Three lessons for being a marine conservationist

By Xiong Zhang, PhD student

I am very grateful for the opportunity to have undertaken conservation-outreach projects in my homeland China over the last three years. Every year, I spent at least three months  in the field meeting with local people talking about why we should protect seahorses and marine ecosystems. Through these projects, Project Seahorse and I have mobilized China’s governments, NGOs, and local fishing communities to appreciate, protect, and monitor their own threatened seahorse populations. Local fishing communities have proposed a large are of coastal habitat for protection in Qingdao, a large coastal city in Shandong Province, China. Eight brilliant and enthusiastic divers have been nominated as iSeahorse Ambassadors in China to promote our citizen science program for monitoring local seahorse populations. Ten excellent teachers were trained to spread knowledge about seahorse biology and conservation at local schools and communities in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Fujian, Shanghai, Qingdao, and Beijing…  And there is much more underway… 

These projects have not only advanced seahorse conservation in my country, but they have also changed my life. Reflecting on the whole experience, I have three lessons about being a marine conservationist that I have learnt that I will share with you:

Become a story-teller. As a biologist, being a conservationist allows me to engage in public outreach, and meeting with different people is my chance to escape from the ivory tower. I love to talk about my commitment to save seahorses to new crowds of people. I have gained much joy and admiration from them. When someone from the audience comes to talk to me with a smiling face and admiring words, I feel much more internal happiness than when, for example, I publish a new paper. I realized that my true happiness in being a biologist lies in being a story-teller of the species I study, and love. The many species threatened by humans, like seahorses, are unable to speak out for themselves, so it is us who witness their challenges that should take the responsibility to stand up for them and call out for help. It is challenging, but it is the right thing to do.

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Find your allies. To achieve success in conservation requires collaboration. Finding like-minded people who can really make the commitment to conservation is not always easy. I encountered one individual with less than ‘good’ intentions, using the information I shared with him about seahorses for personal gain. Although individuals like him are in the minority, I learnt that not everyone’s purpose is pure, and that it sometimes takes a keen eye to separate the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’. Once you find the right allies, staying in touch with them is vital. I took every opportunity to visit colleagues throughout the region, and was often rewarded with the fruitful exchange of new ideas and reinforced connections.  It’s better to work smart with allies than to work hard alone. When you find your allies and know their strengths, use them wisely. Last year, I ran a conservation workshop without any help from collaborators, and consequently felt run-down; in another workshop I ran I had the support of a few colleagues, and it was a pure joy. Collaboration not only benefits you, it also provides an opportunity for your allies to realize their values and fulfil their commitments. 

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Learn from trails. As a new conservationist, I had struggled to take any possible opportunities to make a difference. I had been told many times that a successful lobby or engagement usually requires you to meet the right person at the right time. Three years ago, I would agree fully with this remark; however, I now realize that without trials and errors, I might never know who I encounter is the right person or when is the right time. So, my tip to you is to be brave and to grasp the opportunity to meet and talk to key leaders/officials, and not to worry about if this time you will make a difference or not.  Eventually, you will meet the right person at the so-called right time!

Let's continue saving seahorses, together!

Find out more about Xiong's work here: