About Author: Chia Tan

Posts by Chia Tan


Little Green Guards Excitement!

The Little Green Guards were excited by our surprising camera-trap discoveries. (Photo by Lei Shi)

The Little Green Guards were excited by our surprising camera-trap discoveries. (Photo by Lei Shi)

The feeling of love and empathy for animals is very much influenced by one’s culture and upbringing. How can people conserve endangered animals if they do not love them? How do people come to love and appreciate animals? These are the kinds of questions I often ponder, and I am eager to find ways to help people, especially children, bond with animals.

Over the last five years, I have been exploring the topic of love and empathy toward animals and learning how to cultivate these sentiments in children who are in my Little Green Guards program. Little Green Guards are children living in conservation priority areas that have an underdeveloped economy and education system. The goal of the program is to build a strong and lasting love for animals in children, ultimately empowering them to become conservation stewards of their natural heritage.

Because personal experience can create deep impressions, it is important to include many field trip opportunities for Little Green Guards to fall in love with animals and nature. In Fanjingshan, China, my collaborators and I recently used our camera-trap research project as a way to introduce local schoolchildren to wildlife that may be difficult to see in the nearby forest.

Before going to the field we explained the science behind our camera-trap research to the children, how the cameras have helped us understand the “secrets” of many amazing animals, some active in the day and some at night. We then tantalized the children with our best photos and the “surprises” we discovered. The children would “Ooh!” and “Aah!” as they looked at the photos—the excitement for camera-trapping was escalating!

Fanjingshan nature reserve biologist Lei Si showed children how to mount a camera trap on a tree. (Photo by Kefeng Niu)

Fanjingshan nature reserve biologist Lei Si showed children how to mount a camera trap on a tree. (Photo by Kefeng Niu)

Out in the forest, we selected a relatively flat area with a sturdy tree. We then showed the kids how to properly install batteries and the memory card, program the settings, and finally mount the camera. When all the preparation was done, the children practiced taking “selfies,” one by one, by triggering the sensor in front of the camera and saying “Qiezi!” (the Chinese version of “Cheese!”). Beyond just having fun, this Little Green Guards lesson allowed us to teach the children not only about animal biology and caring for their wildlife neighbors but also essential life skills so they can develop healthy self-esteem, despite their rural circumstances.

Two Little Green Guards inspect the camera trap,

Two Little Green Guards inspect the camera trap,

The success of the Little Green Guards program will require long-term efforts and reaching out to as many communities as possible around Fanjingshan and other protected areas in China as well as in Vietnam and Madagascar. As the citizens who live adjacent to natural habitats form the front line of defense in protecting local biodiversity, we imagine that our Little Green Guards program may have a substantial positive influence on people’s attitudes toward conservation. We hope that one day every child in the Little Green Guards program will develop affection for wildlife so that when that day comes, we can all smile and say “Qiezi!”

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a senior scientist in the Conservation Partnership Development Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Have Camera Trap, Will Travel.


What We Do for Biodiversity Conservation

“These are my favorite books!” said 10-year-old Qiaofen Dong. Photo credit: Kefeng Niu

“These are my favorite books!” said 10-year-old Qiaofen Dong. Photo credit: Kefeng Niu

What do speed, backpacks, a children’s library, and Asia have in common? They do not seem to have any real connection; however, to me, these words are connected because of what I do. I recently joined San Diego Zoo Global’s Conservation Partnership Development Division to broaden the scope of my in situ conservation and research efforts. I am really excited about this change, because it presents new opportunities that can lead to further successes in biodiversity conservation.

To save species and their habitats, we need the support of the local people. This is by no means an easy task. It is important for a scientist, like myself, to be creative and seek collaborative opportunities that help achieve conservation objectives in the long run. In my many pursuits, I use the scientific background I have as a way to enhance my ability to carry out work properly. The experiences I have gained over the years enable me to think outside the box when it comes to conservation solutions.

Children in the Little Green Guards Club began their first English lesson by watching “A is for Ape” on a laptop computer.

Children in the Little Green Guards Club began their first English lesson by watching “A is for Ape” on a laptop computer.

I am off to Asia again. This time, I have a very full itinerary that includes China, Vietnam, and Taiwan. To prepare for the trip, I wrote down a long list of “to dos” that involves words like speed, backpacks, and children’s library. Thankfully, I have many people helping me in the process.

This morning, I translated a short description about speed from English to Chinese. Speed is among the 16 topics that my intern, Cameron Ishee (see post What Might Monkeys Be Up To?) and her engineering classmates at High Tech High International have chosen to teach the schoolchildren in our Little Green Guards conservation education program in China (see posts March of the Little Green Guards and Saving Monkeys Takes a Team).

Professor Cristina Giacoma (University of Torino, Italy) teaches Little Green Guards about butterflies.

Professor Cristina Giacoma (University of Torino, Italy) teaches Little Green Guards about butterflies.

Cameron and her teacher, Dr. Don, came up with this ingenious idea that allows their class to learn about the cyanotype photographic printing process to introduce engineering science to rural children in the form of jigsaw puzzles, engage in in-situ conservation, and learn Chinese—all at the same time! Cameron is coming with me to Asia this time. I want her to meet the Little Green Guards and experience conservation work firsthand.

Earlier this year, Cameron finished our pilot episode of the Animal ABC video lesson “A is for Ape,” which was presented to the children of Kaiwen Primary School and the Little Green Guards Club. Subsequently, I expanded the lesson “B is for Butterfly” by adding games, forest walks, and storybook reading to the lesson module. My colleagues from Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve, Purdue University, as well as the University of Torino, Italy, all participated in this effort to help enliven learning using a simple formula: Animals + English = Fun!

Little Green Guards backpacks—how exciting!

Little Green Guards backpacks—how exciting!

After I finished the translations, I moved on to sorting out the backpacks situation. With generous donations from Berit and Thomas Durler, an anonymous benefactor, and the Margot Marsh Biodiversity Foundation, we have ordered 400 backpacks for the schoolchildren in our Little Green Guards program. The blue ones will be for the boys and pink ones for the girls. Our Little Green Guards will have something to carry their books in and look très chic going back to school!

Getting ready to ship donated books to the Little Green Guards.

Getting ready to ship donated books to the Little Green Guards.

Finally, before I switched gears to work on a manuscript about my camera-trap research, I found time to work with a new collaborator, LVDI International, on designing our very first Little Green Guards library in Fanjingshan. Months ago I started shipping over boxes of gently used children’s books donated by our Zoo volunteers. Because the books were a huge hit among the Little Green Guards, we have decided to build the children a community library to further cultivate their interests in animal-related subjects and learning English. Later this month, Cameron, my Fanjingshan Reserve colleagues, and I will get out the hammer and screwdriver and see how handy we are at building the library.

Stay tuned, because I will be writing more about this library project in a future blog!

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, For the Love of Lemurs and Monkeys.


For the Love of Lemurs and Monkeys

Black and white ruffed lemur

Black and white ruffed lemur (photo by Rose Marie Randrianarison)

I recently returned to Madagascar after a five-year hiatus. Even though these days I am steeped in research and conservation work in Asia, I was thrilled when the opportunity arose for me to revisit the island. As a scientist, I am not embarrassed to profess my fondness for lemurs because there is nothing embarrassing about transforming one’s passion into action. And lemurs are the reason why I became a primatologist in the first place.

I still vividly remember my very first lemur encounter. It was with a group of sifakas. In the lush rain forest, enveloped in a shroud of mist and fog and breathless from hiking up what I thought was the steepest trail in the world, I was astounded by the sheer beauty of these animals. There I stood, quietly watching the sifakas move about from tree to tree, so elegant in their posture, like ballet dancers pirouetting across an emerald stage. By the end of my field season, despite all the rain and leeches, I was absolutely hooked on lemurs!

Fast-forward 20 some years: Madagascar still excites me in the same way and my fervor for lemurs has not waned. At Maromizaha, which I visited on this trip, I was enthralled by the myriad of creatures that call this forest home. On my first morning walk, 6 of the 13 species of lemurs greeted me. Maromizaha, like many rain forests along the island’s eastern strip, is a true naturalist’s paradise!

Brown lemurs

Brown lemurs (photo by Zafison Boto)

The most impressive lemur is the indri. Weighing about 17 pounds, it is the largest living lemur species in Madagascar. Indris are known for their operatic singing ability. Often in the morning, male and female indris can be heard singing duets to announce their presence in their territory. There is another lemur in the forest with a well-endowed voice, the black and white ruffed lemur, although its vocalization is more a cacophony than a melody! Lemurs are so interesting to me because of their biology, and through this exploratory trip I hope to learn more about the lemur community in Maromizaha.

North of Maromizaha is a famous national park called Mantadia. Just a little to the west is another well-known preserve called Andasibe (also known as Perinet). These three forest parcels at one time were connected and quite large—but today they appear as isolated specks on a map. Slash-and-burn agriculture, logging, and mining are the main contributing factors to these ever-shrinking forests. From one of the highest points in Maromizaha, I could see where this paradise ends. Beyond is a much different world—a barren landscape devoid of all vegetation and lemurs. How do we protect a paradise like Maromizaha?

Diademed sifaka (photo by Chia Tan)

Diademed sifaka (photo by Chia Tan)

The answer is conservation partnerships with a focus on scientific research, local capacity-building, rural development, and education. So when my colleague, Professor Cristina Giacoma from the University of Torino, Italy, learned about the successes of our camera trap research, in-country training, and education program for schoolchildren in Fanjingshan, China (see posts What Might Monkeys Be Up To?, Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My! and March of the Little Green Guards), she invited me and San Diego Zoo Global to partner with her Biodiversity Integration and Rural Development (BIRD) project in Maromizaha.

This approach to biodiversity conservation is not new but it has been proven effective. Our initial camera trap work in Maromizaha and a survey of Malagasy children’s preferences and knowledge of wildlife have produced very promising (not to mention some surprising!) results. Cristina and I will soon meet in China where our partnership continues, and she will witness firsthand the ongoing conservation and research projects we have with partners in Guizhou and Beijing. There, our labor of love will help conserve leaf-eating monkeys, such as the highly endangered Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys and François’ langurs.

Chia Tan, Ph.D., is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.




What Might Monkeys Be Up To?

The Guizhou snub-nosed monkey’s night life was a secret until recently.

The Guizhou snub-nosed monkey’s night life was a secret until recently.

February 10 marks the beginning of a new year, the Year of the Snake, according to the Chinese lunar calendar. I cannot help but reflect on what I have done in the past year and contemplate what I wish to accomplish in this new year.

Last year, my research project focused on an investigation of wild Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys in China using camera traps. This work was conducted in Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve (FNNR) in collaboration with the reserve’s administration. We set up a network of over 100 camera traps to monitor, in addition to the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey, many hard-to-see wildlife species in the reserve (see post Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My!,). Some of our unexpected captures were images of Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys moving about in the middle of the night (see article in Primates). Although these monkeys are considered daytime active species very much like humans, our camera-trap data provided unequivocal proof that they are routinely active after dark. What might the monkeys be up to?

Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys’ nocturnal habit, we believe, is motivated by the need to acquire as much food as possible. In other words, the monkeys are up at night because they are hungry. To some people, this discovery may seem like a non-discovery, but many great scientific discoveries are inherently simple, and they often start out with a simple observation, like the apple that fell on Newton’s head. But I digress, back to the monkeys.

An important outcome of our camera-trap study, besides showing the behavioral flexibility the monkeys have to cope with living in a highly seasonal environment, is the need for researchers to rethink methodological designs that minimize observer bias. If we habitually observe diurnal primates during the daytime we, of course, have data that only show them being active during the hours we observe them. Camera traps, therefore, are excellent devices to augment our data collection. And, because of the amount of photographs we have, you can count on me spending much of my time this year uncovering more secrets about the animals in Fanjingshan.

My research collaborators, from left: Duoying Cui (Beijing Zoo), Marco Gamba (University of Torino), me, Yeqin Yang (FNNR), and Kefeng Niu (FNNR)

My research collaborators, from left: Duoying Cui (Beijing Zoo), Marco Gamba (University of Torino), me, Yeqin Yang (FNNR), and Kefeng Niu (FNNR)

An intrinsic part of what I do as a scientist is to assist students with their professional development. Through mentorship of students, I help foster future colleagues and, in turn, expand my network of collaborators. This past year several of my students completed their research thesis, attained a higher degree, received scholarships, and/or launched new projects. James Dopp is a graduate of the University of Vermont who worked with me in Fanjingshan in 2010 through 2012. He has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to further sharpen his research skills in primate conservation in China.

Kefeng Niu, a resident biologist of FNNR, continued to benefit from my coaching. In August, he successfully delivered a paper in English at the International Primatological Society Congress. The Congress also provided Kefeng a chance to meet other professionals, among them, Dr. Marco Gamba, my Italian colleague from the University of Torino. I introduced Marco and his research on primate vocal communication to Kefeng. We later invited Marco to join us in Fanjingshan to resume our wonderful discussion about snub-nosed monkey biology with China’s renowned primate expert, Yeqin Yang (see post Saving Monkeys Takes a Team). And the rest, as they say, is history, because when Marco left Fanjingshan, he had already signed a five-year research agreement with the reserve administration and gained a prospective PhD student, Kefeng Niu. Mama mia!

Cameron makes her debut as “Yi Jie Jie”

Cameron makes her debut as “Yi Jie Jie”

Recently, my mentorship pool of students included a junior from High Tech High International. Her name is Cameron Ishee, and though only 16, she is well on her way to transforming how people perceive and treat animals. Because of Cameron’s ability to speak Chinese (Mandarin), I asked her to help me create a series of bilingual video lessons for the children in the Little Green Guards program in Guizhou (see post March of the Little Green Guards). Each episode stars Cameron as Yi Jie Jie (or Big Sister Yi) teaching an English alphabet letter and about half a dozen animal-related words associated with the featured letter. To make learning memorable and fun, we segue from the classroom lessons into video segments of our Zoo and Safari Park animals. In doing so, we are achieving several objectives: introducing a world-class animal collection to underprivileged children who would otherwise never have the opportunity to travel to San Diego, and enhancing the school curriculum by teaching these children a highly valued foreign language that only children living in the more affluent urban areas of China are learning.

Our pilot episode is almost complete. Cameron and I will continue making more episodes this year. Just a little spoiler alert here, snake will be featured in our upcoming episode: “S is for Snake.”

Chia Tan is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


March of the Little Green Guards

A child’s artistic interpretation of a Francois’ langur family group in Mayanghe National Nature Reserve after our first Little Green Guards lesson.

Kids are back to school. Summer is over. Just the other day, a colleague asked how my summer was. I drew a blank and responded, “What summer?” Indeed, I work all year long, and for me a year is marked by only two seasons: the field season and the non-field season. Because my field season is about to start, I am busier than ever. And while we’re on the subject of school, let’s focus on the importance of education, more precisely, conservation education, since that will be one of my major undertakings this October.

In Guizhou, China, we are launching our second module of conservation education lessons and activities for the Little Green Guards, a program designed to promote habitat and species conservation by fostering positive attitudes toward nature and wildlife in rural schoolchildren living near nature reserves. Our program is based on the fact that a child’s knowledge about animals influences his/her beliefs and behavior toward them, and pro-animal learning experiences lead to pro-conservation behavior.

Chia (left) and Bing Yang (volunteer) with schoolchildren.

Last year, we completed a first-ever survey of Chinese rural schoolchildren’s attitudes toward, and perception of, wildlife. Similar to the results of surveys of schoolchildren conducted in the U.S. and other Western countries, these rural Chinese children preferred “beautiful” and domestic animal species over those they were afraid of, like spiders and snakes. Thus, the lessons and activities we are developing to help build positive attitudes toward animals must bear these existing preferences in mind.

For instance, because these schoolchildren can see monkeys in the wild, one might expect the monkey to be one of their most favored animals. And it was! This high ranking provides us with an avenue to explore the relationship monkeys have with plants and other animals in the local habitat. As for the more noxious species, we are also cultivating their understanding of the role each species plays in the ecosystem and teaching kids that “snakes need love, too” through our lessons.

Volunteer Tianyou Yang conducts a pre-program interview with a second grader while a fourth grader looks on.

Since we began the Little Green Guards program with our partner, Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve, we have attracted several in-country governmental and private entities—Guiyang Environmental Protection Bureau, Beijing Zoo, Wuhan Sante Cableway, and China Central Television—to help us broaden our efforts. This year our “Back-to-School Special” program will end on a high note—we are organizing a schoolyard concert that will involve students and teachers as well as family members. We are stepping out of the classroom and into the hearts of family and community to make conservation a relevant and engaging topic.

Our approach is effective because we are affecting those whose lives are the most dependent on the local natural resources; these rural people also represent the majority of the country’s population. The enthusiasm we are generating is not by chance. China is primed for conservation education. The time is now, and we are ready for the Little Green Guards’ second march!

Chia Tan is a scientist in the Behavioral Biology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My!


Monkeys, Leopard Cats, and Bears, Oh My!

Wild Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys "caught" by the camera trap.

“Follow, observe, and record,” was the first directive I learned starting out as a field primatologist. For years I did exactly that; all day long in Madagascar, from the moment the lemurs awoke before sunrise till they retired at the end of the day after sunset. And I took great pride in my ability to habituate these primates, follow them up and down mountain slopes through dense vegetation, and observe and record their behavior with just a pair of binoculars, a notebook, and a pen.

An Asiatic bear cub follows its mother.

This simple standard methodology, though it can be successfully applied to studying many primate species, is not well suited for snub-nosed monkey research in China. Why? Free-ranging Chinese snub-nosed monkeys are notoriously difficult to follow because they live in groups containing hundreds of individuals and are not tolerant of human observers. Also, unlike most primate species that inhabit tropical environments, these monkeys range into the temperate zone in areas where snowfall occurs four to five months of the year. In other words, collecting behavioral data on free-ranging Chinese snub-nosed monkeys through direct observation was a tremendous challenge for researchers, until recently.

Tibetan macaques

Last year my colleagues at Fanjingshan nature reserve and I began using camera traps in our research of the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey (see post Saving Monkeys Takes a Team). And as you can tell by the title of this post, the captured images included not only the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey but also another rare macaque species, the Tibetan macaque, as well as leopard cats, bears, and other elusive mammals, indicating the reserve still harbors a rich community of wildlife! We are in the process of sorting through thousands of camera-trap images, but I’ve included some exciting examples here.

Leopard cat

Indeed, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and these images convey much information about the behavior of wild animals. However, we need to be mindful that camera traps are tools for collecting supplemental data; they cannot be used to replace researchers. It is important for researchers to spend quality time with their study animals in the field to obtain data firsthand that provide the contextual information necessary for the observed behaviors. All those years of me running after lemurs and monkeys in the forest, therefore, was not done in vain. Through direct observation, I have gained an understanding about primates in situ.

This understanding has helped me interpret the camera-trap images and infer the motivations of the monkeys’ behaviors in a biologically meaningful way. I must admit I was not a huge fan of camera-trap technology initially, but I am thoroughly impressed with the images captured so far. I give it a “thumbs up!”

Chia Tan is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Saving Monkeys Takes a Team

An adolescent male Guizhou snub-nosed monkey

San Diego Zoo Global and China’s Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve Administration are working together to conserve the last remaining population of Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys, currently numbering about 750 individuals. Most people probably have never heard of these monkeys. That’s because Guizhou snub-nosed monkeys are elusive and difficult to observe in the wild. Although a troop typically contains 100 to 200 individuals, the monkeys are extremely wary of potential predators, nowadays mainly humans. Also, Fanjingshan is steep in topography, making it a challenge for researchers to conduct fieldwork. Nevertheless, since we began our collaborative research in 2007, we have been advancing our knowledge of the monkeys’ habitat and dietary requirements, information that is essential for the species’ long-term survival.

March in Fanjingshan, Yangaoping research area. Photo credit: Kefeng Niu

A successful conservation endeavor requires a team of dedicated people. I am fortunate to work directly with the reserve director, Yeqin Yang, a fellow biologist whose legacy resides in protecting the Guizhou snub-nosed monkey, the cornerstone species in the reserve. Partnering with the reserve administration has truly been a privilege. In China, rarely do foreign scientists have direct access to reserve administrations. It is often the case that foreign scientists join an in-country academic who establishes and maintains the relationship with protected area management. Needless to say, working through an intermediary is not the most effective way to carry out one’s research and conservation objectives.

April in Fanjingshan, Yangaoping research area

This year, besides incorporating camera-trap technology in our scientific investigations of the monkeys, we are adding an education component to our in situ conservation efforts. With funds from the Offield Family Foundation, San Diego Zoo Global, Fanjingshan National Nature Reserve Administration, International Primatological Society, and an anonymous donor, we have developed a conservation education program that is socioculturally relevant to the rural setting in Fanjingshan. Heading this program in the reserve administration is one of their engineers, Kefeng Niu, a promising young scientist with great determination and leadership qualities. The program, called Little Green Guards, targets primary school children and aims to foster a generation of environmentally conscious citizens. Through games, storytelling, arts, and music, we want to instill empathy and respect toward wildlife in children living near nature reserves.

The Little Green Guards logo, designed by one of our enthusiastic volunteers, Bing Yang.

Conservation education is still a novel concept to most Chinese, and appreciation for nature and wildlife is incompatible with traditional utilitarian views on natural resources. With a country of over 1.3 billion people, the Little Green Guards have a long march ahead. We believe in our team efforts, and we are hopeful that our regional conservation movement will gain momentum and garner national and international support.

Chia Tan is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.