Tuesday, November 27, 2018


DURHAM, N.C. — Environmental Sciences and Policy and Biology double major Ruolin (Eudora) Miao traveled to Jilin, China in September to present her research on protected area-friendly products and services at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the International Alliance of Protected Areas.

She collaborated with researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the work, and was advised on it by Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Her presentation drew upon lessons from past successes in the design and production of these goods and services while also looking at the opportunities and challenges involved in mainstreaming them.

Duke Environment corresponded with Miao to discuss her interest in protected-area-friendly products and services, her experience at the annual meeting, the best advice she got from Pimm and her favorite meal in Jilin.
1.   How did you become interested in researching protected-area friendly products and services?

The conflicts between development and conservation goals have always been a major challenge for conservationists. Like many conservationists, I am seeking models of sustainable development that could both allow for the rights of the locals around protected areas and effectively protect biodiversity.

I also had a more personal reason for getting involved in this research. Growing up in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province, I never visited any reserve or protected forest there. When I started learning about conservation at Duke, I was given many opportunities to go to protected areas through field work, whether it was doing bird banding in Dry Tortugas National Park, or sampling vegetation in Kruger National Park, South Africa. I am constantly aware of this privilege I have—many people in the world do not have the opportunity to even get close to a protected area.

Given that most of the public do not have easy access to the protected areas, how do we raise the environmental awareness among the public and gather their support for conservation? Protected-area friendly products and services could offer one solution.

2.   What was it like working with a renowned conservationist like Stuart Pimm? What was the best advice you got from him?

Professor Pimm is very knowledgeable about various topics in conservation and learning about his perspective allows me to view my research topic in a bigger picture. He is always willing to offer help to put me in touch with researchers that he knows from his wide network, such as his previous student Krithi Karanth, who is a renowned conservationist in India and is also involved in wildlife-friendly coffee production.

The best advice I got from him is to include a negative example in my presentation. The earlier outlines of my presentation only included successful examples of protected-area friendly products and services and analysis of the factors that enabled them to succeed. However, he suggested that it is very important to also talk about cases where things did not work and analyze the potential causes of failure.

It is a lesson that I will keep in mind – many conservation projects do not go as expected or even fail. It is important to acknowledge this and learn from past failures in order to move forward.

3.   Based on your research, what do you think both the biggest challenge and opportunity is for these products and services? Which one(s) do you think can be the most successful in the marketplace?
There will need to be social recognition that when products and services come from a location in or near a protected area, they deserve to command premium prices that are higher than typical organic products. The higher price allows the providers to keep the scale of production small and maintain practices that are harmless or conducive to conservation.

The biggest opportunity I see are two common features from the most successful products and services. First, they will need to have good branding strategy that tells clear and attractive stories about the products or services. The Wildlife-Friendly Enterprise Network has many products and services that they certify as wildlife-friendly. Once certified, these products and services can exhibit eye-catching seals with charismatic megafauna on their products.

Second, the products and services should have high quality that allows them to enter at the higher end of the market niche. For example, the Netherlands-based company Original Beans produces fine chocolate by sourcing the cacao beans from special heirloom strains and ensuring that each type of bar maintains its unique flavor from the location where it is produced. With more experience sharing, I believe that providers from around the world could harness these two features to gain more market.

4.   What was your experience like presenting at the annual meeting in China? What was your biggest takeaway from presenting at/attending the conference?
Presenting at this annual meeting was a more relaxed experience than I imagined. The conference attendants were all very approachable, and it was very easy to start chatting with fellow conservationists about protected area-friendly products and services at the dinner table.

I left the conference with a lot of hope. The optimism comes from hearing about the conservation that’s happening on the ground in so many countries: whether it is the community-based orchid conservation program in Thailand, or the protected area system in Indonesia.

While in my previous education I have learned mostly the western conservationists’ perspectives, programs and policy, I was thrilled to see the diversity of voices and perspectives at the annual meeting. So many people around the world are bringing in their backgrounds and working on conservation issues, and as I proceed in my career, I will keep in mind that diversity is needed in conservation.

5.  What are your postgraduate aspirations? How has Duke prepared you to be successful in achieving those aspirations?
After graduating from Duke, I plan to pursue a master’s degree in environmental field, and eventually a PhD in conservation, so I can work on conservation in China. I believe that the future of conservation lies largely in ecological restoration and involving a more diverse population into conservation.

I discovered my passion for environmental education during my freshman summer internship at Duke Lemur Center. I am now taking the Environmental Education class with my major advisor, Nicki Cagle, and finishing the requirements to become a Certified Interpretive Guide from the National Association of Interpreters.

The Stanback Internship Program gave me the opportunity to expand my field of experience by spending a summer in Washington, D.C., to work with the Union of Concerned Scientists on climate-related policy research and community outreach.

The various study-away programs Duke offers have given me the opportunity to practice reforestation in Costa Rica with DukeEngage, to learn about ecology and conservation while spending three months in the wonderful Kruger National Park, and to travel with Duke Marine Lab professors and students to St. John, Singapore, and Mexico to learn about ecology and conservation there.

6.  Describe the best meal you ate in Jilin.

A stir-fry dish with wild mushrooms! My other big academic interest is mycology, and I am especially interested in the indigenous use of wild mushrooms as food or medicine. So, you could imagine how excited I was when I found out that it was mushroom season when I was in Jilin and the conference kindly served this specialty!

By Parker Brown, Communications Specialist