Notes from the Field: Interview research in rural Hainan, China

Heidi Ma
by Heidi Ma on

Heidi Ma, Hainan Gibbon Project Coordinator

Heidi reports on her latest field trip to Hainan, China.

From February to April this year, our Hainan Gibbon team conducted field research in Hainan and Yunnan provinces in southern China. Our purpose was to gather data on the social and cultural dimensions of Hainan gibbon conservation, building on research and conservation work undertaken over the last 9 years in and around Bawangling National Nature Reserve in Hainan province.

Using questionnaires, we asked local people about the natural resources they use, their ecological knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes towards widllife and conservation by conducting one-on-one household interviews. We worked in rural villages dotted along the periphery of the reserve, which is located in the hilly interior of Hainan Island. This research forms two components of my PhD research at Royal Holloway University of London: to explore how these communities understand the drivers of species decline and extinction, and to assess how ecological knowledge of local species is related to wildlife use and trade. The communities we interviewed were predominantly of Li and some Miao ethnicities, who are two of China’s 56 ethnic groups and are both indigenous to Hainan Island. 

Three people sat around a table outside, filing in a survey
Conducting a household interview with a local resident.

In the first two weeks in Hainan, I was joined by fellow PhD student and project teammate Carolyn Thompson. She then continued on to Yunnan province to do a comparative study between sites that have extant gibbon species. Carolyn is using similar methods to tackle some complimentary questions- what the intrinsic values of gibbons are to local people who live closest to them, and the extent to which human use of natural resources might impact gibbons and the forest ecosystem.

Together, both our research aims to capture a more holistic and higher-resolution picture of the human-nature interactions around Bawangling National Nature Reserve and other areas where gibbons still survive. This is an important first step to finding solutions for both stronger evidence-based conservation and improving human well-being. The reserve is not only where the last population of about 26 Hainan gibbons is found, but is also perhaps home to many elusive native species such as the Chinese pangolin, Hainan peacock pheasant, Hainan gymnure, and up to ten native species of turtles that have been reported to be exploited by a lucrative yet unregulated trade. Whether these creatures still roam these forests or have already suffered local extinction, is currently unknown. 

Four-eyed turtle
A four-eyed turtle (Sacalia quadriocellata) of Endangered IUCN Red List status, shown by a villager during an interview.

With the dedicated teamwork of 6 student assistants from our collaborators- Hainan University, Sun Yat-sen University, and Cloud Mountain Conservation, we conducted nearly 300 interviews in 45 villages in Hainan and Yunnan. Beyond understanding the anthropogenic threats to Hainan’s unique species and fragile ecosystems, we hope these interviews also will give a voice to the communities that have shared and shaped the environment. Communities like the the ones we studied have their own stories to tell but are nevertheless often left out of modern science and conservation narratives. Many questions are still unanswered, but we expect our work to fill some knowledge gaps in this much needed area of research.  

Interview team
Interview team of ZSL and Sun Yat-sen University Phd students and Hainan University undergraduates.

My work is funded by Arcus Foundation and Royal Holloway University of London. Arcus Foundation and the IUCN Primates Section on Small Apes also provide generous support to our Hainan Gibbon project.


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