The New Faces of Conservation: Q&A with Ben Han

July 7, 2011

A clean-shaven champion of the moustache toad, herpetologist Ben Han wins three Conservation Leadership Program grant awards. By inspiring young scientists, Han is sewing a future for amphibians and conservation in China.

Ben Han

Since boyhood, Ben Han has witnessed sharp declines of amphibians in his patch of the world, a stretch of lush and misty mountains on the borderlands of China and Vietnam. He’s now on a mission to uncover what’s happening to the region’s wildlife. His eye is on one distinctive hopper in particular: the moustache toad. Facing threats of hunting and pollution, the future for these toads is fragile, according to Han. Since 2007, his research team won grant awards totaling $42,500 from the Conservation Leadership Program (CLP), a partnership between WCS and three other wildlife organizations that supports young scientists across the globe. Ben's work is one of 30 projects in 19 countries that received a 2011 CLP Conservation Award.

What inspired your interest in amphibian research?

As a child, I could hear frog calls within a 10-minute bicycle ride from my home. Now, there’s only silence. The closest frogs are miles away. Within a decade, the area where I live has grown more than 12 times its previous size. In surrounding suburbs, infrastructure and real estate development have disrupted many vernal ponds and rice fields. Birds can fly away from such habitat destruction. But for those frogs unable to disperse, they just disappear. I feel deeply that we’re losing old friends and good neighbors.

What are the major threats moustache toads face?

The toads face many threats, but human harvesting is the most significant. Local residents collect adults, tadpoles, and even egg masses for food. These toads are relatively easy to catch during their breeding season, when males are usually sedentary under rocks. They rarely jump, only crawl. Further, as tadpoles, they must forage in mountain streams for three years until they finish metamorphosis. The young toads require clear streams and have zero tolerance for water pollution.

How have you helped raise awareness about these threats?

Girl with toads

Before the first CLP award, there was little known about moustache toads in the field and there was little media coverage for the region’s amphibians. Now, we’ve put up billboards promoting conservation. Our education efforts have also raised awareness and reduced some of human harvesting pressure. However, the increased media attention raises concerns of moustache toads becoming a new target for the pet trade, as well as excessive scientific specimen collection. So far, we haven’t observed such massive collection, but we are keeping an eye on it.

What else can be done to save the region’s amphibians?

First, we need to learn more about the many amphibian species living in the Ailao Mountain Range. Secondly, we need to increase international collaboration. This is quite essential for effective transboundary species conservation and habitat management. We’re also planning to train some talented younger researchers. Many current conservationists are about to retire in the next three to five years. New blood is badly needed to continue our amphibian conservation activities.

Why haven’t these amphibians been studied extensively before?

The toads live in very remote areas with few roads. This has impeded scientists from exploring here. From the 1970s to the 1990s, military conflicts on the border between China and Vietnam also kept researchers away. In fact, underground mines still pose deadly threats to scientists in some areas. Yet field surveys conducted in the last four years have made exciting progress. In 2007, scientists discovered a new moustache toad and another new frog species (Amolops caelumnoctis).

What are some of the other challenges working as a herpetologist in this part of the world?

Boy in Grass

I can’t help but think of population pressure, population density, and booming economies. These factors are considered the biggest challenges that every conservationist working in China, and perhaps in other southeast Asian countries, face. Indeed, driven by strong economic incentive, local residents are entitled to chase higher standards of living. But increasing populations and higher demand for natural resources make the pursuit of a better life a disaster for the region’s endemic wildlife.

In addition, local people mistakenly consider toads and amphibians as secondary species within ecosystems and nature reserve management. They think frogs are relatively abundant and that their populations can quickly recover from harvesting. These misconceptions fuel the risk for an amphibian conservation crisis.

How do you see conservation in China progressing into the future?

Strong economic growth in Asia is a double-edged sword: It creates opportunities and challenges at the same time. In many cases, it has a negative impact on species and habitat conservation. This is especially true in China, where it typically means more infrastructure development. It also distracts many young talents from devoting themselves to conservation work in remote areas. To improve the wellbeing of local communities and to build a rapport with nature, we need to save species and encourage young conservationists simultaneously. Otherwise, our previous achievements will not carry through in the long run.

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