted off of a busy highway bustling with tourist traffic, it is a poignant reminder of how close wildlife can exist, yet precariously, near human activity.

As China’s political and economic influence maintains global significance, its environmental issues are also increasingly, and inevitably, being scrutinised under the spotlight. Shortly after I first started my current role as the IoZ’s China-based project coordinator, my mentor and PhD co-supervisor Sam explained how a visit to China for anyone in the sector of conservation biology could help put things into perspective. 

Indeed, a journey nearly anywhere in China could easily expose the sheer scale and scope of human impact on the environment. Over the last two years, working on the project has taken me on numerous such journeys; the enormous challenges are undeniable and can be intimidating. I am only just beginning to understand the myriad of ecological dilemmas we are dealing with and comprehend their complexities. Nevertheless, it is also now with more partners, funders, and like-minded people on board, we have every reason to be hopeful for biodiversity conservation in China. There has never been a time when collaboration is more urgently needed. 

Heidi’s work is funded by Arcus Foundation and Royal Holloway University of London. Follow Heidi on Twitter: @heidima825

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