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Pandas and tigers and talk... oh my!
Sue Nichols, assistant director of the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, cheers on strategic communication efforts.
Like a lot of kids, Neil Carter Vanessa Hullt started out infatuated by really cool wild animals. Don’t most
Vanessa and Neil are different. They’ve taken a childhood interest and not only turned it into impressive
academic careers (see Neil and Vanessa’s bios for lists of academic publications and honors), but they also turned infatuation into something more enduring.
They’ve outgrown the one-note intrigue of panda and tiger worship The charismatic mega-fauna (my favorite term for cool wild animals) have become gateways into understanding not only important issues of conservation, but to crucial lessons for how we humans interact with nature. They’ve gone beyond the “Oh, aren’t they cute?” and “Oh, let’s save the cute pandas” to deeper lessons of what it takes to allow both humans and nature to survive and thrive, and of the complicated back and forth of costs and benefits, losses and compromises.
Neil and Vanessa have finished their PhDs and are doing post-doctoral research. As their careers prepare to move to the next levels, they’re starting to merge their research. The paper in Ecology & Society is bringing Team Panda and Team Tiger together.
Courtesy of the wonders of three-way Skype and Audacity, I chatted with the two last month.
Sue Nichols: Neil, Vanessa has been at CSIS longer than you, and I know she was out in the field in China a lot when you came. Were you looking at her work when you were setting up your studies in Nepal?
Neil Carter: Vanessa has an ecology, biology background so we have a similar way of looking at the world, but she was talking a lot about her experiences with the local people and how important it was to think about their perceptions and view points and how they interact with the forest. So already I was thinking, “If she’s looking at it with that lens then clearly it’s important to use that same sort of lens when I start my research on tigers and of Nepal.
SN: You both started your career path when you were young and big animal lovers. Was it a little weird at first to realize you come in and realize “Oh! I’m going to study people, too!”
Vanessa Hull: Yes. Absolutely. The first field season really just opened my eyes as to the complexity of the interactions between the people and the local natural world I was living and working in. It was definitely surprising to see the extent to which I was dealing with people and contemplating how peoples’ behaviors and activities were affecting the daily activities throughout my field experiences.
NC: It really hit home for me after the very first time I went to Nepal – because going there I really saw the degree to which people were going into the forest and were depending on forest products. The image was really fresh in my mind - instead of reading it in a book I could just see it and I knew that if I’m really going to do justice on this research I’m going to have to look more into the human component and the complex interactions with tigers and the environment.
SN: It’s interesting; you both study really cool animals that you rarely see in the wild.
VH: Yes that’s one difficult thing about studying pandas. You really study more about signs that they leave behind, so you’re always sort of following them – and always two steps and even 10 steps behind them learning from a distance.
NC: Right! Same thing in Nepal. I think you are definitely following the signs and there’s also a little bit of excitement and trepidation when you come across one of their signs, because you think how recently did a tiger just walk here? Should I be concerned about that? I’m usually overwhelmed with the excitement of thinking. “Wow – I’m in an area where these giant beasts are living their day to day lives - so that’s pretty fun.”
SN: What do tigers and pandas have in common?
VH: They both attract a lot of attention, conservation money and a lot of interest from the public, so that’s something that helps both of them with their conservation plight. They also both require specific and certain types of resources that we really need to be aware of on the landscape.
NC: And they both are used as ambassadors for conservation. People think if you can interest the public in providing resources to conserve these animals then theoretically you’re also helping to conserve the forests that they live in. You’re kind of doing a bigger job in conservation because you’re conserving the natural resources at large, and that’s really an asset.
SN: Let’s dive a little bit more now into the paper in Ecology & Society.
NC: As an overview of the paper I think the important thing to think is yes, there are a lot of differences in the animals’ biology, and the people of Nepal are very different from the Chinese people who live in Wolong, but when you step back and think about fundamental relationships, you find that there are key similarities and then you can see how these similarities transcend these two sites. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do with this paper is to see if the relationships that we consider fundamental between people and communities and communities and land cover and the land cover with the wildlife and all these interactions therein also cross over into other sites and with many other wildlife animals. My feeling is that they do and if so, then this way of looking at the world is helpful for uncovering important interactions that can advance conservation work.
SN: What are some of the surprises?
NC: The differences between the two sites helped to contextualize the site because these are complex systems with virtually infinite numbers of relationships and connections that are constantly changing. So you certainly don’t want to present a framework and try to force a system to fit into this framework. It is important to think about the differences because that provides the variety. Having a framework as a guide is really the advantage.
SN: What do you think you are contributing with this paper and with your lines of research?
NC: I think the key is a greater attention and consideration of the complex human aspects and our role in thinking about ecology and biology. You start to see that it’s not about one person going in and collecting firewood. It’s about the interaction and the direct impact on the forest and the indirect impact on panda habitat or tiger habitat.
It’s also about understanding there is broader social context, like economic dynamics and migration, which is constantly shaping the way people behave and interact. The systems are constantly adapting and a way to think about that is to focus on the feedbacks. That was an important element that we wanted to bring attention to, that even if you know exactly how the system is operating right now, it is constantly changing. You need to have some way of conceptualizing how it might change to adapt one’s research program but also to think about how to develop conservation or management actions that account for feedbacks and change.
SN: This was a thorough paper on two fascinating places. Where do you go from here?
NC: One of the developments we are seeing is this idea of telecoupling – the idea that systems that we always thought of as isolated from the world around them are becoming connected in many profound ways to the world outside them. Before, you could say we know that people leave Wolong but it’s not terribly relevant to what we’re interested in researching here. Now we’re finding that it really is relevant, so one of the additions that we tried to add in this framework is this idea that telecoupling connections from both the social and also the environmental perspective connect our two sites to many other coupled sites around the world.
VH: One of the things we hoped to inspire with this paper is for more people to jump on board and look at their study sites so we can get an even larger collection of different study sites and draw more similarities between different sites – different types of species – different ecosystems – different types of human communities to see if we can develop even stronger general frameworks to understand these complex systems.
As Neil said, even if you understand the system now doesn’t mean that you will be able to predict what will happen in the future. I think one of the things you can appreciate from our work is the importance of looking at long-term data over long periods of time so that you can really see trends develop. I’m hoping our research group continues researching both of these sites to see new things happen in the system that we hadn’t predicted, like perhaps a new economic venture that pops up – or a new group of people migrating into the area. Having all the data over several decades will really help us to understand and predict how these communities are going to respond to the change.
SN: So you both have become quite esteemed scientists with a lot of years of research under your belt - so, which is cooler, a panda or a tiger?
VH: I think that it’s great that there are different types of animals out there and different ecosystems that really connect with different kinds of people and inspire them and I hope that the diversity and the different types of animals draw more people in to studying them and conserving them.
NC: I think to be diplomatic I would say they are both very cool in their own ways – but tigers rule. Seriously, I think that although this work focuses on two well known charismatic animals – I think Vanessa puts it very well that there are so many animals that are important and cherished and people value in tremendous ways and this framework is relevant to those animals as well to wildlife in general.
SN: I was seeing if I could draw you into some kind of smack down – but those were good answers. There are many living things in both your study regions that are neither as cute or as famous. It’s not just about saving the cute or the cool.
VH: Yes, I think that’s a really good point that we want to get across. The thing about Wolong that people need to understand is that this one nature reserve has more species of insects and birds than some European countries – so there’s just a huge diversity of different species and it’s amazing.
My husband came to the field to visit me and he woke up one morning and looked out the window screen and there were 50 different butterflies on there and they all looked different. He was just amazed that this area can support such a high degree of diversity. It’s pretty incredible and it’s something that you don’t always hear about because of course the pandas get all of the attention. But it’s wonderful if we can use the pandas as a flagship to conserve all of these other animal species that might be hidden or crawling underground somewhere or hiding in the bushes that we don’t pay as much attention to.