From Photography to Science | Interview with Fang Wang

Translator: Yinan Ding    

Editor: Wenting Yang

First published on Animal Dialogue Wechat Platform 2019/03/06

Profile: “I am an animal lover. My life and work are related to animals. I started with photographing animals, then I conducted research on animals, and now I am trying to apply my research findings into wildlife conservation.” – Fang Wang

Fang Wang taking a photo

Q: I learned that you spent 20 years living at Peking University and affiliated schools before working at Fudan University. From elementary school to PhD, you grew from a young nature surveyor to a professional through observing and photographing nature. How do you think the experience at Peking University shapes your view of ecology and conservation?

A:  I would say that I am lucky to live next to a wild field. When I was in elementary school, the most important thing for me was to explore the campus after school. Whoever that found a fountain, a wild dune, or vestige, can proudly show off their findings among friends the next day. Our spare time is filled with activities in nature. We looked for mulberry leaves on the campus to feed silkworms, stargazed at night on the campus to avoid light pollution, and observed crabs and shrimps that scurry out from a flooded lake. 

All of these adventurous discoveries that made me happy throughout my childhood are from the campus. These explorations are essentially similar to the job that we do today – a boundaryless and limitless adventure in the science realm. 

At that time, Peking University gave me the feeling that it was particularly large and extremely unknown, which triggered people’s curiosity. In fact, this feeling sustained until my undergraduate degree and even PhD. We had a lot of freedom as undergraduates and had received a lot of support from Prof. Zhi Lv and many other professors. In graduate school, we were encouraged to apply for projects and narrow down research topics by ourselves. Therefore, I consistently explored the unknown at Peking University from elementary school to graduate school.

Q:  I’ve read your article that describes how you started photographing Peking University after getting a camera due to serendipity. Would you mind sharing with us how you discovered so many stories in Peking University through your camera lens and shared them with everyone?

A:  I accidentally got cameras when I was in the third and sixth grade of elementary school, and in college. I think a camera is a tool that forces you to observe the world with attention to detail. The most impressive experience I had with photography was in elementary school when I received my first camera. Starting then, I could share all kinds of discoveries that I found around campus to classmates, which is a lot more convincing than just telling them in words, and that satisfiesed my vanity as a child. Until today, we are still doing the same thing with wildlife and nature. We wish to use scientific methods to convince others and transform our feelings and discoveries into knowledge. From this perspective, the camera is a form of enlightenment, and this idea has always influenced me.

A wild raccoon dog in Shanghai’s metropolis. They forage for food at night, and rest in vents or abandoned drains during the day.

My professional photography career started from when I was an undergraduate. In 2002, China National Geographic magazine published an article by Mr. Wu Xiushan from Beijing Zoo, called Wild Bird Watching around Beijing. In the article, fascinating photographic art pieces exhibited places such as the Old Summer Palace, the Summer Palace, and Baiwang Mountain, which were all adjacent to where I studied and lived. That greatly encouraged me to become an amazing photographer just like Mr. Wu Xiushan. I ate cheap for several months saving money for a Nikon f50 camera that valued 1,800 RMB. After that, I immediately contacted Mr. Wu Xiushan and asked him to make a speech at Peking University. He was such a modest person that he refused to show off his photographing works in public. However, he shared a lot of techniques and guided us in photography. That was the beginning of my photography career.

Q: You are a member of the Wild Chinese Video Studio which aims to conserve wildlife through sharing wildlife photos. Can you give us a few examples of a typical workday in this studio, and how does it really promote wildlife conservation?

 A: This is a great question. The first person I could think of is the founder of Wild China who is one of the most outstanding and amazing nature photographers – Xi Zhinong. He has been using photography to promote nature conservation for over 30 years. For example, he and the Wild China team filmed the deforestation in a primeval forest in northwestern Yunnan where wood-carrying carts continuously cut down fir trees in the Yunnan golden monkey‘s habitat. They recorded the transformation in the Yunnan golden monkeys’ lives before and after deforestation. All of their work merged into real progress, calling for a group of college students and environmental protection workers to go to the White Horse snow-capped mountains in northwestern Yunnan to study habitat changes.

Photo of Yunnan golden monkey taken by Xi Zhinong

Other names that come to my mind are my doctoral supervisors — Professor Zhi Lv and Professor Wenshi Pan from Peking University. In 1993, The photo of the birth of a giant panda taken by Professor Lv appeared on the cover of National Geographic. His group recorded the whole process of mother panda “Jiao Jiao” giving birth and feeding her cubs, and then shared it with the public through documentary films and stories. These allowed the public to learn interesting facts about pandas such as that mother panda will accompany her cubs for 20 days without eating and drinking right after they were born. The work of Professor Lv’s group helped raise awareness of protecting pandas. As a result, hunting and domesticating giant pandas was banned because people realized that they should be protected in the wild instead of in a cage. 

Photo of panda giving birth that became the cover of National Geographic in 1993)

These people I mentioned, though having different positions, have used their photos and stories to change the destiny of a species.

Q: It sounds like there were a lot of role models on your path of being a wildlife conservationist. What made you return to scientific research, and now education? How did these changes happen?

A:  In fact, I did not experience a painful mental journey of standing at the crossroads of life and deciding which way to go. I was very lucky when I decided to start photographing. First, I got a lot of assistance from my teachers. Second, my friends and I quickly realized that we could choose a different path in photography. Every photographer thinks about his core competitiveness. At that time, we discovered our core competitiveness, which is storytelling beyond taking good photos.  For example, we went to Fanjing Mountain, the only place in the world where you may see the golden snub-nosed monkey. Besides taking photos, we also introduced the natural history of this unique species to the public. We realized that photos are great, but what is greater is to tell the stories behind them. By combining knowledge of natural history and a complete logical framework, we could integrate individual photos into a series of compelling stories.

The urban wild hedgehog, the most common animal seen in the human community.

I ask myself various questions daily as a photographer: why do some places like the campus of Peking University have incredible biodiversity, while others have lost their original species? What happened in those places? I think what I really care about when taking photos of a place is to find answers to my questions, which could be achieved through research. The other reason is, as a photographer who have signed a contract, sometimes you must advertise only the beauty of a place to gain people’s affection. However, after a few years, that beautiful place may have already been destroyed. A photographer may not be allowed to write critically with freedom, nor to focus deeply on the fate of that place. Therefore, I decided to do research besides taking photos.

Q: You have an official WeChat account called “Nature Surveyor”. You published many interesting articles in a series called “What are we truly writing when writing about SCI (Science Citation Index)” that explains some of your research in a way that is easy for the public to understand. Can you give some examples of how these ideas are generated and implemented into the real world? Then, can you tell us how you determine whether your work has made a real impact?

A: It is a long process to materialize an initial idea into practical changes. Until today, I wouldn’t assert how influential my work is, especially compared to many contributions that other great people made in my field. When my group designs a project, we do not come up with the whole picture at the beginning, instead, it is developed by making observations and asking questions. For instance, when I was doing a dissertation in Qin mountains during my Ph.D., I noticed that the existing data of the giant panda are very easy to collect. However, there are few data of species that are less popular, such as the Asian golden cats. Then I started to ask: would the ecosystem still be dysfunctional even if we protected tens of thousands of the giant pandas? I also wondered why dogs living in the village would all vanish a few days once a week or month. Later, I noticed that some of them would come back from the mountain with severe wounds that seemed to be caused by wild boars. Why would this happen? Another example is, in a valley that is divided by a highway, the left slope is a bamboo forest while the right slope is barren which made me wonder how can the bamboo disperse their rhizomes across the highway to the other side. From last year, together with our partners, we built many models to examine the way bamboo disperse their rhizomes and expand their habitat. Each of these questions I mentioned above is a critical ecological and conservation management problem, such as interspecies relationships, adaptability of species, animal community ecology, and the effectiveness and priority of protected areas.

Q: Would you mind sharing some details of the citizen scientist project “Home of Raccoon Dog”? How is it operated, what is the current progress, and what are some future plans?

A: We have many plans for this project in the future, but it is still in the start-up stage. It was initially a personal interest of our team to study the animals around us. Since where we work right now is in Shanghai, we found this species living in a wide range there and wished to keep them in the city. However, while we try to push this interest forward, we encounter two difficulties. 

Raccoon dogs in the city

The first difficulty was that we found that raccoon dogs lived in more than 60 communities in Shanghai. Sometimes it is not allowed to implement changes into private gardens in the community. We need the approval of each community and to form an agreement on providing habitat for wildlife. At first, we thought that urban wildlife and people might be in conflict, but then we thought this might actually be an opportunity. If every community has our team members who are willing to provide a piece of land for wildlife to live in the community, then the rest of the job would be easy. In this process, we got the help of many professionals. However, it can’t be done without public participation. 

The second matter is that Fudan University is an educational institution and a science foundation in Shanghai. We always want to contribute more data to the database, which needs collaboration from professionals and the public. Data collected with the assistance of citizens will not belong to Fudan University but to the public. Therefore, we wish to build a data platform that is available to everyone. For example, schools can utilize these open data to design their courses. The city’s landscaping department and landscape architect companies can use these data to improve the city’s parks and green spaces. 

We wish to let professionals stay behind the stage and let a group of citizen volunteers get hands-on investigating urban wildlife and collecting relevant data. This ‘citizen scientists’ idea can be applied to many other scientific projects beyond the “Home of Raccoon Dog” that we have been doing. Many excellent local scientific organizations suggest that we can also let citizen scientists help with studies of amphibians, reptiles, and butterflies, which all play a critical role in urban ecology. Once this platform is built, we can integrate ideas and efforts from the public into practical projects.  Up to now, we have held training sessions for citizens, and the surveying plan is in preparation. We expect to finish up training at the end of December 2019 and take citizen volunteers to the field in early January to practice surveying urban raccoon dogs. Then we plan to start the study of amphibian and insect survey in Spring 2020. After these were done, I would say this platform is in good shape.

Surveying urban animals with Shanghai citizens for the “Citizen scientists” project.

Q: As for the stray animals that live in urban areas, what do you think about their impact on the urban ecosystem?

A: When we conducted urban wildlife surveys in Shanghai, we found that more than half of the animals surveyed were stray cats and dogs, which is similar to our expectations. We can clearly see some significant impacts of stray dogs and cats on other urban wildlife, such as diminished terrestrial bird species, declined bird populations, and reduced time of birds spent on the ground. There are research results that show what impact stray animals have on wildlife, such as the number of birds eaten by stray cats annually in the United States, and the number of endangered amphibians and reptiles threatened by stray cats in Europe.

In addition, cats and dogs carry diseases such as distemper, rabies, parvovirus, etc. Also, fleas and ticks are common intermediate hosts in spreading these diseases to humans. For example, we used to think plagues are transmitted from marmot directly to us. However, the plague virus in fact lives in the stomachs of fleas, as do ticks, then transmitted when they bite humans. Also, in infected areas, ticks parasitized on hedgehogs can transmit encephalitis, Lyme disease and other diseases to humans.

Stray cats and dogs are perfect epidemic spreaders. In urban areas, people usually provide them with foods and shelters which lay the basis for the growth of their population. We’ve collected blood samples of stray dogs, nearly half of them are or have been infected with the virus. One-fourth of them once carried viruses such as parvovirus, distemper, and rabies. This is a high proportion which means there is only a 24% chance that a group of 5 dogs has never been infected.

The direct impact of stray dogs and cats is the pressure they put on other wildlife, while the indirect impact is that they pass diseases to other animals and even humans. We looked closely at stray cat and dog populations through our citizen science program, and we’re hoping to get a sense of the percentage of sterilizing, sex ratio, and the differences in numbers of stray dogs and cats in different areas.

Hedgehog in the city

Note: We want to emphasize that although stray animals can carry pathogens and have impacts on urban wildlife and ecology.  However, we do not have to be terrified and try to eliminate them all. What we should do is to control the number of stray animals through sterilization, and advocate against pet abandonment.

Q: Our last question is regarding the current application for restoration of biodiversity in national parks, how do we choose flagship species and how to ensure the appropriate degree of human intervention in artificial restoration? For example, how many artificial bird nests should be implemented to protect them while making sure they do not rely on it?

A: Choosing a flagship species is an interesting topic. We ask ourselves whether the job we do today is also important in the future. I wish the concept of flagship species will not be needed in the future. Instead of focusing on one or two species, we would see all species as a community from the perspective of ecosystem and biodiversity. However, nowadays flagship species are still necessary. We realized that identifying two flagship species that require different habitats helps us to augment the range and diversity of the protected area.  For example, Gibbon tends to live in the mountains, cloud forest, and undisturbed primitive forests, while the Green Peacock tends to live in river valleys and open areas. If we establish a Gibbon-Green Peacock national park that covers both mountains and river valleys, the area will be larger than one that only aims to protect one of these species. Therefore, our job in Qing mountain is to collect data of several species for over 5 years to find out what kind of habitat is best for each of them and group those who need the same resources and habitat. In Qing mountain, we found two major categories. The first one is similar to where pandas live, a mature bamboo forest. The second one is for species like black bears, who are more opportunistic, and favors low-altitude shrubs and secondary successive hardwood forests. Therefore, we chose panda and black bears as the flagship species in Qing mountain, so the protected area could cover both forests and shrubs. The last thing I would like to mention is that in the current stage it is very hard for researchers in China to quantify the numbers of each species. We need to develop a complete monitoring and measurement system of wildlife to figure out the number of each species. For now, we can only design our conservation measures based on the distribution of a species and the relationships between animals and the environment.

Field work

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