Lu Zhi: panda protector

In February, China more than doubled its number of protected species, with 517 additions, including the wolf, large-spotted civet and golden jackal. It was the first update since 1989, and to pioneering conservationist, Lu Zhi, it was a good sign. “I think the government is changing, especially the top leaders, who are sincerely into the environmental issues, not just [related to] wildlife, but also ecosystem restoration and pollution control,” she says.

Attitudes towards conservation in China have shifted greatly in recent decades. In the mid-1980s, when Lu was an undergraduate student at Peking University in Beijing, she says the field of conservation biology was not yet recognized in China. Since then, local governments have been designating a growing number of protected areas and the state has announced a ‘red line’ initiative, which defines limits to human encroachment into ecologically sensitive and vulnerable areas totalling more than 2.4 million square kilometres — roughly one-quarter of the Chinese mainland. Such strategies have great potential. In the Beijing municipality, for example, forest cover has increased from 7% in the 1950s to 43% today, says Lu

At the same time, the public has become increasingly attuned to the natural world. Since the 1990s, organized bird-watching has become a popular activity on the Chinese mainland, and it feeds valuable data collected by local community groups into population studies. Last year, Lu and her colleagues used data from the Bird Report, the largest nationwide project involving the submission of birdwatching records in China, to simulate changes in the range and habitat of 1,042 bird species through to the year 2070 and identify those most at risk (R. Hu et al. PLoS ONE 15, e0240225; 2020). Although the global trend of species loss and habitat destruction is desperate everywhere, says Lu, “in my own life history, in 30 years, I do see positive changes in China and in the world”.

As an undergraduate, Lu joined a long-term field study on giant pandas led by biologist Pan Wenshi, tracking wild populations through the high-altitude forests of the Qinling Mountains in northwest China’s Shaanxi province. Two decades on, after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in conservation genetics at the US National Institutes of Health, Lu returned to China to run conservation programmes at the wildlife charity WWF and Conservation International. In 2007, she founded the Shan Shui Conservation Centre, in Beijing.

Now a professor of conservation science and executive director of Peking University’s Centre for Nature and Society, Lu, whose work with giant pandas has been compared to that of British primatologist Jane Goodall, has studied many of country’s most vulnerable mammals, including snow leopards, Himalayan wolves and Chinese mountain cats.

In a paper published in February, Lu and her colleagues argue that China’s Wildlife Protection Law does not function as expected and that a permanent ban on wildlife consumption, as well as long-term mechanisms to reduce demand and manage the ban, are needed (L. Xiao et al. Curr. Biol. 31, R168–R172; 2021). In response to the pandemic, which has prompted the World Health Organization to investigate wild-animal trade in China for evidence of animal-to-human disease, China announced new laws temporarily banning the buying and selling of wild-animal products, with permanent changes foreshadowed.