Q&A with Xuemei Han ’07
Could you tell us a bit about your journey from a childhood in Inner Mongolia to F&ES?
I grew up in the countryside on a plain along the Yellow River at the foot of the Yinshan Mountains. Parents and schoolteachers used to warn us: “If you don’t study hard, you will become a shepherdess and spend your life wandering outside and dealing with sheep every day.” But I actually wanted to be a shepherdess, because I feel being with nature is very enjoyable. When I was six, my parents took my twin sister and me to Hohhot, the capital city of Inner Mongolia, to a get a better education. I did not become a shepherdess. Instead, I studied hard and got to go to Beijing Normal University. Looking for intimacy with nature led me to choose biology as my college major and ecology in graduate school. Then I came to F&ES in 2005 to study with Chad Oliver.
What got you interested in tigers?
One of my professors in Beijing, Jianping Ge, got a grant from a China-Russia cooperative science project to study biodiversity in northeastern China. It was a result of Chinese President Jiantao Hu’s visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2005. Dr. Ge invited me to join this study. The Amur tiger’s habitat is very much influenced by forest harvesting and forest dynamics, so we decided to study how sustainable forest management could enhance its conservation.
What did you see during your research along the China-Russia border?
There are many more people on the China side, and there’s been much more timber harvesting in the past half-century. So regrowth makes the forest more uniformly dense. Fire has been strictly prohibited, but we saw fire evidence almost everywhere in the forests in Russia. Meanwhile, the enforcement of conservation and forestry regulations is much more strict on the China side.
That’s surprising. China doesn’t have a very good reputation for that sort of thing.
China can enforce its regulations very effectively if the central government has a strong mind to do so. Two things happened in 1998 that are important for Amur tiger conservation: the government ordered people to forfeit hunting guns in tiger habitat and China began its Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP), which has become one of the world’s largest ecological rehabilitation projects. In the northeast and Inner Mongolia, the Amur tiger’s old home range, the program covers 84.5 million acres (34.2 million hectares) of forestland and emphasizes reducing timber production, improving the forestry industry structure and conserving biodiversity. Three-quarters of the forest area there is set aside for preservation, with no logging or only restricted cutting for ecological protection. The remainder is open to commercial harvesting.
Did the forests you surveyed include the Hunchun Tiger Leopard Reserve?
I made measurements there to use in my forest growth model, and I also made surveys to check that I was accurately interpreting satellite images of the forest cover. Compared to the forests outside, the forest inside the reserve is more diversified. There’s more old and complex forest, because the harvesting was limited along the border. There’s also more open and savanna forest, because livestock grazing was encouraged as a replacement when timber harvesting ended.
How are people dealing with the 1998 conservation requirements?
Sadly, the conservation measures don’t really benefit the local people. Many forest workers have lost their jobs because the NFPP and the establishment of the reserve have stopped all logging operations. But the local people also admit that there were very few big trees left worth harvesting. If we can manage the forest scientifically, it will benefit wildlife and also create many employment opportunities for local people. One thing that the conservation NGOs do well in the reserve is organize volunteers to remove snares. But why stop there when we need to do the same thing in the forests outside the reserve? Also, the volunteers are mainly university students from all over China. Why not hire local people?
What kind of response did you get to your ideas for tiger recovery?
When I first presented my idea that the real problem is a shortage of forest stand structures (especially open and savanna structures) suitable for the Amur tiger, I got many questions and challenges from scientists. The “steady-state climax” perspective prevailed. They were educated to believe that a lack of primary forest and “too much” human disturbance were the ultimate causes of any biodiversity loss. But as I explained my logic and showed my study again and again, I could feel growing acceptance of my idea among the scientists. I also talked to some forestry administration officials who were quite interested in developing the tools of sustainable forest management. They’re in a difficult position, under pressure from international NGOs for passive conservation measures, and at the same time looking to keep the forestry function running. Laypeople were always very kind and generous, but they don’t feel that conserving the tiger has much to do with them. This is something I want to change if I can. The local people need to get involved when we talk about conservation on their land and with their resources.