Renowned ecol­o­gist ready to help China save wildlife, habi­tat

Con­ser­va­tion­ist Stu­art Pimm makes reg­u­lar vis­its to China to study its di­verse ecosys­tem, Chen Liang re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

Dur­ing his three-week stay in Xishuang­banna Trop­i­cal Botan­i­cal Gar­den in May, pro­fes­sor Stu­art Pimm from Duke Univer­sity went bird-watch­ing with his col­league Clin­ton N. Jenk­ins and PhD stu­dent Li Bin­bin al­most ev­ery morn­ing.

The 65-year-old ecol­o­gist is the au­thor of more than 270 sci­en­tific pa­pers and four books, and has been ranked as one of the most highly cited en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tists for over a decade by the In­sti­tute of Sci­en­tific In­for­ma­tion, which main­tains ci­ta­tion data­bases cov­er­ing thou­sands of aca­demic jour­nals. For him, bird­ing has not been only a hobby since he was 12 years old, but also a win­dow to “un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing in na­ture”.

Partly be­cause of his hobby, he has been to China 10 times. The first time was to Tai­wan 20 years ago. Fif­teen years ago he came to the Chi­nese main­land, vis­it­ing Sichuan and Hainan prov­inces.

This is the fourth con­sec­u­tive year he has vis­ited the coun­try, he said, be­cause he “has a very kind in­ter­est in China’s bio­di­ver­sity”, par­tic­u­larly China’s pro­tected ar­eas.

“China has set aside a lot of ar­eas as na­ture re­serves. They are very, very im­pres­sive and are be­gin­ning to at­tract a lot of tourists in China. I think in­creas­ingly peo­ple in the West are com­ing to China to see China’s bio­di­ver­sity,” the Bri­tish-born pro­fes­sor told China Daily at the botan­i­cal gar­den in Menglun town­ship, Xishuang­banna, Yun­nan province. “An in­ter­est­ing is­sue is how China man­ages its bio­di­ver­sity.”

Through his vis­its to China and the Chi­nese stu­dents and pro­fes­sors who have vis­ited his lab­o­ra­tory and worked with him, he said, he thinks that China is strug­gling with many is­sues of how to man­age its pro­tected ar­eas.

“It’s clear that there is a lot of hunt­ing, illegal killing of an­i­mals here (in Xishuang­banna),” he said. In the Wanglang Na­tional Na­ture Re­serve in Sichuan, where his stu­dent Li Bin­bin is do­ing her re­search, he said that peo­ple graze horses within the re­serve and have frag­mented gi­ant panda’s habi­tat.

“I see na­tional park re­serves wor­ry­ing about their fi­nances,” he said. “When you have beau­ti­ful fa­cil­i­ties to let peo­ple stay, then you have places such as Ji­uzhaigou — they have mil­lions of visi­tors a year. I think they ac­tu­ally man­age these visi­tors very well. Of course there are many man­age­ment is­sues.”

For all of these is­sues, the ecol­o­gist said that he has the ex­pe­ri­ence to find so­lu­tions. He worked and taught in Africa for nearly 20 years, con­cen­trat­ing on top­ics re­lated to wildlife and ecosys­tem con­ser­va­tion.

His other re­search ar­eas in­clude the Ever­glades of Florida in the United States and trop­i­cal forests in South Amer­ica, es­pe­cially the At­lantic For­est of Brazil and the north­ern An­des, two of the world’s hotspots for threat­ened species. “I can be help­ful and use­ful,” he said.

Ac­cord­ing to pro­fes­sor Richard Thomas Cor­lett, di­rec­tor of botan­i­cal gar­den’s Cen­ter for In­te­gra­tive Con­ser­va­tion, who in­vited Pimm for the field re­search, Pimm is a world leader in the study of present-day ex­tinc­tion and what can be done to pre­vent it. His re­search cov­ers the rea­sons why species be­come ex­tinct, how fast they do so, the global pat­terns of habi­tat loss and species ex­tinc­tion, and, im­por­tantly, the man­age­ment con­se­quences of this re­search. “I am look­ing for ways to pre­vent the ex­tinc­tion,” Pimm said.

One of the prob­lems in Xishuang­banna is that “the forests here are in iso­lated patches”, he said. “If the forests are iso­lated, there won’t be a lot of species. We don’t have horn­bills in the forests here. Prob­a­bly we hunted them out. Also (it’s) be­cause forests here are iso­lated from forests fur­ther away that do have horn­bills.”

At the botan­i­cal gar­den, Pimm, Jenk­ins and Li worked on de­vel­op­ing con­ser­va­tion pri­or­i­ties in South­east Asia from “Sichuan to Sin­ga­pore”, mainly by map­ping the bio­di­ver­sity of the whole re­gion, based on species range maps for mam­mals, the am­phib­ians and cone snails, and from the BirdLife In­ter­na­tional.

Af­ter com­plet­ing the map­ping, said Jenk­ins, who is vice-pres­i­dent of Sav­ingSpecies, a con­ser­va­tion NGO that was founded in 2006 and has Pimm as its pres­i­dent, they can find key nat­u­ral cor­ri­dors to con­nect frag­mented forests in the re­gion. “We’re not do­ing this (map­ping) just as an aca­demic ex­er­cise. We’re do­ing it be­cause we want to make a dif­fer­ence on the ground,” Pimm ex­plained. “From strate­gic map­ping to tac­ti­cal map­ping, that’s what we want to do.”

Af­ter iden­ti­fy­ing key wildlife cor­ri­dors in the At­lantic For­est of Brazil, Pimm, Jenk­ins and their col­leagues at Sav­ingSpecies ac­tu­ally raised money to al­low lo­cal NGOs to buy land for the cor­ri­dors and re­for­est the land, be­gin­ning in 2007.

The work has re­sulted in in­creas­ing the es­ti­mated wild pop­u­la­tion of the golden lion tamarin, a highly en­dan­gered mon­key, from the low hun­dreds a cou­ple of decades ago to more than 3,000 to­day.

“Nat­u­rally, China needs de­vel­op­ing, needs agri­cul­ture, needs rub­ber. But it is pos­si­ble to de­sign rub­ber plan­ta­tions in a way that al­lows nat­u­ral cor­ri­dors be­tween re­main­ing patches of forests. We’re look­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties to help re­serve man­agers con­nect frag­ments,” Pimm said.

Although pur­chas­ing land for con­ser­va­tion is not a prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion in China, the con­ser­va­tion­ist said, “Try­ing to es­tab­lish con­nec­tion be­tween the re­main­ing habi­tats is some­thing very im­por­tant and very prac­ti­cal. We can’t save ev­ery­thing, but we can have more wildlife if we con­nect what we can.”

So in his fu­ture work, he ex­pects to give ad­vice and make rec­om­men­da­tions to the Chi­nese author­i­ties on “where con­ser­va­tion pri­or­i­ties are” and “where other pro­tected ar­eas should be”. Also he wants to help, train and men­tor this new gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese con­ser­va­tion bi­ol­o­gists.

“You have in­cred­i­ble bio­di­ver­sity in China, and the one thing I can do is to share some of my ex­pe­ri­ences with my Chi­nese stu­dents and see what hap­pens,” he said. Con­tact the writer at chen­liang@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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