Meet A Young Conservationist: Mingyu Liu
Can you give a short summary of your research?
I started to work with big cats since I joined my graduate lab, the conservation biology lab of Peking University, in 2014. Our aim is to research and analyze threats to snow leopards, and solve those threats through community based methods with the help with local government. For example, I have participated the citizen science project and human-carnivore conflicts project. We have local herders to participate our monitoring of snow leopards, we set snow leopards insurance to reduce retaliatory hunting from human-carnivore conflicts.
For my own research, I focus on the threats from stray Tibetan mastiffs. Due to the collapse of mastiff market around 2012, tons of thousands of mastiffs are abandoned. So, I want to do ecological and social research to know if they could be a novel threat to snow leopards, and figured out solutions to this problem.
What motivates you in your work?
Big cats - who hasn’t been struck by their majestic charisma? Captivating generations after generations of wildlife lovers, including myself, these iconic species are truly irreplaceable.
I consider myself extremely lucky to do my part for the protection of snow leopards. Inspired by the longing for equality, the search for coexistence, and the unbearable pity for the suffering of all creatures, I embrace conservation as my passion. But I also know that individual capacities are limited.
The Tibetan plateau, the nearest place to the sky, has many distinct endemic species lacking detailed study and is one of the last intact ecosystems in China. This place, like a shining star, lingers in my heart. And I always think it’s my fate to do something for the animals living there. After months of monitoring through camera traps, collecting of scat samples, and interviewing of local people, eventually when I see the elegant body of the snow leopard, I know every effort happens for a reason. I live for these moments.
What is the role of youth in conservation?
For long-lasting, sustainable positive impacts, we need the collective power of a wider network! This is especially true for youth, with people under the age of thirty representing over half of the world’s population. There is an old saying in Chinese: “strong youth lead to a strong country.” Many young people worldwide are dedicating their careers towards protecting the world’s most threatened species, from habitat conservation to environmental education, law enforcement and scientific research.
The fate of some of the world’s most endangered and iconic species is on the edge of existence, therefore it is becoming all the more important to engage young people in decisions affecting the world’s wildlife. Only when our youth are empowered to act, both individually and together, can we have a brighter tomorrow for big cats and all wildlife.
The meaning of youth action for me personally is the hope of future, the future for our Mother Nature, the future for our whole ecosystem, and most importantly a sustainable future for ourselves. This is why Youth for Wildlife Conservation was created: to galvanize and motivate youth from across the world to protect and conserve our wildlife. We are students, artists, educators, researchers, lawyers and more that refuse to stand by idol, but instead, strive for change. We are all working, learning from our mentors, sharing our knowledge and creating innovative solutions for a more positive world for people and wildlife.
Can you give a longer abstract of your work for the conservation scientists out there?
Introduced and invasive species are a challenge to biodiversity conservation globally. They are especially damaging when they involve domesticated animals that have a close association with human. From 2000-2012, due to the rise then collapse of the Tibetan mastiff (Canis lupus familiaris) market, many dog breeders around Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve abandoned their mastiffs. Since they have a range of biological traits and broad morphological adaptability that when abandoned Tibetan mastiffs occur at densities higher than any other similar sized native carnivore. This makes them the most successful carnivores that are ubiquitous on the Tibetan Plateau. In recent years, local people have observed incidents of mastiffs in packs attacking snow leopards (Panthera uncia) and other wildlife. As a result, stray mastiffs, acting as an invasive species, may become a novel threat to snow leopards, which are a flagship species of the local highland ecosystem.
Our research aims to understand the ecological role played by stray Tibetan mastiffs in the local ecosystem, and their interaction with snow leopards. By doing so, we aim to assess if mastiffs could act as potential predators, prey, and competitors for snow leopards.
We assessed stray mastiff population dynamics by combining photo capture recaptures and line transects around 35 monasteries and 22 villages across 3 years. We put GPS collars on 16 stray Tibetan mastiffs around 6 monasteries to estimate their home range, distribution patterns, and activity patterns. We collected 386 snow leopards and 157 dog scat samples to acquire dietary and intestinal microbial community structure. We then looked at how stray Tibetan mastiffs were interacting with snow leopards through resource separation (temporal, spatial, and dietary overlap) and disease transmission within Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve.
Results of population dynamics revealed that the pregnancy rate of female mastiffs was as high as 40.4±5.0%, with the death rate of pups estimated at 64.1±7.3 % in the first year. Therefore, the population growth rate was estimated at 5.1±3 %. The density of stray Tibetan mastiffs ranged from 0.34 around Yaqu Monastery (50km2) to 10.6 Indi/km2 around Qiulin Monastery (20km2), estimated average 1.6±0.3 Indi/km2 in the whole 53 thousand km2 potential dog-occupied area. This high density makes Tibetan mastiffs the most abundant carnivore in Tibetan Plateau. Data from collars revealed that 95% kernel estimation of home range ranged from 0.15 to 28.23 km2, average 10.14±3.50 km2, which was much larger than previous studies of stray dogs in other areas. When combined with the facts that dog’s average body weight exceeds 20 kg and that they hunt in groups, the stray Tibetan mastiffs may be in a dominant position in interference competition around human settlements.
The Schoener niche overlap index of dietary overlap between Tibetan mastiffs and snow leopards was estimated at 0.43, and ANOSIM result at OTU level of intestinal microbial community was 0.33. This suggests that there are similarities in dietary structure among both species. Furthermore, through assessing the distribution patterns by MaxENT, there is around 52962 km2 occupied by Tibetan mastiffs, and 19756 km2 was overlap habitat by both Tibetan mastiffs and snow leopards, equating to 16.9% of snow leopard habitat. Combining the overlap of activity patterns was 0.53 by data from camera traps, we cannot neglect the exploitative competition between these two species. Previous results showed 13.02% positive rate of faecal antigen detection of Echinococcus from Tibetan mastiffs, which was a dangerous signal for local wildlife and people since Tibetan mastiffs are the definitive host of this parasite. All of the evidence demonstrates stray Tibetan mastiffs could potentially become an emerging threat to snow leopards.
Thus, effective conservation intervention to tackle the issue of dog-wildlife interactions requires a comprehensive assessment, particularly in an area of high biodiversity significance such as the Tibetan Plateau. We have been working with the local government and local communities to increase awareness on the dog issue and we have identified strategies to mitigate the impacts of stray Tibetan mastiffs on wildlife. This include increasing responsible dog ownership behaviour, restriction in stray behaviour, and strong population control measures, especially around sensitive core areas of the reserve. Their capacity of handling the issue were also promoted as we carried out early test in 2 villages of public education, sterilization and adoption.
Our research seeks to understand the scale and extent of the impacts from stray Tibetan mastiffs on local ecosystems. We can contribute valuable knowledge on a key threat to snow leopards and develop locally relevant solutions that is scientifically based, locally accepted and participatory. This work will also provide community ownership through local capacity building of handling the issue. As a consequence, we hope to see a better future for the long-term conservation of Sanjiangyuan Region.