To Help the Wildlife in China, This Advocate Believes You Must Help the People First

The world’s most populous country has a new national park system, a new ban on ivory, and NRDC’s Lisa Hua to support them both.
NRDC’s Lisa Hua (second from left) discussing about elephant-human conflict at IFAW. Today, at NRDC, Hua is focused on banning ivory and creating a new national park system.

Cao Dafan

To call the big cats of China “outnumbered” would be quite an understatement. China’s iconic snow leopards number some 2,500 to 3,500, and only about 50 Amur leopards and tigers stalk its remote northeastern forests. But that hasn’t stopped Lisa Hua from trying to find a place for these animals in the world’s most populous country.

Hua joined NRDC three years ago as a policy analyst and an advocate for coexistence. A dedicated animal lover inspired by Jane Goodall, Hua previously spent nine years with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), where she worked on combating wildlife trade and protecting the remaining wild elephants in Yunnan province in southwestern China. In her current role, she’s part of a coalition of stakeholders helping to support two of China’s boldest and most forward-looking wildlife initiatives. First is a ban on the sale of ivory—a game changer for elephants, given that China is believed to be the world’s largest ivory market. Second is the creation of a new national park system, including a tract dedicated to Amur leopard and tiger conservation nestled near China’s borders with Russia and North Korea.

At 3.6 million acres, the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park is no minor effort—in fact, it’s 60 percent larger than Yellowstone. Set to open in 2020 as one of 10 pilot projects across the country, the tiger and leopard park will provide critical protected habitat for its namesake big cats. Only about two dozen of each remain, experts estimate, but Hua and her conservationist colleagues have confidence that they are poised to bounce back with the national park’s setup.

In her work on this ambitious project, Hua has focused as much on helping the cats’ human neighbors as she has on the animals themselves. “It’s all about the coexistence with animals and people,” she says, noting that more than 70,000 villagers reside on land that will be within the new park’s boundaries, most eking out a living as farmers and ranchers. “We are trying hard to help the park management authorities to figure out the right policy that can ensure animals are being well protected without sacrificing living conditions or the well-being of the local people.”

A photograph of an Amur tiger taken by a field camera set by officials to monitor tiger and leopard presence in the Wangqing Nature Reserve

Wangqing Tiger & Leopard National Park Bureau

Hua recognizes the importance of empowering the park’s human residents to be a part of the solution to the big cats’ predicament. “We’re people living in the city, and we go all the way to the villagers and tell them we need to protect the land and animals around them because we need to keep this ecosystem rich in biodiversity,” she says. “I still remember one time when we were doing this type of education in the villages back in Yunnan. An old lady just held my hand and compared it with hers. She said, ‘Well, you’re talking about diversity.’ She’s a farmer doing hard work, so her hand is rough. Mine’s different because I’m from the city.” To Hua, it was a reminder that in her field, respect and empathy are fundamental to success.

Balancing human and wildlife needs is not without precedent at NRDC. Advocate Zack Strong works in his home state of Montana to ensure the peaceful coexistence of people and predators like bears and wolves. He traveled to China late last year to lend his expertise and to learn from Hua about the unique challenges her country faces in carrying out this ambitious initiative.

Hua with NRDC’s Zack Strong, in the field, listening to a discussion about conflicts between free-ranging cattle and tigers

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz/NRDC

Strong was inspired by the sheer scope of the China’s national park project. He also was impressed with Hua’s devotion to her work, her seemingly ceaseless energy, her vast knowledge of the unique challenges that conservation work faces in China, and the diplomatic ways in which she navigated issues with villagers and the mostly male officials in numerous high-level meetings during his visit. Strong points out that Hua’s effectiveness is partly due to her “ability to get along and work with anyone. She’s kind, thoughtful, and determined.”

Indeed, Hua’s hardworking nature and positive attitude, along with her many years of experience in the field, have paid off in helping her forge bonds with a wide range of stakeholders in her work. For both the creation of the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park and the implementation of the ivory ban, collaboration with government officials in various agencies was, and continues to be, critical. Hua leads NRDC’s partnership with the China State Forestry Administration and other nonprofit organizations to educate the public on the new ivory law, and she is also working with colleagues in the United States to encourage other countries to follow China’s lead in shutting down their ivory markets.

“In work like this, it’s very important for NGOs to build and maintain a good and constructive partnership with all stakeholders—government officials, villagers, researchers, and conservationists. That’s the most effective way to achieve a common goal,” Hua says. Underscoring those partnerships, she adds, is mutual trust: trust in each other, and trust in a better future for wildlife and people alike. 

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