“After Many Detours, My Favorite is Still Conservation”: Interview with Dr. Hua Fangyuan

Translator: Jiangxue Wu

Editor: Xiaowen Zhang

Author: Da Di

First published on Animal Dialogue Wechat Platform 2019/09/06

Dr. Hua and I met at the South Gate of Peking University. Her build is smaller than I thought, but she is unexpectedly energetic. She has a clear train of thought and talks very fast. The feeling of richness, divergence, precision, and rigour is consistent with the style I have felt in her previous research.

“You can easily tell from my experience that I have taken many detours.”

Dr. Hua obtained her undergraduate degree from the Department of Biological Sciences, Beijing Normal University (BNU). At that time, ecology was categorized under the subject of biology, biological sciences major indicates both studies of life science and ecology.

In her sophomore year in Beijing Normal University, Dr. Hua began to watch birds with Professor Zhao Xinru and some fellow sophomores. At that time, Professor Zhao designed and operated BNU’s famous Wednesday Class program, which attracted many students and non-student nature lovers. This program nurtured the first generation of birdwatchers and amateur nature conservationists in Beijing. Graduates of 1919 at BNU are well known as the “99 Golden Generation”, representing a large number of talents engaged in the work of ecology and conservation. Many of them are continuously making contributions and achievements in different industries, such as Liu Yang—Associate Professor of the Department of Ecology at Sun Yat-Sen University, Gao Xinyu and Wang Chen—editors of the magazine, Natural History, Liu Yuyi, who works at Shanghai Forestry Bureau, and “Non-staff graduate”, Lei Jinyu, who works at WWF.

Professor Zhao Xinru: the founder of Wednesday Class Program
Retrieved from:www.jiemian.com

Growing love for nature in detours

Dr. Hua is from Sichuan (a province in southern China). In her childhood, Dr. Hua grew up on a small rural island by the Minjiang River in Leshan city, Sichuan. Her father worked for the Water Transport Bureau, and the main business was about transporting harvested timber. She had opportunities to get close to the water and forests. Speaking of her close relationship with nature, she recalled that as a child, she would get so engrossed in the show “Animal World”, a famous nature documentary series in China, that she tended to forget her surroundings.

As her childhood was so close to nature, Dr. Hua was determined to study biology and got into the Biological Sciences major at Beijing Normal University. After graduating from university, her desires for expanding her horizons grew stronger. Although she studied at Beijing Normal University, the leading figure in ornithology and ecology in China, Dr. Hua considered ecology a theoretical science, which did not match with her pursuit of a “practical” applied science. Fortunately, after graduating from her bachelor’s degree, Dr. Hua got a direct doctoral offer. She decided to go to the Institute of Medicine of Peking Union Medical College to study bio-medicine which can cure diseases and save people.

“My thought at the time was very naive: the way to reconcile with my strong interest in nature and ecology was to make this interest into an extracurricular hobby.” Said Dr. Hua. After one semester, she considered quitting. The completely different atmospheres between the Institute of Medical Sciences and the BNU made it very difficult for her to adapt. On the other hand, her contact with teachers and friends engaged in ecology and conservation work from the “Wednesday Class” in BNU enabled her to gradually gain a broader understanding of ecology, especially applied conservation ecology. At the end of the first academic year, she cautiously talked to her mentor and explained her plan to withdraw. As a result, she transferred from a PhD student to a master student. After graduation, she finally returned to ecology and began to pursue a PhD degree in 2006.

Continuing passion for conservation

Dr. Hua studied in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida. This department is one of the best in the United States for wildlife protection. It is famous for the applied conservation ecology research, which brings worldwide international insights to the academic world. As one of the largest universities in the United States, the school also has many related institutions and offers rich resources. According to the normal mode of training, doctoral students in this department should take classes in school for the first two years, develop their research ideas, and apply for their independent research funding. If it goes well, they will be able to conduct field research in the third and fourth years and return to school to complete their thesis in the fifth year.

Dr. Hua found that almost all of her classmates had fieldwork experience, and almost all of them had formed ideas about what to do research and where to conduct study. Compared to them, she was like a blank sheet of paper without any experience. She looked into her previous interests and her passion for conservation biology. After consulting to her supervisor, Professor Katie Sieving, she learned that there was a conservation project for the birds in Sumatra, Indonesia, and it was in great need of researchers. She seized the opportunity and designed a PhD topic based on this project. She also received the school’s protection and development fund for tropical areas before the deadline.

Her idea was to study how Indonesia’s logging industry led to the destruction of forests which affected bird communities from a behavioural perspective. The subject was mainly divided into two parts: one was to study whether logging will change the relationship between predators and prey by destroying and changing the structure of forest vegetation; secondly, if so, will the community structure and reproduction strategy of the prey be affected?

Dr. Hua in fieldwork 2008, taken in Sumatra

She still remembers the first time she started her fieldwork as a researcher in summer 2007 with the $2,000 research funding that she applied. “My first fieldwork in the wild was a camping trip for more than ten days. After stepping into the tropical rainforest, we had to clear out the trail and always pay attention to the surrounding where tigers and elephants may show up at any time. ” In one month, she had to lead the investigation while adapting to a new working pattern in the hot and humid environment. During the second fieldwork in 2008, the entire team was infected with malaria. Dr. Hua considered this fieldwork as a hard but novel experience.

Dr. Hua working in Sumatra, taken in 2009

Unfortunately, due to the lack of experience and preparation with preliminary studies, Dr. Hua’s project did not receive abundant funding after 2008. Therefore, she had to continue the second part of her research in the United States so that she was able to use the available resources and equipment, such as vehicles. This part of her research involved a playback experiment in the pine forests in Florida, in which the responses of animals to tape recordings of various sounds are compared. Dr. Hua explored the impact on the community structure and reproduction strategy after the predator’s perception of risks was artificially changed. Although the ecosystem in Florida is far from the tropical rainforests of Sumatra, the ecological questions she was trying to answer were still relevant to each other. During this year, Dr. Hua kept applying for research funding for the Sumatra project. Finally, she returned to Indonesia in 2010 and spent 11 months in the rainforest to complete the first part of her PhD project.

Eastern bluebird found and studied in Florida, 2009

It took her six and a half years to graduate from this five-year PhD program. “Pursuing my PhD degree was a difficult journey.” Dr. Hua said. To further explore ways to apply research in conservation more efficiently, she decided to pursue a postdoctoral degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University advised by Professor David Wilcove, a conservation biologist.

Getting back on track with research

In the past few decades, the problems of global deforestation and climate change has worsened thus becoming significant topics worldwide. Recently, many global initiatives are promoting forest restoration on a large scale. China is at the forefront in the world in terms of the afforestation project size. However, we still don’t fully understand the impact of these afforestation projects, especially plantation-led afforestation, on biodiversity and the potential opportunities for promoting biodiversity. After talking with her friends from a bird watching group about the distribution of plantation-led afforestation in Sichuan Province, Dr. Hua realized that China’s current afforestation projects needed to be guided by formal research from the perspective of biodiversity.

After entering the University of Princeton in September 2013, she chose her hometown Sichuan as the research site, focusing on the Grain for Green project there, which involved planting trees in former farmlands. In the winter, she drove with her worried mother and a bird-watching friend to investigate land conversion and afforestation in Sichuan. She went to the countryside and asked the locals many trivial but practical questions such as what was planted in the past, what to grow now, and so on. After that, she began to design research questions, and plan and select survey locations. From 2014 to 2015, cooperating with teams of Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Sichuan University, Dr. Hua launched a comprehensive ecological survey to better understand the structure of bird and bee communities.

Fieldwork in Sichuan, 2014

Since her post-doctorate, Dr. Hua’s research is more related to conservation applications. The training in basic ecology from her doctoral degree also laid a solid foundation for her research. The understanding of ecological processes and various sub-disciplines of ecology, the cultivation of fieldwork skills, and the training for developing different ways of thinking in scientific research all contributed to her future research on conservation ecology.

Interestingly, her background and her doctoral dissertation had little connections with the area of conservation, which made her feel less self-confident for a long time after entering Princeton University. To match with the requirement of “research identity” in applying for instruction work, she often felt stressed and questioned whether she is too arrogant in expanding her research direction. Her mentor, Dr. David Wilcove, often joked about her doctoral dissertation and said, “Fangyuan probably looks down on our conservation research of birds and beasts because she has received strict training in behavioural ecology.” Dr. Hua realized that what Dr. Wilcove said was actually out of affirmation of her, “ But I interpreted it as a criticism at the time because I lacked confidence.”

Dr. Hua with her mentor and colleague observing birds together
in Sichuan Tangjia River nature reserve

Looking back at her journey, Dr. Hua feels that these experiences have shaped her into who she is today—as a conservation scholar, as a scientific researcher, as a mentor for cultivating young people, and more importantly, as a better person. But she still feels that if she had more accumulations and opened her horizons earlier, she would have taken fewer detours. She thought that young people should not follow her as a role model.

Using Ecological Knowledge as A Key

From animal ecology to forest protection, Dr. Hua felt that the choice she made had been “coincidental” in a certain way. Many basic ecological issues may seem unrelated to conservation work, but in fact, they may be an important entry point for solving conservation issues.

For example, the black-capped vireo in North America was once included in the Endangered Species Act by the US government because of its habitat destruction and nest parasitism by a brown-headed cowbird. One of the obstacles in the conservation work for the black-capped vireo is that although some seemingly suitable habitats are being protected, this species did not appear for a long time.

Black-capped vireo, retrieved from https://ebird.org/

After studying the habitat selection behaviour of the species, researchers found that the black-capped vireo regards the existence of their peers in one habitat as an indicator of the quality of a potential place to settle down. Through the transmission of information between individuals of the same species, the decrease in the population size will further contribute to the negative impact of land destruction on the populations, resulting in ineffective protection actions for habitats. Researchers’ playback experiments showed that the playing recordings of the birds sound during the breeding season (simulating the existence of the same species) can effectively promote the pairing and reproduction of the black-capped vireo in previously unused habitat patches1. Similar results have also been actively applied to the protection of another endangered species in North America, Kirtland’s warbler2, and a great boost to its population restoration has been confirmed by the related research.

The starting point of Dr. Hua’s PhD thesis research in Indonesia is exactly inspired by the case above: if we know how logging impacts on species populations and ecological communities—for example, by affecting vegetation structure and interspecies relationships—then we could restore the populations and ecological communities by managing vegetation structure and interspecies relationships in forest restoration projects. To be honest, in Southeast Asia and other tropical regions of the world, it is not easy to simply constrain the power that destroys forests and other natural habitats or allow these habitats to be naturally restored. The idea of managing these habitats and populations from a more institutional perspective is just an “advanced demand” in the future. But developing the right methods for conservation is ultimately inseparable from a deep understanding of ecology.

Focusing on “Outside Areas”

Dr. Hua pays a lot of attention to the lands outside the protected area in her research as well. She thinks that although the system of protected lands is the strongest fortress for conservation work, it only occupies a tiny part of the earth’s surface area. Besides, the most direct and largest threats from agriculture and forestry production to biodiversity are mostly located outside the protected lands. Therefore, the vast area outside the protected lands cannot be ignored in biodiversity conservation. In particular, the current climate change causes the migration and redistribution of a large number of species, and these migrations can only be achieved in the premise of appropriate habitats.

The conservation work of biodiversity in China has focused only on protected areas or popular species for a long time. Although great achievements have been made, it has neglected the land outside the protected areas that meet the needs of human production and life to a certain extent (known as “Working landscape” in the academic world). In contrast, China’s environmental researchers have done a lot of work regarding the system outside the protected areas, especially those involving ecosystem services. It is understandable because ecosystem services are currently widely considered to provide important synergy for biodiversity protection. “How to address and reduce the threats to biodiversity on the land outside the protected area system, and explore and actualize the opportunities for protecting biodiversity should be a topic for Chinese scholars and conservation workers to further explore,” suggested Dr. Hua.

Grain for Green project: Aspen Forest in Sichuan Basin

Currently, Dr. Hua is leading a research team called Ecology & Conservation Application Lab at Peking University. The team consists of a variety of talents bringing together international insights in ecology and conservation. As what Dr. Hua suggested, their work in promoting biodiversity in forest ecosystems is grounded in ecological sciences and integrates multiple disciplines such as environmental economics and social sciences. The goal is not only to protect biodiversity but also to assess socioeconomic feasibilities and drive policy change.

Closing Remarks

After we finished the interview, Dr. Hua and I walked in the campus of Peking University in the summer night. We visited the office building of the Shanshui Nature Center, passed by the Weiming Lake, and saw the grove at the lakeside where more than 100 birds have been recorded.

It was interesting that Dr. Hua repeatedly emphasized that she was not a good model for teenagers. She hoped that young people would plan their future paths early. However, I think this is the part about her that moved me because it showed her courage to change career and keep exploring possibilities of life. Is it ever “too late” for the causes that one loves?

No, it’s never too late. As Dr. Hua said, “You can learn many things while doing them”. Regarding conservation, we can achieve more in the future.

Guest lecturing for wild animal ecology and conservation in Sri Lanka 2012

References:

  1. Ward, M.P. and Schlossberg, S., 2004.Conspecific attraction and the conservation of territorial songbirds. Conservation biology, 18(2), pp.519-525.
  2. https://dnr.wi.gov/wnrmag/2018/summer/kirtlands.html

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