“Better to light a candle than curse the darkness” – Being a conservation optimist!

By Xiong Zhang

As a conservationist, I usually encounter unexpected things since I view the world differently from “ordinary people”. I might bump into someone who has no environmental awareness or the same regard for wildlife as I do. But I want to talk with them, and always try hard to engage them to support conservation -because I know the world cannot be saved by a minority of eager conservationists, and it takes collective action. Also, the joy of changing people’s mind and behaviour has become part of my happiness. 

Here I want to share a personal story about such an experience. It’s a story about saving seahorses, a group of rare and threatened marine fish that are heavily caught and traded globally. It happened during my -outreach project for seahorse conservation in China. 
After a long flight from Vancouver to Guangzhou, I went to have supper in a Cantonese restaurant (Urban Fast Food. As I walked to the service counter and checked their digital menu on the wall, suddenly, my eyes caught a striking advertisement for seahorse soup! 

Ad for seahorse-soup with two other dishes, taken in the Urban Fast Food restaurant (都城快餐) in Guangzhou, China

Ad for seahorse-soup with two other dishes, taken in the Urban Fast Food restaurant (都城快餐) in Guangzhou, China

As a “seahorse saver”, I felt so embarrassed and I felt like there was a crowd of people laughing at me at that moment. My heart was full of rising fury and I was thinking “Argh. Damn it I am coming to save seahorses! Do you really try to dampen my spirit at the very beginning? No way! The fight has just begun, and I will strike back!” 
“Hi sir, what would you like to eat?” the waitress asked.
I took a deep breath to calm down and responded “Ah, can I speak to your manager? I have something important …”
“Sorry, the manager is out for business. What’s the matter?” The waitress answered, with a look of doubt. 
I plucked up my spirit and told her that I was bothered by the seahorse soup on their menu. I said that seahorses are protected in China, and if the soup on their menu used wild seahorses, they had violated the law.  The waitress seemed shocked by my “aggressive” declaration. She replied that only the manager was clear on this matter and that I could leave a phone number for him. Her gentle response somehow eased my anger, and I realized that it was useless to talk about this issue with her. I gave her my business card and left the restaurant feeling a bit of hope.

In the following few days, I was busy with other outreach activities but a part of me was still hoping for the manager’s phone call. But it never came. About a week later, I couldn’t wait any longer so I visited the restaurant again. When I went in, my eyes started to hunt for that seahorse-soup ad. But this time I could only find a chicken-soup ad, and the seahorse one was gone!! 

“What a happy and surprising end!!” I said to myself quietly as I walked to the counter. I decided to eat my lunch in the restaurant to celebrate my “triumph”.  Did the restaurant manager remove the seahorse-soup ad because he/she heard my words from the waiter? I didn’t know… nor did I mind, as I was more pleased with the change than curious about the reason. I also thought that it was better to believe I had made a difference; I needed to stay optimistic to win this fight of saving seahorses in China. Indeed, an optimistic attitude has become my secret weapon that has helped me accomplish this project with joy. For example, because of my constant outreach efforts, Guangxi Province has taken my research output and included seahorse habitats in their marine eco-redline planning, which is one of China’s strictest and most successful conservation measures. 

Perhaps, as conservationists, we all need a sense of optimism. How much better to light a candle for the hope of saving wildlife, rather than curse the darkness of humanity.