Demystifying Biodiversity

Interview with the Executive Director of the CAS Southeast Asia Biodiversity Research Institute

Booming economic development and a steeply increasing population have led the Southeast Asian subregion into multiple ecological environmental issues that demand analysis and resolution by China and ASEAN countries in tandem as regional players continue expanding international exchange and cooperation on biodiversity. China Report ASEAN interviewed Quan Ruichang, executive director of Southeast Asia Biodiversity Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS-SEABRI) and a researcher at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden of the CAS, who elaborated on biodiversity cooperation between China and Southeast Asia.

China Report ASEAN: What is the current situation of biodiversity in Southeast Asia?

Quan Ruichang: Southeast Asia is one of the world’s three core tropical rainforest distribution areas and has some of the most abundant biodiversity and unique species in the world. It is also a key region for researching the origin, maintenance, and evolution of biodiversity. The adverse impacts of the booming population, rapid economic and social development, over-exploitation of natural resources, global climate change, exotic species invasion and hunting and illegal trade have caused the biodiversity resources in the region to fall under serious threat. A wide range of species have gone extinct rapidly, so protection of biodiversity has become an urgent and difficult task.

China Report ASEAN: CAS-SEABRI is a scientific and educational institution established overseas by CAS and committed to conducting cooperation on biodiversity research, conservation, and sustainability, but what are its main day-to-day functions?

Quan: The CAS-SEABRI mainly focuses on three aspects. First, we organize and implement major scientific research projects and interdisciplinary, trans-regional, and transnational investigations. So far, CAS-SEABRI has carried out nine large-scale joint expeditions in Myanmar, three joint scientific expeditions in northern Laos, and four joint field expeditions to study Cenozoic flora in Vietnam. A research platform for the “forest belt at 101 degrees east longitude” has been preliminarily completed. It consists of 10 large dynamic forest zones including four in China’s Yunnan Province, five in Thailand, and one in Malaysia which together form a forest belt spanning the core area of tropical Asia and stretching to the hinterlands of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau/Hengduan Mountains.

Second, we carry out strategic research and policy consulting on biodiversity conservation and sustainability. In response to declining forest resources in Myanmar, CAS-SEABRI provided technical consulting for the construction of the “China-Myanmar Eco-Friendly Demonstration Forest” in Myanmar, which involved planting 150,000 trees on 100 acres of wasteland. Since 2017, the research team of the CAS-SEABRI has cooperated with universities and research institutions in Myanmar to carry out Chinese hybrid rice experimental planting. The growth period of Chinese hybrid rice grown in Myanmar is 30 to 40 days shorter than in China. Compared with local rice varieties, the Chinese hybrid rice varieties grown at two experimental sites have shown better performance in terms of yield, disease resistance, and lodging resistance, with output up by 23.87 percent and 47.65 percent, respectively.

Third, we provide personnel training, technical training, and science popularization in fields of biodiversity and ecological protection. Since 2016, the CAS-SEABRI has organized training courses such as “Myanmar’s Tropical Plant Identification and Forest Management Training,” “Biodiversity Conservation and Community Development Workshop in Laos,” “Training Course on Breeding and Production Techniques of Major Crops in Southeast Asia,” “Advanced Field Course in Tropical Ecology,” and “China-Laos Trans-Boundary Wild Animals and Plants Joint Protection and Monitoring Technology Training.” The CAS-SEABRI has trained nearly 300 scientific and technological professionals for Southeast Asian countries.

China Report ASEAN: What difficulties and challenges have you encountered while researching biodiversity?

Quan: Intensification of human activities has caused the rate of species extinction to continue accelerating. Many species have gone extinct without ever being named, and many genes have been lost. Different ecosystems are facing fragmentation and sharp reduction in area because of human activities. We urgently need to strengthen the research, protection, maintenance, and rational utilization of biodiversity.

In terms of studying biodiversity in Southeast Asia, the biggest difficulties and challenges are as follows:

First, traditional slash-and-burn methods and large-scale planting of single cash crops such as rubber and oil palm have severely damaged forests in Southeast Asia.

Second, hydroelectric development in the Mekong River Basin poses a threat to the habitat of animals and plants, and mining has created a particularly serious threat for karst landforms.

Third, hunting and trading of wild animals is the greatest threat to the survival of many species. High-value species are still commodities actively sought by criminal groups, while species of lower value are traded for medicinal usage or food.

Fourth, supervision is weak. Due to relatively backward economic development, many governments have not paid much attention to biodiversity, and the corresponding regulatory and organizational structure is lacking.

Fifth, biodiversity transcends borders, and more attention needs to be placed on cross-border protection actions.

China Report ASEAN: Could you share one of your most memorable experiences studying biodiversity?

Quan: While doing research, we need to investigate, collect samples, and make specimens. The conditions for scientific expedition can be relatively difficult. Sometimes, we find bridges destroyed by floods and end up wading through water. In field investigations, it is normal to eat and sleep in the open air. If we are lucky, we can stay with a local family. We must beware of beasts, snakes, insects, and mosquitoes everywhere. You don’t want to get malaria.

One evening in June 2019, on our journey back from a scientific expedition in Htamanthi, Myanmar, a team member found a strange animal on the bank of a river several kilometers from our camp. It was lurking in the darkness, then turned sharply and ran away into the bushes. A colleague rushed to capture a snapshot with a macro lens normally used on plants. After returning to the camp, we guessed that the creature was a crocodile from the blurry photos. According to data, 23 species of crocodiles are on the books worldwide. It would be huge if we could discover a new species of crocodile.

So, we were determined to find it again and organized a “crocodile squad.” The next morning, the squad set off in two small wooden boats, switched their cameras to the telephoto and high-speed continuous shutters, but found nothing after a half day of searching. Everyone still had enthusiasm, so we decided we would look again whenever we had the chance. Searching, discovering, and researching are our daily routines. Difficult conditions do not stop our enthusiasm and love for scientific research.

China Report ASEAN: Since the establishment of the CAS-SEABRI, how many new species have been discovered in Southeast Asia?

Quan: We have completed nine comprehensive field expeditions in many places in Myanmar and discovered 63 new species of animals and plants. Among them, Magnolia kachinensis (Magnoliaceae) and Platea kachinensis are extremely difficult-to-find tree species in recent years. The scientific expedition team found white-bellied herons of which only about 500 are estimated to exist globally, as well as many rare and endangered species such as Bengal tigers, Panthera pardus, and clouded leopards. From 2018 to 2019, three joint field expeditions were carried out in northern Laos, and many animals and plants were photographed and recorded. So far, papers describing four new plant species and seven newly recorded species of plants have been published.

The research team of the CAS-SEABRI has compiled two special journals on new taxonomy of animals and plants and published related research in international science journals such as Zoological Research and Plant Diversity. Two special issues on new classifications of plants and related research were compiled on PhytoKeys, a peer-reviewed, open access, rapidly published journal. Through biodiversity surveys, we can correctly evaluate the status quo and trend of the fragmentation of the ecological environment in Southeast Asia, study patterns of biodiversity, formulate protection measures, and collect better data.

 Quan Ruichang, executive director of CAS-SEABRI.

By Wang Fengjuan

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