Interview | Qiang Li: Birdwatching is the Origin of My Life

Translator: Wenting Yang

Editor: Jiangxue Wu

First published on Animal Dialogue Wechat Platform 2019/06/05

Written by Ruijiao Sun

Interviewee Profile:

     Qiang Li comes from Nanchang, Jiangxi. He studied chemical forestry at Nanjing Forestry University. He then became a senior engineer at Beijing Pulp and Paper Research Institute after graduation. He started participating in birdwatching within an environmental group called Friends of Nature in 2000. As Qiang became more experienced in arranging field activities, he took the responsibility for organizing birdwatching events in 2010 and renamed their group as the Wild Bird Society of Friends of Nature.

Destiny Has Its Own Plan

    Qiang Li is no stranger to any bird lovers in Beijing. As the president of the Wild Bird Society, he and other birdwatchers have organized various birdwatching activities in Beijing and in other parts of China. Qiang does not refrain from expressing his childlike happiness when talking about what he does: “Everything seems to fall into place so naturally.” After all these years, he has finally fulfilled his wishes and settled in where he’s meant to be. 

   Qiang’s curiosity for nature grew when watching Animal Worlds (a popular nature documentary series in China) as a kid. He was fascinated by that world which is so different yet so colorful and mesmerizing. Qiang recalls himself as an inexperienced teenager when he selected his major based on only one criterion – the one that had the most fun. His pre-decided majors were forestry, marine science, and fishery, but he was reassigned to paper production in chemical forestry eventually, for which he had to temporarily bid farewell to his childhood dream. (Editor’s note: in China, students rank their desired schools and majors following the university entrance exam, but if there were too many applicants for one major, they may be reassigned to a major they did not apply to originally.)

   However, it seems that destiny had its own plan. After graduation, Qiang was assigned to work in Beijing. At that time, all different kinds of environmental problems began to emerge with the development of China. After coming to Beijing in 1991, Qiang still hold his dream for a beautiful nature and concerns about the environmental issues in China. He had never stopped searching for an NGO which would aid him in realizing his dream of exploring the wild nature in China. In 2000, with the help of his colleague, Qiang finally found the organization that matched his aspiration – Friends of Nature.

Qiang Li is teaching children how to do birdwatching in Beijing Liumeng Park

    “I remember it so vividly. It was August 29, 2000, when I officially became a member of Friends of Nature.” Qiang said.

    Previously, members of Friends of Nature mainly consisted of volunteers. The birdwatching trip to Lake Dalinur in Inner Mongolia was the first event Qiang participated in as an official member of the organization. He was thrilled in finally finding a group of people who shared the same passion with him. Experienced birdwatchers would share their experiences while they chatted and laughed together in a crowded jeep. “These people are so interesting – they can even mimic a rooster’s crowing!” After this trip, Qiang has traveled around Northern China for birdwatching events hosted by Friends of Nature, including Beidaihe and Leting.  

    In 2002, the bird diversity survey in Yuanmingyuan Park marks the first official organizational event which Qiang took part in. As the head of the bird survey’s assistants, Qiang helped conduct events when the Bird Survey and Diversity Analysis Group in Temple of Heaven Park reached out to Friends of Nature for technical assistance. The Temple of Heaven Park’s Bird Survey Analysis aims to rearrange the park’s greenery and pest control based on variations in birds’ activities, thus enhancing the park’s management and protect biodiversity. However, during the latter half of the project, the main person in charge left and put Qiang on the spot for the management work. It certainly left a huge amount of pressure for Qiang who did not possess much professional knowledge at that time.

    As a researcher, Qiang understands the critical influence of data collection on future analysis and results. He knew he has to improve his professional knowledge through constant learning and participating in fieldwork. Whether in libraries, trains, or buses, he immersed himself in various bird guides and achieved prominent improvements in bird watching half a year later. Every spring and autumn, Qiang organizes bird surveys in the Temple of Heaven Park from 2003 to present, and these experiences became an important turning point for Qiang – they transformed him from a beginner to an expert in bird identification. 

Qiang is leading a bird survey in the Temple of Heaven Park

About the Wild Bird Society (WBS)

    The original intention of hosting birdwatching events was to provide scientific knowledge to those who are interested in nature and to introduce the public to the beauty of wildlife. Most of the activities, including the bird survey in the Temple of Heaven Park, were conducted by volunteers and a few group members.  After becoming an organizer, Qiang hopes to change these activities into a participatory science that is more accessible to the general public. Meanwhile, the group must bear certain social responsibilities as to report problems or suggestions to the park’s manager based on the birds’ diversity report compiled from data analysis.

   Qiang became more involved in birdwatching events around China after he took charge of the management of his group. Comparing with Friends of Nature, the birdwatching group adopts a looser approach in managing its operation based on the devotion of its volunteers, which yields no profits or incomes. With this in mind, it’s pretty impressive how the WSB has gained such wide influence across the country. After the former president of the birdwatching group resigned in 2008, Qiang was recommended to be the new president of the group, and he renamed the birdwatching group to be the official Wild Bird Society (WBS).

   “Many people ask me: ‘how can you be a fulltime birdwatcher?’” With an apartment in Beijing, Qiang has kept his childlike attitude and never seek to gain money through his profession. According to Qiang, doing what he likes as a fulltime job is the happiest thing he can ever ask for.

   The first bird guide of Beijing was published in 2001, and with limited illustrations and photos, people often rely on each other’s experiences to improve their identification abilities. Ten years later, with the assistance of China Machine Press, Qiang and WSB finally published the Common Birds Guide in Beijing under the name of Friends of Nature, providing a reliable reference book for amateur bird-watchers. Qiang believes to better protect nature one needs to understand it in the first place, and this guide serves to inform the public about the beauty in birdwatching and in nature as well. During the birdwatching process, WSB also urges people to actively report environmental issues they encountered and to resort to the local government for solutions.

   Qiang identified the main difficulty of promoting birdwatching to be the scarcity of birdwatching guides who not only needs abundant professional knowledge but also organizing abilities to lead a team. He believed that when designing a birdwatching event one should lower the threshold for the public’s involvement, and demands no participation fees or types of equipment in order to encourage more public engagement in birdwatching activities.

   In recent years, the number of birdwatching group has been growing rapidly, reflecting both the improvement in people’s social conditions and the willingness to be involved in environmental conservations. Qiang believed that the current situation provided sufficient support for all kinds of conservation organizations, and they, in turn, should strive to offer guidance to the general public on how to better preserve our environment.

Qiang introduces WBS to the public and informs them about results of bird surveys

The Vast Possibilities of a Birdwatching Career

   Wild Bird Society(WBS) was the first public-based birdwatching organization in China and was defined to be an environmental nonprofit agency by Qiang. WSB seeks a collaborative relationship with the local government in Beijing. For example, the Temple of Heaven Park’s manager improved its greenery based on the results of birds survey. Though the requirements demanded by WSB are not entirely met, Qiang thought that it marked the beginning of an active collaboration between local organizations and the government.

   Gradually, WSB begins to include propagation and illustration of several natural parks into its agenda. Regarding the issue of collaborating with local government, WSB hopes to direct the government’s decision on wildlife and environment conservation through proposals.

   Meanwhile, WSB collaborates with local companies to conduct surveys on bird species, which provided necessary data back to them. For example, the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design consults with WSB to know how to preserve and improve ecological areas within the city, and how to build ecological corridors effectively. WSB maintains a longterm connection with other birdwatching organizations through a national platform called “The Rosefinch Society”, which they can learn from each other by hosting lectures, lessons, and collaborative birdwatching events. WSB wants to be more than a birdwatching organization, as it values not financial investments, but development and conservation as its main priority. In the future, WSB will start to invest more funding into bird research in Beijing’s parks, and reschedule its events to meet the needs of working professionals to increase the public’s participation. WSB plans to expand the scale of bird surveys in natural parks, recruit more birdwatching guides, and reduce birdwatching activities in outland.

Qiang was educating children about the endangered Green Peafowl on New year’s eve, 2018

   In his childhood, Qiang was an introvert who liked to be alone with nature. Now, he is more than happy to share his passion and love for nature with the public. Under his leadership, the Wild Bird Society has begun to take up more social responsibilities and developed possibilities for future development like other newly founded local organizations. WBS welcomes more passionate nature lovers to join them and explore the endless possibilities in birdwatching and environmental protection.

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