Digital Animal Kingdom: Protecting biodiversity through the efforts of local communities, consumers, and technology

Ant Group
Alipay and the World
9 min readAug 30, 2021

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Earlier this year, news about a herd of wild Asian elephants wandering far from their homes fascinated people around the world. Almost 17 months since the herd bid farewell to their original habitat, the elephants in August finally returned to their home to a nature reserve in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture.

Even though it is still unclear why this endangered species left their usual habitat and roamed more than 500km north, it has sparked discussions on biodiversity conservation globally and also made more people realize the importance of habitat conservation.

The protected Phayre’s Leaf Monkey photographed by Zheng Shanhe

For years, creating Protected Areas was seen to been one of the most effective conservation strategies to protect biodiversity, and such areas are estimated to cover about 17% of the Earth’s land and 8% of coastal waters and oceans, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A protected area is a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values. (IUCN Definition 2008)

In China, active efforts are also being made to establish a protected area system. By the end of 2018, China had identified 11,800 protected areas, including 10 pilot national parks, and 474 national-level and 864 provincial-level nature reserves.

There is broad and increasing consensus that protected areas need multi-party cooperation, not only the efforts of government, NGOs, institutions and experts, but also local communities and indigenous peoples. What’s more, digital means also allow more and more people to be able to participate in the preservation of biodiversity.

Here are some stories of some ordinary people and how their small efforts, along with the help of digital technology such as Alipay Ant Forest, contribute to the sustainable development of the protected areas.

Zheng Shanhe’s story — A conservationist

Zheng Shanhe works as a middle school teacher in Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan province. But the 50-year-old has an interesting “sideline” — as an amateur but dedicated nature photographer, his works helped lead to the establishment of a Protected Area in the province.

Zheng became hooked on eco-photography in 2015, and often spend his weekends traveling around the mountains nearby to take photos. In October 2017, he traveled to a small village in Xuangang town, Mangshi, a county-level city in Western Yunnan for a photo-taking trip.

Zheng Sanhe taking photos in the forest

While there, Zheng learned from the villagers that there was a group of unique-looking monkeys nearby. As the locals described it, the adult monkeys are dark grey-blue in color with some brown on the dorsal side, while their newborn babies are bright orange.

After returning home, Zheng did a lot of research online, and he was excited to find that all the clue points to one result — the monkey that the villagers saw is probably the Phayre’s Leaf Monkey, one of the world’s most endangered species.

Since then, Zheng went to the mountains around Mangshi every week, looking forward to getting a glimpse of the monkey someday. After over three months, on a Saturday in early January 2018, Zheng finally came across them for the first time.

“No time to think, I kept pressing the shutter, for fear of missing the precious moment of this beautiful creature. ”Zheng said.

Zheng’s picture, which he sent to some animal experts that he knew, drew a lot of attention, including the Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences(中科院昆明动物研究所). They quickly organized a research team and came to Mangshi for further field research.

Phayre’s Leaf Monkey and baby photographed by Zheng Sanhe

Based on the extensive investigation and analysis, the monkeys that appeared in Zheng’s camera were finally confirmed as Phayre’s Leaf Monkey, which is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and is threatened by hunting and loss of habitat. The research team estimated that the number of Phayre’s Leaf Monkey in this area is up to 320, the largest group that has ever been discovered in China.

Phayre’s leaf monkeys, are found in a variety of habitats due to human disturbance within its range. They often reside in mixed evergreen/deciduous primary and secondary forests. The upper arms, legs, and tail are silvery-grey in color, and, in general, the head and tail are darker than the rest of the torso. The area around the lips and eyes are white.[1]

This new discovery quickly gained the attention of the society. In October 2020, Alipay Ant Forest, in collaboration with Yunnan Provincial Green Development Foundation, established the Mangxing River Protected Area(芒杏河保护区).

Alipay Ant Forest is an initiative that has helped encourage green habits through the use of digital technology since its launch in 2016. Each time an Alipay user logs an action that reduces their carbon emissions, they will earn “green energy points”. With enough of these points, they will be able to have a tree planted in areas facing desertification. In addition to tree-planting, the program has extended its green efforts to “Protected Areas” in 2017, which seek to restore and preserve biodiverse ecosystems in conservation sites across China, including those among the most environmentally fragile regions in the country.

The protected area, covering an area of close to 16 square km, aims to systematically create a more livable homeland for Phayre’s leaf monkeys and other species living in this area.

“I feel so honored and happy that it is me who found them. I hope more people realize that every small effort can be very important,” Zheng said.

Yang Ming’s story — A Ranger

According to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), indigenous peoples and local communities have long been important custodians of biodiversity[2].

Yang Ming, 41 years old, is a “Ranger” who works for the local conservation communities in the Fushou Protected Area(福寿保护地).

Rangers, forest guards, wildlife officers…They serve under various titles and their work is vast, yet one thread unites them: They all work to protect the natural world[3].

Yang Ming

Before the establishment of the Fushou Protected Area, Yang Ming was a farmer in Fushou village, and like many villagers, he went into the hills to gather herbs and cut trees for firewood from time to time.

Fushou protected area, funds by Ant Forest in 2020 and covers an area of 16 square km, lies in Fushou Village, Mianyang City, Sichuan province. Wild animals such as pandas, Sichuan golden snub-nosed monkeys, and black bears can be found in this area. Due to severe poaching, the number of wild animals once decreased sharply, but after establishing the protected area, many wild animals came back.

“At first, I couldn’t understand what the protected area is and why I can’t cut trees anymore. However, after participating in the courses organized by communities, I learned about the ecosystem around us, and I feel that I also have the responsibility to protect the animals and the environment.” Yang said.

Yang became the first batch of rangers in the Fushou protected area after finishing training courses provided by the Paradise International Foundation, which also brings him an additional source of income.

Yang(fourth from right) with his team members in Fushou Protected Area

A ranger’s work is not easy. They are the ones who measured every inch of the protected area with their footsteps. They need to patrol protected areas, monitor wildlife, prevent poaching, and help communities to educate local people. They often work under harsh conditions, and sometimes they need to spend the night in the forest and face personal danger as they may come across armed poachers.

“We need to patrol the protected area more than 20 times a year. I often feel exhausted after coming back. But our work is rewarding. Last year, we can find dozens of hunting traps in each patrol. But now, we can hardly find them, which means there are almost no poachers here,” said Yang.

Another important work of rangers is to help recording the status of wildlife. They need to learn how to install thermal infrared cameras and identify different wild animals in this area.

“The research team would come here regularly and give us training classes. I feel my work is contributing to some valuable research and that makes me happy,” Yang said.

Rangers are installing thermal infrared cameras

The video of animals collected by the cameras will eventually be sent to the research institutes for further study and to build a scientific basis for the effective management system of the protected area.

What’s more, the public can also have an “online tour” to the protected areas now. Fushou protected area now owns an online page in Alipay Ant Forest, where hundreds of millions of Alipay users can see their daily posts and even experience an online tour.

The online page of Fushou protected area

“I am enjoying reading the comments on Alipay Ant Forest, we received a lot of encouragement from all over the country. Although we never met each other, I feel we are connected on the same mission,” Yang said.

“One Person, One Square Meter”

The virtual tour around protected areas functionality is the part of the “one person, one square meter” program on Alipay Ant Forest.

Alipay users can “claim” one square meter of land in the project’s reserves with green “energy points” that is earned from low-carbon activities. Thereafter, environment groups and local communities will carry out the conservation work with funding support from Ant Forest.

Through the screen of their mobile phones, participants of the Ant Forest Protected Area can not only learn about the progress made in the protected area but also experience daily patrol work.

The online page of Ant Forest Protected Area

“I used my green “energy point” to “claim” one square meter in 14 protected areas over the past years. Although I’ve never been there, I feel I am familiar with the environment and wild animals there. I am very glad that my small efforts could also contribute to biodiversity conservation,” said Lisa Wang, a user of Ant Forest who has been using the program since 2016 and has personally planted 21 trees and protected 14 lands through donating her green energy points.

Lisa’s digital certification

As of July 2021, more than 140 million people have participated in the Ant Forest Protected Area project, which has set up 17 reserves with a combined size of more than 1,700 square kilometers in ten provinces across China, including Qinghai, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Yunnan, Sichuan and Hainan.

“Going green has always been part of our calling, but we know that one company’s effort is far from enough. That is why we need to create an innovative open platform, where individuals, NGOs, and brands can work together to protect the environment,” said Yijie Peng, President of Social Good and Green Development at Ant Group, describing the company’s efforts around building the Ant Forest platform.

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Ant Group
Alipay and the World

Ant Group is a tech company dedicated to bringing inclusive finance to the world, through Alipay and its global partners.