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Every bit counts: Doing our part for conservation.

I grew up in Singapore, where science was introduced at primary three, the equivalent to third grade of elementary school. This early exposure had the goal of nurturing inquiring in the students. I remember enrolling in an elective course called “I am a Young Zoologist” as part of the Young Scientist Badge programme. There were a variety of tasks that students needed to do, including classifying species of animals, identifying the characteristics of terrestrial versus aquatic animals, and noting down observations of animals in the natural environment. Each task had a different score depending on its difficulty. To me, the most challenging parts was to come up with suggestions on what we can do to protect the natural habitats, which requires out-of-the-box thinking. This became the first science project I completed on my own and I enjoyed every bit of the learning process. One of my favourite memories from the project was learning that animals have developed different adaptations for a similar function, for example, birds having different types of beaks depending on the food they eat. From then, I began to take more interest in science and my love for nature grew. In high school, I had a very engaging Biology teacher who was patient when teaching us new concepts. Her passion and the hands-on experiments coupled with school field trips further encouraged me to pursue a science degree in University.

From left to right: The author at the Aishu Forest Research Station, Kyoto; doing field work at a freshwater stream in Selangor, Malaysia; and writing labels for the specimens collected, © Wen Qing.

Currently, I am a research assistant at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the Simon F.S. Li Marine Science Laboratory. Since joining the lab, I coordinated an international conference on crustacean biology and was involved in developing a series of guidebooks on marine invertebrates and seaweeds. Now I am working on a project investigating the diversity and distribution patterns of coral reef crustaceans in Hong Kong. This is important because crustaceans help to maintain the health of coral hosts, they are involved in nutrients cycling, and act as a major food source in the coral reef ecosystem.

From left to right: Soft corals at Sung Kong, from an island member of the Poi Toi group of islands in the southern waters. The author at a sharing session on environment and sustainability © ICE Inter Cultural Education. The author’s first seahorse encounter in Hong Kong waters at Crescent Island.

Aside from being able to expand my knowledge and manage my own time, one of my favourite parts about being a scientist is exploring nature outdoors. Among all the fields of study, aquatic ecology is my favourite. I am intrigued by how aquatic animals can live in a habitat that is completely different from mine. I enjoy surveying the biodiversity of new underwater sites or tagging along with my fellow researchers to help them with their work. One week I could be learning about crabs in the intertidal mudflats, the next I could be trekking up a forest stream looking for fishes. I also love the calmness of being near or in the water—the sounds flowing water in streams or the steady rhythm of bubbles from my scuba gear always put me at ease.

From left to right: Freshwater stream at Pok Fu Lam Country Park. The author diving for field work © Yiu Wai Hong. Ting Kok mangrove. All sites in Hong Kong.

Recently I was a co-author of the publication “International socioeconomic inequality drives trade patterns in the global wildlife market” published in the journal Science Advances. I contributed to the paper in a way which I could express myself better, through graphics. I have always loved colours and I am amazed at how infographics can bring important points across in an accurate and creative manner. The data collection involved downloading trade databases from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and World Trade Organisation websites. CITES is an international agreement between governments to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of wild animal and plant species. After data collection and organisation, I communicated with the rest of my co-authors to understand the type of analyses that needed to be done and the direction of the paper before starting work on the figures. This was my first time working with a massive data set on a global scale. Summarising the different types of information such that it was easy to understand was a challenging task for me. My approach was to read several related papers to get some ideas on how best to represent the data we have. Then I came up with a few suggestions and finalised the graphics after several rounds of discussion and edits.

Figure from the paper. The lines in panel A represent countries trading species (top). The panel B with pie charts (bottom) indicates the estimated proportion of different types of trade (CITES or USWS-LEMIS). For the icons representing each of the 12 groups of animals, I selected either one of the top traded species (e.g. Asian elephant for mammals, Hammerhead shark for sharks/rays, and Red-eyed tree frog for amphibians) or an iconic species (e.g. Arowana for fishes, and Scallop for bivalves).

Looking at 20 years of legal wildlife trade data, we found that wealthy countries are responsible for most of the world’s wildlife trade, with the market being more extensive when there was a greater wealth inequality between importing and exporting countries. As low-income countries are supplying wildlife to meet the demands of consumers in wealthier economies, this highlights the importance of efforts to reduce the demand for wildlife products. However, it is also crucial to understand that some smaller communities rely on wildlife trade as their source of livelihood, making it important to have a balance when managing wildlife trade. Enforcing a blanket ban on wildlife harvesting may seem to be the most efficient option but it is not necessary the most socially acceptable. Resources can also be channelled into providing alternative livelihood sources for suppliers, such as sustainable use of wildlife in the form of ecotourism. Reducing demand for wildlife products may also prove to be more beneficial in a long run. This can be done through educational campaigns or promotion of substitute products to raise consumer awareness, among others.

Pictures from a dive clean up. From left to right: Underwater trash. Author, together with other volunteers, at Tung Ping Chau. Volunteers sorting out the trash collected after clean-up dive. © Tursiopdivers.

Personally, I believe that education plays an important role in wildlife conservation, and this is one of the reasons why I am in the educational/research sector. Some of the more rewarding moments for me include interacting with people who are interested in learning more about our environment to better contribute to conservation. If you are interested but unsure where to start, you can visit a local museum that features biodiversity, attend a talk or workshop organised by NGOs or local interest groups, sign up for a nature guided walk, or even volunteer for a beach clean-up—no effort is too small! Wildlife conservation is a collective effort that everyone can be a part of, we can start by staying informed, buying responsibly, and encouraging others around us to do so.

Do you want to learn more about what you can do around Hong Kong to promote conservation? Here are some links to help you:

J. H. Liew, Z. Y. Kho, R. B. H. Lim, C. Dingle, T. C. Bonebrake, Y. H. Sung, D. Dudgeon (2021). International socioeconomic inequality drives trade patterns in the global wildlife market. Science advances, 7(19).

About the author: Zi Yi is a research assistant interested in aquatic ecology. In her free time, she enjoys reading, listening to music, watching dramas and of course, diving. Her favourite holidays are dive holidays, where she can be surrounded by the beautiful marine life all day, and relax by the beach in the evenings, enjoying the sea breeze with a cold drink in her hand. Her favourite supplement is Vitamin Sea .

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