Breathing new life into ecological study, research


Tang Sixian is among the early pioneers who introduced bird watching into China. He takes groups of young people into the woods to whet their interest in wildlife ecology. 

THREE decades ago, bird ecology was a field of obscurity in China, ignoring the fact that our feathered friends are considered a biological litmus test on the state of the environment.

During China’s great reform initiative launched in 1978, construction and economic development topped the list of priorities. Vast tracts of tidelands were given over to agriculture, including the Chongming Dongtan wetland.

“We had to stop reclamation in places like Chongming Dongtan because the ecology was seriously threatened,” said Tang Sixian, an associate professor of life sciences at East China Normal University, who started research on bird ecology in the mid-1980s. “But at the time, it was no use. Our voice was too weak.”

Ten years later, nature won out and the Chongming Dongtan Nature Reserve was established, ending reclamation of the wetland on the island.

From hunting to watching

Tang, now 55, comes from a distinguished family line that includes taxidermists, naturalists, researchers, professors and technical experts. The Tang family is one of two schools of taxidermists in China that emerged in the late 19th century.

About 80 percent of the 240,000 animal specimens displayed in the Shanghai Natural History Museum comes from the Tang family collection.

The legacy began with Tang Chunying, a fisherman in Fuzhou, capital of the southwestern province of Fujian. His life changed when a French-born, English-educated tax officer named John David Digues de La Touche came to inspect egret feathers Tang was selling as a sideline.

An avid biologist and master of Western taxidermy, La Touche asked Tang Chunying to show him around the area and later introduced him to taxidermy. In 1899, with the help of Tang, La Touche and a fellow ornithologist named C. B. Rickett discovered many new bird species in Fujian Province.

Hunting wild birds to make specimens ended in 1985 when China issued the Wildlife Conservation Law. The fifth generation of Tangs turned to research and nature education.

After graduating from university, Tang Sixian was assigned to East China Normal University, to manage the animal specimen museum. Three years later, he went to study in Australia and discovered a whole new perspective on natural science museums.

“In the past, we had to have the specimens to support academic research,” he said. “But the last year when I hunted with shotgun was in 1989. While abroad, I learned about bird watching using telescopic lenses.”

Returning to Shanghai via Hong Kong, he met an ornithologist in a city reserve there who could identify species just by hearing their calls. The man was part of the British team negotiating the transfer of Hong Kong sovereignty to China.

“He was a politician and diplomat, but he was also a bird expert,” said Tang. “While I was in Australia, we had a team of bird watchers that included local bankers and road construction workers. We all had the same interest in protecting wildlife.”

So Tang decided to start a bird watching group at East China Normal University.

“We had many students watching birds every morning at 6 o’clock,” he said. “They were the first members of the Wild Bird Society of Shanghai. Going into forests to watch birds became a leisure activity, a lifestyle.”

In an interview in 2003, Tang said “people should learn to live in harmony with the wild birds of nature.”

He has been the director of the Wild Bird Society since its inception. The group has expanded to a hardcore of 200 bird watchers and numerous recreational twitchers.

In 2015, Tang led a team that developed an app for Shanghai bird watchers, which is a pocket encyclopedia of bird species found in the city environs. Another app for insect enthusiasts was also developed.

Tang’s work in the past three decades includes the study of bird preferences in habitat selection, airport control of birds, public education and wildlife authentication at the Shanghai Detection Center of Wildlife, based at the university.

The Shanghai center is one of three in China, with others located in the cities of Harbin and Guangzhou.

“Without these detection centers, the enforcement of wildlife regulations would stop because authentication is a must,” he said.

Teaching bird ecology in the modern era

The Tang family amassed a treasure trove of knowledge on wild animals. It passed that knowledge down from one generation to the next. Nowadays, such scientific research heavily depends on technological information-sharing.

Students in the field are taking more new courses and spending less time on field work.

“The animal science department had 72 credit hours when I first taught the classes, but now it’s left with 32,” Tang said. “Students are spending more time studying disciplines like modern biology, genetic engineering and molecular biology.”

As ecology studies advance, Tang himself moves into new realms. He is currently doing research on how windmill farms affect birds.

He was diagnosed with stomach cancer last year after taking a group of students on an expedition to the North Pole. After recovery, Tang now confines himself to working only two days a week.

“When I was recovering at home, my students came to my house for seminars,” he said. “They took very good care of me, gave me support and convinced me that I couldn’t abandon my work completely.”

Tang is supportive of students who want to work in ecology on a broader canvas.

“When we study ecology, we shouldn’t just look at the wild animals,” he said. “We need to look at the bigger picture. I have students in management positions as well as public science education.”

Inspiring a younger generation

Public education is key to preserving our environment, Tang said.

“When my son was filling out an application after his college entrance examination, I was surprised to see that he didn’t have a clear career path figured out,” he said. “That’s a problem in our education system, which places too much emphasis on exam subjects.”

Many Chinese students don’t even choose their majors. Their parents pick subject areas with prospects for high salaries and social status. Many students switch to entirely different fields after graduation, and all their academic knowledge becomes useless.

Tang said having an interest in nature is key to working in ecology. He cited the example of a star student named Bo Shunqi, who is now an engineer at the Shanghai Wildlife Conservation Management Station.

“When he was in sophomore year, I found him digging up insects while I was on my way to lunch one day,” said Tang. “On my return, he was still there, digging away. So I asked him to accompany me back to my lab.”

Engaging young people in ecology is a prime goal now for Tang. He helped establish a science workshop at East China Normal University for children and young students.

“More than 20,000 students come here every year to visit our animal and plant specimen museum,” Tang said. “We select 500 students to join undergraduate and graduate students in the labs to conduct experiments and work on scientific papers.”

In the five years since the workshop was established, many students have found their calling and chosen life sciences as their major.

The workshop also extends into public schools. Ten spots in a botanical garden were created for orienteering contests at the No. 4 Middle School. Students in the competitions must identify plants in the garden to received accreditation as university volunteers.

Written by: Li Anlan

Source: Shanghai Daily


East China Normal University