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Many millions of people depend on fresh water passing through the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. Photos courtesy of the IGERT trainees and the author unless otherwise noted

Not long ago, one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions on earth—Yunnan Province on China’s southwestern border, with its great river gorges, sweeping grasslands and majestic Himalayan mountains—was virtually inaccessible to outsiders.

Beautiful and threatened: Yunnan Province in southwestern China is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth (red area on map) and the home of other natural resources that also are crucial to the region.

Golden snub-nosed monkeys, black-necked cranes, snow leopards, Tibetan bears and an astounding number of other animals and plants thrive in its temperate forests and alpine meadows. And five million people from 26 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities live in the province’s remote high-altitude forests and valleys.

This biologically sensitive region has for the past half-dozen years been a field site for collaboration between the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Yunnan, a partnership that focuses on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.

The idea arose from conversations between visiting scientist Ji Weizhi, former director of the Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Yunnan, and Kenneth Shapiro, an emeritus professor of agricultural and applied economics who was then associate dean of international agricultural programs at CALS.

“Ji was impressed by the interdisciplinary approaches that some of the UW departments were using to address complex problems like biodiversity conservation,” says Shapiro. “Ji could see that the traditional narrow ‘stovepipe’ or isolated discipline approach to biodiversity research cannot bridge the gaps in understanding diverse problems in biodiversity conservation. He understood that scientists needed a broader understanding of the relationships between the biology, livelihoods, economics and politics of Yunnan to protect its biodiversity and promote sustainable development.”

Yunnan’s name roughly translates to “south of the colorful clouds”—and indeed, the province’s beauty is self-evident. Less obvious, perhaps, is its environmental importance. The region provides critical ecological services across much of Asia. To take water alone as an example, nearly half of China’s population, along with millions of other southeast Asians, depend on the fresh water passing through the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, which lie within the drainage basins of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers. If the natural forests in this region were destroyed, vast areas and populations downstream would suffer from severe floods and huge reductions of water supplies and quality.

After centuries of semi-isolation, Yunnan—the northwestern part of the province in particular—has been discovered by China’s new middle class of tourists, most of them Han Chinese, who make up more than 92 percent of China’s population. Where only hikers, horses and mules trod before, roads are being built by local and provincial governments to carry millions of tourists. Old-growth forests are being logged to accommodate them. Yunnan’s ethnic communities are having to transform centuries-old land use traditions. And the government is pressing Yunnan for economic development. Ji was aware that transforming Yunnan could have devastating effects on its biodiversity, on China’s fresh water supplies and on the livelihoods of ethnic minorities.

A language-rich region: IGERT trainees learn Mandarin, but they also often need help from native Chinese students – and sometimes from several interpreters when communicating with people from ethnic minorities who don’t speak Mandarin.

What Yunnan’s scientists needed was a model of an interdisciplinary approach to sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. Collaboration with UW, it was hoped, would mark a pioneering step toward developing that model.

Shapiro and other UW scientists, led by the late Josh Posner (see sidebar on page 27), found a home and funding for their part of the partnership under the auspices of IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship), a highly competitive National Science Foundation program that supports scientists and engineers pursuing graduate degrees in fields that cross disciplines and are deemed to have broad societal impact. The UW proposal drew on the strong support of the staff of CALS international programs, and the research also benefited from significant supplementary funding from the Graduate School, the chancellor’s office and the CAS.

Nineteen UW doctoral students, called “trainees,” were selected from disciplines ranging from political science and economics to conservation biology and anthropology, and included five CALS trainees from agronomy, forest and wildlife ecology, and community and environmental sociology. All participants were expected to learn Mandarin Chinese and, beyond their own disciplines, become literate in other fields relevant to conservation and sustainable development. While in Madison, trainees also attended weekly seminars on Northwest Yunnan’s history, politics, culture, society and ecology.

While some trainees received help getting their initial permits and contacts in Yunnan, it was up to each of them to work through such daily obstacles as getting around, finding translators for the many dialects and gaining the trust of locals.

Most trainees had done some kind of international work before joining IGERT. For example, Jodi Brandt in forest and wildlife ecology had worked in Guatemala with the Peace Corps, and community and environmental sociologist John Zinda had lived and taught in China.

But even those with extensive international experience hadn’t anticipated all the obstacles. Some researchers had to find new collaborators and renegotiate permits midway through their projects when their Chinese scientist contacts were moved to new institutions and positions. In rural areas, just knowing whom to ask for permission to do research presented a challenge. “The level of government that grants approval in one village isn’t always the same in the next,” says land resources trainee Brian Robinson.

The opportunities of doing research in a little-studied environment, however, more than offset the frustrations. “As a doctoral student you’re looking for an important question that many others haven’t already asked,” says Brandt. “That’s one of the biggest advantages of doing research in a place like Yunnan. Almost any question you ask is important—and no one has asked it before.”

Yunnan has become a popular tourist destination for a new Chinese middle class.

Here are a few projects conducted by CALS trainees that illuminate the spirit and value of the IGERT program.

Nature Tourism and Biodiversity

As a community and environmental sociologist, John Zinda is concerned about how tourism is changing the livelihoods of communities and affecting biodiversity conservation.

To gain a firsthand understanding of that dynamic he spent three summers and the better part of a year working alongside and interviewing villagers, most notably residents of Tibetan villages in two national parks. In one, Meili Snow Mountain, residents of Tibetan communities give tourists mule rides to scenic places around the sacred peak Kawagebo. In Pudacuo National Park, by contrast, community-run tourism has been replaced with a set of roads and tour buses run by an outside company. “At peak season as many as 7,000 tourists a day visit Pudacuo,” notes Zinda. “Rather than run their own tourism businesses, community residents must work for the park. Their livelihoods have been transformed.”

To further attract tourists, the provincial government went so far as to change the name of Zhongdian, a primarily Tibetan county, to “Shangri-la” after James Hilton’s fictional paradise. Now it’s a tourist mecca where Han tourists buy trinkets and snap photos of “quaint” ethnic minorities.

“Anyone exploring questions about livelihoods, policies or politics has to gain the trust of the people first,” says Zinda. So he did what he could to be accepted. “I started by getting to know residents, often people who drive tourists around the region in minivans. If people invited me into their communities, I asked to help with work in exchange for housing.”

Zinda did everything from run a shop at a hitching post for mule rides to help harvest potatoes. “One day I carried a basket filled with 70 pounds of mushrooms down a long, steep mountainside trail to get a feel for the kinds of things people in these communities do every day,” he says. After a hard day’s labor he would join the other workers for yak butter tea, a traditional Tibetan hot drink made from yak butter, tea leaves and salt (most Westerners find it unpalatable).

Zinda also interviewed government officials, policymakers and commercial tourism managers at protected areas across southwest China to identify the effects of nature tourism—that is, tourism revolving around the region’s natural beauty—on biodiversity conservation, including whether revenue from nature tourism was being channeled back
into it.

His conclusion? Whether local villages or larger companies run nature tourism, profits are not being reinvested in active conservation management.

“One of the main reasons for this is that the tourism and conservation departments in the provincial government are under separate lines of oversight and have different priorities. Strong conservation management only happens when the central government takes an interest,” Zinda says. “In parks with high-profile conservation targets like pandas or elephants, outside agencies make conservation investments that local governments are slow to make. Meanwhile, tourism’s impacts on how local residents use resources like firewood and mushrooms depend on how tourism is organized. Does everyone get a chance to participate? Does tourism make people too busy to gather mushrooms, or does it just become one more thing they do? You have to look at the details to understand how tourism affects resources.”

Zinda also looked at how much China is using scientific expertise provided by nongovernment organizations (NGOs) such as The Nature Conservancy. In years past, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and several other international NGOs worked closely with Yunnan’s government to advise on projects and train staff. In fact, Pudacuo National Park in Yunnan—China’s first national park—is a product of collaboration between TNC and the Chinese government. Planners from Yunnan designed the park’s tour buses, boardwalks, and interpretive programs with TNC’s support, based on models in the United States and other countries. “Now the role of foreign-based NGOs in Yunnan is declining,” notes Zinda.

Black-necked cranes, the world’s only alpine crane species, are affected by changing agricultural practices and water availability in Northwest Yunnan. Photo courtesy International Crane Foundation

The future of conservation in China, Zinda says, will likely depend on committed Chinese citizens and conservation-oriented government agencies working to shape conservation and development efforts.

Saving the Black-necked Cranes

One of the few birds that can be seen flying above the Himalayas is a large, elegant grayish bird with a black neck and black wingtips. The black-necked crane is the world’s only alpine crane species. These vulnerable birds summer in the Himalayan wetlands at altitudes of 9,000 to 15,000 feet, far from the reach of most humans.

For the past four years, James Burnham from forest and wildlife ecology has tried to clarify how human activities affect the cranes. Because they have little if any contact with humans in their breeding grounds, Burnham focused on the winter season, when they flock in agricultural fields and wetlands near barley and spring wheat crops.

Two scientists from the Kunming Institute of Zoology introduced Burnham to Napahai, a large nature reserve in Shangri-La County that the Chinese government set aside in part to protect the cranes in their winter range. Roughly 90 percent of the central of three separate wintering populations of black-necked cranes winter in Napahai and in similar agricultural fields and reserves across Northwest Yunnan.

Depending on the time of year, Napahai is a lake, a pond or an open grassland. Tibetan farmers grow crops and raise livestock there, and the birds are remarkably tolerant of humans and other animals. “You can watch them feeding right next to livestock like yak, sheep, horses and pigs,” Burnham notes.

But conditions in Napahai and other grasslands are changing, and the black-necked crane population in Northwest Yunnan is declining rapidly. Alterations in traditional agricultural practices have reduced the availability of waste barley and spring wheat that the birds feed on. Some scientists speculate that the biggest threats to the birds are human activities that affect water levels and quality—irrigation, dams, and draining may pose some of the biggest threats.

On the positive side, Tibetans and other cultures have revered and protected cranes from harm for centuries. Even now, all crane species are protected throughout their ranges in China. The penalty for hunting cranes is imprisonment.

Burnham describes himself as a mud-on-the-boots kind of scientist, someone who enjoys hands-on fieldwork and collecting data. But in his ongoing work he also needs to sit at a computer to analyze satellite images that may help clarify how changes are altering the distribution of crops, wetland vegetation patterns and what those changes mean for wintering cranes.

A Mrs. Gould’s sunbird graces the cover of Jodi Brandt’s multilingual birdwatching guide, which includes audio of birdsongs, Tibetan music and more. (See resources list below for link to a free pdf with audio.)

Among preliminary findings is the discovery that the construction of water reservoirs and dams has created many new wetlands. While the full impact of these created wetlands on wintering black-necked cranes is still unclear, reports from Burnham’s colleagues in the area indicate that they are used by the birds for roosting and foraging and could help explain an increase in other populations of black-necked cranes counted in regular surveys for
the species.

New Threats to Ancient Forests

Most of the trees that Western tourists see from their buses in central and eastern China are probably fairly young. Starting in 1958, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the widespread cutting down of forests for firewood to melt metal for industrial machinery. By the 1980s, only 8 percent of China’s trees remained. After numerous catastrophic floods washed away billions of tons of soil, Mao’s successors started reforestation campaigns, placing bans on logging in much of the country.

Jodi Brandt from forest and wildlife ecology, wishing to see how much the logged areas of Northwest Yunnan had recovered, compared satellite images taken in 2009 with those taken over the past few decades since Mao’s reign over China ended.

Brandt wasn’t surprised to see tree growth over 60 percent of the land. “What didn’t make sense was that logging was taking place on 20 percent of the land in Yunnan’s most precious and biodiverse forests—the old-growth forests,” says Brandt. “These were forests that previously had been spared from logging due to their remoteness.”

The likely answer was tourism, according to Brandt. Logging rates decreased everywhere except places where tourism was booming. Because many of the tourist destinations are near old-growth forests, that’s where developers are logging.

Brandt hit upon an extraordinary resource to help document the effects of logging and other development on bird populations. Many Tibetan villages have designated “sacred forests,” areas that might be as small as a football field or as big as a mountain. These are spiritual places for people to visit; logging, farming and hunting are not allowed. The sacred forests gave Brandt a chance to look at the effects of logging on bird populations by inventorying birds inside and outside of the forests. Sacred forests, she found, have distinctive bird communities and a greater diversity of birds compared to the more disturbed habitats surrounding them.

As one product of her study Brandt teamed with linguist Ellen Bartee to create a book and accompanying CD called The Birds of Shangrila, a colorful Chinese-Tibetan-English birdwatching guide enriched with birdsongs and Tibetan stories, songs and poems relating to the birds. It has been distributed to local Tibetan schools for use in teaching, and local woman are earning money by using it to lead birdwatching tours. (See resource list below for a link to a free, audio-enriched pdf of the book.)

Yak Herders and Vanishing Meadows

The yak, a large hairy bovine with curved horns pointing upward, is one of the Himalayas’ showcase animals, often featured in guidebooks to the region. These natives are often photographed with herders or in grasslands calmly grazing next to sheep and pigs. Both the domestic yak and the smaller wild yak are rarely seen lower than the high-altitude regions; the adaptations that allow yak to thrive at high altitudes also prevent them from living at low elevations.

When Jodi Brandt learned from fellow IGERT trainee and ethnobotanist Michelle Haynes that yak herders were convinced that the alpine meadows where they graze their animals were shrinking, she decided to help investigate. The herders also reported that their yak were losing weight and getting sick.

Researchers Jodi Brandt and Michelle Haynes came to the assistance of yak herders who reported that their animals were suffering from decreasing grazing grounds.

Using Haynes’ extensive ethnobotanical surveys and Brandt’s satellite imagery, they worked together to measure the change in alpine meadows. They found that in fact meadow area had decreased by 40 percent over the previous 20 years—an average 2 percent decline annually. This information gave the herders some solid data to show government officials.

Brandt and Haynes also sought to shed light on why shrubs were invading. They considered several factors that could affect how shrubs invade an area, such as the possibility that there were fewer fires than before or that more grazing allowed shrubs to spread. However, it seemed more likely that the cause was changes in climate. With rising temperatures and decreasing snowfall, woody vegetation can grow at higher and higher altitudes in the Himalayas, thus encroaching upon the animals’ grazing grounds.

Preserving a Valuable Native Food Crop

Agronomist Mary Saunders went to Yunnan to learn how the cultural traditions and values of an ethnic minority, the Yi, serve to preserve the seeds of a native plant called tartary buckwheat—a practice that not only protects a crop that has sustained the region’s people for thousands of years but also serves to protect agricultural biodiversity.

Saunders climbed, hiked, and rode on horseback and in the back of pickups to reach 45 diverse ethnic villages and interview 230 families, Yi and non-Yi, to learn more about the crop with the delicate yellow flowers. Tartary buckwheat is a bitter-tasting relative of the buckwheat commonly used in the United States today. This highly nutritious crop was domesticated about 4,500 years ago in its place of origin, the Himalayas of southwest China.

Women thrashing tartary buckwheat, a nutritious native crop that has spiritual significance for many who grow it.

Currently the Chinese government is trying to convince villagers who grow tartary buckwheat to switch to more lucrative and productive food and cash crops such as potatoes and corn.

The Yi are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the Himalayas, living in a range of environments and altitudes. Saunders learned that, just as their lifestyles, livelihoods and dialects differ, so do their farming and cultural practices. While one Yi group living at lower elevations has given up growing tartary buckwheat, Yi living at high altitudes rely on tartary buckwheat as one of the few crops they can grow there.

Convincing some suspicious villagers that she wasn’t a government official or a judgmental Westerner wasn’t easy, but with persistence and the help of Chinese students accompanying her, Saunders gained their trust. Her interviews revealed a variety of cultural traditions in which Yi use tartary buckwheat, giving them cause to continue growing the plant. Some Yi cultures regard tartary buckwheat as a sacred crop and use it in rituals—even in exorcisms. Others told Saunders how buckwheat was given to them by the gods. As reliable producers of tartary buckwheat, many Yi villages serve as seed sources for neighbors of other ethnicities who occasionally plant the crop.

Through her study Saunders was able to confirm how cultural, environmental and dietary incentives motivate some Yi communities to continue growing tartary buckwheat, thus preserving the genetic makeup of the plant for generations to come—and functioning more or less as a living seed bank.

Posner’s Passion

The scope and success of UW’s IGERT Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Development program is due in no small part to the late Joshua Posner, an agronomy professor and international agriculture expert who served as director until he passed away in 2012. Posner had dedicated his life to promoting sustainable development in countries with poor resources in such regions as West Africa and Latin America. “Josh was the perfect leader for the China IGERT program,” says William Karasov, chair of the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. “He was a great motivator who had a knack for providing steady guidance while making faculty and students alike feel welcome to share their ideas about theproject’s design and implementation.”

Posner saw the collaboration as having implications for the kind of research scientists could do well beyond China.

“Our hope is that these students will be part of a new generation of scientists with the interdisciplinary skills to carry on important work toward protecting biological treasures,” said Posner in describing the China IGERT program.

Many of the new scientists emerging from the collaboration are moving on to postdoctoral fellowships and jobs associated with biodiversity conservation and sustainable development. Jodi Brandt is doing research in the Congo and at least two other alumni returned to China to continue their work.

To learn more:
• IGERT program overview, www.igert.org/projects/102
• Jodi Brandt’s bird guide as a free pdf: http://silvis.forest.wisc.edu/research/story/Birds-Shangrila
• Mary Saunders’ blog, http://birdbirdflyblog.blogspot.com/2008_06_01_archive.html
• John Zinda’s China research: http://ssc.wisc.edu/~jzinda/research.htm