Interview with Hu Gang: I want to give my heart to nature conservation

Author: George Geng; Translator: Vince Wu; Edited by Andrea Jia @Animal Dialogue

First published on Animal Dialogue, 2019/06/12


Hu Gang (Fomalhaut) is one of the founding members of Dao Nature Observation Studio, an organization based in Wuhan, China dedicated to wildlife conservation. He had been a middle school teacher for six years. As a photography enthusiast, Hu provided photos for Animal Dialogue since its beginning.

Hu collecting feces samples in the plateau of Ganzi, Sichuan. Elevation: 4107m.

I first met Hu when building Animal Dialogue’s Chinese and English websites. We were collecting pictures as background for the webpage, and Hu contacted me through WeChat as the photo provider. What made Hu stand out was that he attached a professional and vivid description to each photo from which I saw his sensitivity and mindfulness.

“How should I sign your photo, please? “

“Just put ‘Fomalhaut’.”

“Fomalhaut” is Hu’s online nickname, which is also the third brightest star in the night sky. In Chinese, it is called “Bei Luo Shi Men”, meaning North Gate of the Military Camp. As for why he chose the name, Hu replied, “just because I like this star.” 

Q: Could you please introduce Dao Nature Observation to the readers? What is its mission?

Dao Nature Observation (DNO) is an NGO registered in Wuhan, Hubei province. Our works include bird survey and monitoring, biodiversity-related citizen science projects, and nature education curriculum design and services.

DNO has cooperated with life science institutes, conservation areas, public welfare organizations, and many others on special projects.

A few years ago, the principals of the school where I taught registered this NGO, and then we all quit our teaching positions to start our operation officially.

As the organization recruits more full-time staff, it is implementing several wetland conservation projects. Its local influences extend to a broader regional area, and we hope the good trend will continue. 

Q: Can you share about your ongoing projects?

At present, I am mainly responsible for the Free Flying Wings (FFWs) project at Wanghu Lake and Liangzi Lake. Free Flying Wings is an integrative conservation project that aims to protect China’s most endangered waterbirds and their habitats.

Oriental storks taking flight in an agricultural field in Wanghu Lake

The FFWs project declared more than 100 wetland and 24 species of endangered water birds as protection priorities for the ten years of 2016 to 2026. Supported by NGOs, corporate investment, and the general public, FFWs initiates the protection of endangered aquatic birds and wetland in China through various activities. Examples include a civil protection network to supplement the government protection system and pilot protection sites to promote the investment of the government and the general public.

Hubei is a province with thousands of lakes with abundant wetland resources, and Wuhan is known as “the city of a hundred lakes”. However, Wuhan and its numerous surrounding lakes are no longer suitable for bird reproduction and inhabitation due to human activities. Wanghu Lake and Liangzi Lake wetlands are near the Wuhan area, but neither are national reserves. Every year, tens of thousands of migratory birds winter in the marshes, and tens of thousands of summer migratory birds breed in and around the lake in summer. Among these birds are some endangered species waiting to be protected, such as the Siberian crane, Oriental stork, Baer’s pochard, and Tundra swans.

Every year, these migratory birds return to the same lake, the same beach, or even the same tree to breed and dwell. The last thing we want is to damage their habitats due to human construction. We have already taken up too much space, so it’s time to give the birds some room to live.

Wild Tundra swans used to sell for a few hundred yuan each. Nowadays, selling an endangered species can get you three years in prison, so no one would blatantly catch protected animals anymore. However, the secret wildlife trade is ongoing. People still sell wild birds in markets, and we never see the end of bird-catching nets in agricultural fields. To change this reality, we patrol the lakes every month and preach nature conservation in schools, so that everyone knows there are so many beautiful little creatures thriving under enormous pressure not that far from us.

In terms of the specific project, we found a new breeding site for pochards in Liangzi Lake, and Oriental storks multiplied in the Wanghu Lake wetland. Besides, we are setting up bird observer teams consisted of mostly underprivileged students in a local school by Wanghu Lake. Near this school, there are more birds than students, and you can see the lake through the fences. We hope the native residents of Wanghu Lake can start to pay more attention to bird conservation and benefit from it in the future. At the beginning of the year, our friends organized donations from some parents from Wuhan to this school, hoping to make more solid contributions Wanghu Lake and the people around it.

Q: How do you feel about the reserves you’ve worked with? Are you optimistic about the current situation and prospects of animal protection in China? What are the main difficulties and challenges in your current job?

I love every reserve I’ve set foot on. I think every reserve is so beautiful that you want to spend a whole year watching the daily changes of the creatures and the environment. There are also many people working quietly in the reserves. Years of challenges did not cool their enthusiasm. They sacrificed most of their lives for the protection of wildlife and the environment.

To be honest, conservation is getting better, but the prospects for the less known endangered species are grim. Almost all of the protected areas are remote and difficult, making it difficult for most young people to adapt. Therefore, what is most lacking is not staffing or resources, but young people willing to settle in the reserves. Even if young people do come to the reserve, they will not stay for long because of concerns about their future children’s education and inadequate medical resources.

At present, the greatest difficulty and challenge in our work is also the lack of suitable staff. Although our job requires specific professional abilities, we need young people who are genuinely passionate about this industry.

Q: How should we deal with these problems? Are there any common mistakes that animal protection workers or stakeholders may make?

Our current plan is “sowing seeds” among young people. The scientific research team of Wuhan University used to select and train undergraduates to participate in field investigation and research every year. Thus, many students from different majors would devote themselves to the cause of conservation. We also hope to open this door for younger children, so that they can start to walk into nature and get close to nature.

In terms of mistakes, I want to suggest that wild animals are not far from our lives. Just three kilometers from the urban areas, there are bird nets in which wild birds are struggling and dying every day. Wild animals and plants (many are rare or protected species) are sold and put on the table for the enjoyment of consumers in markets thirty kilometers away from the city. In the mountains three hundred kilometers away from the city, there are field workers, patrolling daily and measuring every inch of the great rivers and mountains step by step. In the Tibet Plateau, three thousand kilometers away, lamas are picking up caterpillars and carefully placing them on the other side of the road to prevent them from being run over.

Q: You have been a chemistry and biology teacher for many years. What is your opinion of the current education on ecology and conservation?

At present, the teaching of conversation in schools is more formalistic than practical. Although various institutions, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences, have the task of popularizing science, few of them can manage to do it. Zoos and nature museums also were very much behind their foreign counterparts in the popularization of science. Therefore, we still have a long way to go in strengthening students’ awareness of conservation.

Our exam-oriented education still contains a lot of fixed ideas. The traditional reliance on the local natural resource is also hard to reverse. In the process of industrialization, the society will inevitably cause all kinds of damage. We want the next generation to grow up with beautiful little critters and to realize that we are integral to our environment, to ourselves, and other creatures. Thus, as they grow up to be decision-makers, they may feel more compassionate for marginalized people and animals. In this way, they may naturally become environmentally friendly in all walks of life.

Hu and child throught the lens of binoculars on a backdrop of many elks.

Q: You are very keen on photography besides your work. Could you share some of your photography with our readers?

Biodiversity conservation and imaging data collection is actually part of the job. What I want to share may not be sorted for months. Let me show my favorite Shennongjia forest animals first.

Red and white flying squirrels and other flying squirrels walk along an abandoned scenic walkway.
Hu and Xiaobai the golden snub-nosed monkey.

A friend took this photo. I was with the Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey in Shennongjia. Although these are not purely wild monkeys, this tribe of monkeys is fed year-round by the staff, and their living habits are studied. Watching the monkeys play and forage freely makes one understand why Dr. Jane Goodall devoted almost her entire life to the study of chimpanzees.

Every adult monkey here has its own name. The Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkey in the documentary, Born In China, was filmed here. Xiaobai is still the parent monkey here. He was abandoned not long after he was born. Researchers raised him and released him into the wild. He eventually became a parent monkey with wives and children. The snub-nosed monkey population has no sole alpha male but has several families, led by adult male parents, forming a tribe.

Q: What species would you like to see the next time you go out into the wild?

Snow leopard! At the end of July 2018, I climbed the Canyon of Angsai every day in Sanjiangyuan, searching every hill I passed, and I still missed the snow leopard. I wanted to see a snow leopard or a lynx at a distance. I made a promise to my Tibetan friends that I will come to the Angsai Mountain this year with them to find the snow leopard. I have already decided what gifts I want to bring them. This time I will not throw up because of altitude sickness.

I look forward to having a drink with everyone at that time.

Q: Finally, anything you’d like to say to our readers?

I want to give my heart to nature conservation, and I hope you will pay more attention to both animals and humans. We should work together to protect the best environment, the most beautiful people and infinitely beautiful creatures.

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