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Yichao Zeng: Investigating Herb Collection for Wildlife Conservation

After I entered my MS program at WEC, it took me quite some time to figure out a topic for my thesis. First, I was going to develop a project looking at niche differentiation between giant pandas and sambars but then realized I wouldn’t have enough time to collect data for such a study. Later, I had an idea of a comparative study of diets of different bear species but couldn’t identify a clear research question. After much swaying between possible projects, I was inspired my advisor Dr. Vanessa Hull’s idea of participatory mapping and wanted to develop a model that quantifies impacts of different types of human activities on giant pandas in Wolong Nature Reserve. After getting some input from Dr. Jindong Zhang, a Sichuan-based conservation biologist, I decided to focus on one human activity, the collection of medicinal herbs.

This idea of how herb collection could affect wildlife is interesting to me, because it is likely a prevalent human activity that has an impact on wildlife yet has escaped from most people’s attention. Originally from China, I know China has a long history of utilizing plants and animals in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and have been able to witness it myself. Last summer (2017) after graduating with my bachelor’s degree, I visited Wolong for the first time. When my field assistants guided me to where we found Alpine stream salamanders, they took jars out of their backpacks and was going to collect some animals. Fortunately, I was able to stop them by offering to pay them for the animals, which they didn’t accept in the end.

Besides salamanders, I also watched villagers collect medicinal herbs in the reserve. I don’t blame the locals for collecting herbs or animals, as I know how difficult it is to make a living in these mountainous villages. However, I do want to understand if this activity has an impact on wildlife in the reserve. If it does, the management office of the reserve will need to come up with better solutions for both the wildlife and people.

As we went deeper, it turns out participatory mapping is an ideal method for investigating where herb collection occurs, as herb collectors usually don’t leave easily observable signs behind. This summer, I returned to Wolong to collect data for my thesis. Besides, I’ve also seen large amounts (valued ~60,000 yuan, equivalent to ~10,000 dollars in the market) of roots of one herb Chonglou, which literally means “multiple-floored buildings” in Chinese, being dried in yards of the villagers before being sold.

We have written up some of our early findings in a manuscript and had it submitted to a journal (results will become public after the manuscript is published!).

Hopefully, this study will bring people’s attention to herb collection, a potential threat to wildlife that was previously overlooked.

Yichao Zeng is a WEC MS student. His adviser is Dr. Vanessa Hull.