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Pandas Are Her Thing

Winning the "Chinese Young Women in Science Fellowship" yesterday in Beijing adds a new honor to the career of Dr Lu Zhi, professor of conservation biology at Peking University.


One of the most respected panda experts in the world, Lu is also an excellent teacher, devoted conservationist and a leader of the country's struggle for environment and wildlife protection.


At 16, Lu started her scientific career at Peking University. From 1981 to 1992, she completed her undergraduate to post-doctoral studies at the country's elite university.


Into the world of pandas


At 19, she began to participate in and later led a long-term field study on ecology, social behavior and genetic diversity among giant pandas.


She spent most of eight years tracking wild giant pandas in high-altitude forests on the Qinling Mountains of northwest China's Shaanxi Province, living in conditions that many Chinese thought primitive.


"In summer, there were all kinds of biting insects around; during winter, the logger's huts we lived in were wet and freezing cold," Lu recalled in a telephone interview with China Daily.


"At that time, being a wildlife biologist definitely was not considered woman's work."


She achieved a deeper insight into the life of giant pandas and also enjoyed the "friendship" of more than 20 of the animals.


Once an old giant panda who could not eat because a piece of bamboo was stuck in her loosening teeth was found by local villagers and sent to Lu.


She removed the bamboo slip, cured the panda with medicine and fed her steamed bread. Lu then freed her into the wild.


"But she came back several days later and lingered around," said Lu. "We had to anesthetize her and send her far from our camp site."


After winning the "friendship" of giant pandas, she became one of the first persons ever to get into a den with a wild panda that she had habituated to her presence.



In fact after a long stretch away from her studies in the forest, the panda actually heard her returning and surprisingly came out of the forest to greet her!


Her observations and photographs of nearly every aspect of the pandas' daily life dispelled the myths about these creatures that had accumulated in the public's mind.


Her hard work has included a series of papers and books.


The book "The Giant Panda's Natural Refuge in Qinling," of which she is co-author, won a 1990 national award for books on science.


In 1993, she was selected "Outstanding Young Scientist" by the China Science and Technology Association. Because of her giant panda research, she has been considered as the "Jane Goodall" of the panda world.


After conducting the first comprehensive molecular genetic research on the wild giant panda from 1992 to 1995 at the National Institutes of Health in the United States, Lu declined job offers from American research institutes and returned to China.


Devoted conservationist


While continuing her research and teaching career at the College of Life Science of Peking University, she joined the China Office of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as a program officer in 1995 and has engaged in a career as a conservationist ever since.


"After field research work for many years, I found that the ability of scientists is often very limited," Lu said.


"To transform scientific knowledge into actual conservation actions and to get the real solution, you must also be a conservationist."


In WWF, she was responsible for all aspects of program development, planning and implementation for the international conservation organization's activities focused on giant pandas, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region.


She developed WWF's strategic plans on panda conservation, completed WWF Panda Status reports, helped to open its Tibet office, and managed to raise a total annual budget of over US$1 million to support the panda and Tibet programs.


With the funds, she has helped develop the Wanglang National Nature Reserve in Pingwu County of Sichuan Province into one of the country's best-managed nature reserves, a model for development of ecotourism.


Because of her scientific research and conservation work, she was chosen one of the "Top 10 Young Professionals of the Year" of both Beijing and China in 1998. She won the "National Award on Achievement in Environment" of the State Environmental Protection Administration of China in 2001.


While a professor and principle investigator for conservation biology at Peking University, she was appointed country director of Conservation International(CI)'s newly-established China Office in 2002.


As the manager of a fund of over US$6.5 million, she is responsible to put "the Mountains of Southwest China," considered one of the planet's 34 "Biodiversity Hot Spots," under better conservation.


Her work over the years, her devotion and persistence have won her not only honors but also the hearts of her working partners, colleagues and students.


Honors aside


Chen Youping, head of the Wanglang National Nature Reserve, says that Lu was one he and his fellows in the reserve admired the most.


"While we made mistakes in the work, she criticized us straightforwardly;


"While she trained us in the wild, she climbed, ate and lived with us like a real ranger. When we needed emergency conservation funds, she sent the checks without the need for complicated applications and reports;


"When she got a little free time in our reserve, she also could play mahjong with our patrolmen," the man said in a telephone interview. "She has never acted as a superior."


To her students, she is a strict teacher.


Once, after a month in the wilds of Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, Shen Xiaoli, her doctoral student, was eager to return to Beijing for a one-week break. After that week, she had to make another 20-day trip into the mountains of western Sichuan Province.


Suddenly, however, Lu told her that she must stay in Qinghai for another assignment.


Depressed, the young woman received the assignment with a little hesitation on her face. "Dr Lu criticized me immediately," she recalled. "Spending years in the wild, she can't bear any of us fearing difficulty."


To those working under her at the CI China Office, their boss is truly a workaholic.


"Every day she might sleep only four or five hours," said Sun Shan, the CI conservation director. "It has become quite natural for us to get her phone calls late at night and find her still on the Internet in the wee hours of the morning."


Once she asked Lu "what would be a wonderful world?" for her. Lu's answer: a world where she doesn't need to get up too early and always has a good appetite.


"To me, the only chance for a break is on a business trip out of town," Lu said.


The reason she is always busy, she admits, is that she tries to be good as a conservationist as well as a scientist and professor.


"I don't feel any conflict among my different roles," Lu said. "In fact, they complement each other. My research creates the scientific base for my conservation work. My teaching has benefited a lot from my field work, as I can give my students real-world cases instead of just theories.


"The only disadvantage is I don't have enough time to teach my students," she added.


"But I do invite many experts to help me complete the job."


After conservation activities for years, she sometimes still feels unsure whether her efforts work in some places.


"Today in China, our conservation efforts don't yet keep pace with development and destruction," she said. "We're sailing against the current. My cherished desire is that we can change the trend."


(China Daily November 10, 2005)

Lu: Enjoy What You Do
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