Ahimsa: My name is Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, I come from Spain. I came to Yunnan in 2020, two years ago. I’m currently a professor and the principal investigator of the Megafauna Ecology and Conservation Research Group at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, where we are right now, part of Chinese Academy of Sciences. I’m an ecologist and biologist, I study the behavior, the ecology, and the interaction with people of very big animals, animals like elephants, rhinos, the biggest animals that we have here. Around May and June last year, when a group of elephants were moving towards Kunming, this drew a lot of international attention, and also in China. People wanted to know why these elephants were making this movement. In this case, we had so many people with drones following them. It became very meaningful for the public, because people could see elephant behavior, they could see how smart elephants are, how they interact with each other, how they play, and how they help each other. People could learn many things, about how interesting is the behavior of these animals, but also how complex is their conservation. You know, it’s not enough that we want to conserve them. When we conserve big animals like elephants, they need space, they need habitat, they need food and water. So this presents a conflict of how to handle this situation.
Host: So why Yunnan? Why you choose here for research?
I have been studying elephant movements for almost 20 years now. I have been doing research in different countries, e.g. Sri Lanka, Malaysia, etc. There were many factors that drew me to come to Yunnan. The first time I came here was in 2006, I was beginning my Ph.D at that time. And I was invited by Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden to come to a training course as a student. So I have a very strong personal attachment to here because here is where I developed some ideas that later became my expertise later in my career. In 2019, I came here for a sabbatical for 3 months, just to write papers. What I saw here in 2019 was fantastic. I saw a place where science had improved so much. I saw a lot of young people, very enthusiastic, very optimistic, and people who had very open horizons. I felt energized by that enthusiasm, that positive energy. I also think this research center, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, is one of the most international centers in China. I will claim it is one of the best places for tropical biology in Asia. All these things together make it a great place. I liked what I saw and thought it was a very good time to come here.
Host: I remember you said that there is nowhere more safe in China for Asian elephants. Why?
In the last 15 to 20 years, China has been doing a very good job in protecting its elephants. In China, a number of factors have led to a unique situation within the tropical Asian context for forests and elephant conservation. One is a very strong political will, the government has decided to protect China’s elephants. Second is that China has been developing very fast over last 40 years, economically and socially. So we have a very high human and technological capital. There are technical resources, like drones, camera traps, to study and protect elephants. Finally, the financial resources allocated for elephant conservation in Yunnan. So these factors have allowed us to do a very good job in terms of protecting China’s elephants. Also, I think a very important factor is that the law is enforced here. So people know well that to kill an elephant is illegal and they would not dare to do it. When you think about most of the Asian elephant’s populations, many elephants die because someone kills them. With all this commitment over last 20 to 25 years, the elephant population has more than doubled in Yunnan. This is great. This is conservation success. But also brings some challenges. Now the point is, as the population grows, inevitably it will cause more conflict with people they live with. So, now our challenge is how to manage that conflict, how to live with that interface between the growing population expanding to new areas, and people who are actually suffering negative consequences from these elephants coming next to them. What we learn in China, probably can be exported to other countries.
I think China has developed a bit faster than neighboring countries. But in 15 to 20 years, maybe Laos, part of Myanmar, part of Cambodia, will be in a similar situation to Xishuangbanna right now. So the things learned here can be applied to other countries. We don’t aspire to solve the problem. Actually, I think that we cannot solve the human-elephants conflict. What we can do is to mitigate it. We can reduce the problem to a level that is acceptable by people and by elephants. And we will never finish, we will never ‘be done’. It is going to be an ongoing work.
I think Yunnan is a very attractive place internationally, and has a lot of potential for many things. My favorite place is here, the botanical garden. One of the great things about this place is that not only we can do very good research with start of the art facilities. We also live in a beautiful garden. Everyday, you know, walking from home to office is pleasant. We can go for evening exercise, going for run or playing frisbee. We used to play frisbee in this very lawn where we are talking now. And all this gives a great quality of life. The daily experience is really pleasant. The most interesting part of the culture in Yunnan is diversity. We have so many minorities, a lot of different kinds of people with their own language, their own tradition, their own clothing. For me, as a foreigner, it is fascinating. I love to travel around, and going to different villages, to see how they have slightly different from each other, based on who they are. So that’s very attractive. And people here are very warm.
As I grow older, I miss my country more. I have been 20 years away from with my country. So I want to spend more time in my country. But I like it here. So why not spend time in both places?