Seeing biodiversity from a Chinese perspective

By | April 19, 2021

British zoologist Alice Hugh has been working at the Xishuangbana Tropical Botanical Garden in Mangalun, southern China’s Yunnan province, for nearly eight years. She reveals what she has learned about the country’s approach to ecological conservation ahead of its first United Nations Biodiversity Conference in May in Kunming, Yunnan.

What is your current role?

I lead a landscape-ecology research group, one of the most diverse botanical gardens in China. My team aims to better understand the lives of animals and how they interact with their environments. This helps us create more effective ways of conserving the environment of biodiversity.

The 18-man team, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), is all about mapping the biodiversity to research on illegal and legal trade in various species, to know where and why our natural world is changing. Does something. We then develop actionable measures to help prevent the worst effects of those changes.

For example, many members of my team are working on Rhinophus bats of different species. Our genetic research suggests that about 70% of Rhinophus bat species have not been described in the scientific literature. If you cannot describe a species, you cannot conserve it.

How did you come to work in China, and what is it like

In 2011, I moved to Thailand from the United Kingdom as part of my postdoctoral research, before leaving for Australia and later taking a position in China in 2013.

At first, I was inexperienced about how different culture can be in Asian countries and it is definitely a difficult learning curve. Adaptability is important. I think a lot of people from the west are very much disturbed by the action of China, and by Chinese scientists.

As a result, there is sensitivity in China’s research community, particularly about things that have often been an issue, such as the regulation of the trade of foreign wildlife. As a foreigner, it is a challenging balance to provide advice without being viewed as overly challenging.

I can participate in these discussions at a high level because I have worked here for a long time: people know that I will listen and impart my point of view based on fact rather than prejudice.

I have worked on some difficult and potentially sensitive topics, such as endangered species, wildlife trade and the Belt and Road Initiative, which aim to connect global trade routes with China through the development of international infrastructure.

I can focus on the potential impacts on biodiversity and how to minimize them. China is wary of allegations of widespread biodiversity loss, especially investing in scientific research to prevent it.

I have been invited to join both central and regional government work groups. It is a privilege to be in those groups and to work with some of the top scientists in the country, especially when it comes to international or UN meetings.

Working for CAS is equivalent to being an employee of the government. Many people outside of China are still surprised that foreign scientists are working here, even though the number is increasing.

I am also unusual because I am a foreign woman. The time I have worked here, I do not think I have met any other European women with full-time faculty positions in China. There are more than ten foreign men holding such positions in my institute. It is also not easy for Chinese women. At the institute, we have 43 research groups; Only 3 are headed by women.

It is essential for all conservation scientists to have an open mind and work in any country and culture to help them deal with the global problem of biosafety loss and to develop solutions that work in that social context. Have been.

A good example of this came last year, when some experts called for a global ban on wild-meat consumption, amid fears that new diseases originated in wild animals and spread to humans. Now this may sound like a great idea, but many parts of Africa do not have enough water to raise livestock, and people are dependent on wild meat for food.

This means that instead of recommending a blanket ban, a better solution might be to have a system that monitors what is traded, and provides recommendations as to which species can be eaten safely and consistently. .

Do foreign scientists need to speak Chinese to work in China

For most of my team, neither English nor Chinese is their first language. We have about 12 different nationalities, so discussions are mainly in English by default.

I work closely with my Chinese colleagues to ensure that our research work is properly communicated when published in Chinese. In meetings with Chinese colleagues, someone will translate the relevant points for me, or I will present my slides in Chinese and English.

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