Fireflies are disappearing all over China, but Fu Xinhua is doing his best to save them

By Hu Yuwei Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/12 19:09:23

Fu Xinhua Photo: Courtesy of Fu Xinhua

Fu Xinhua is on a mission to save fireflies.

"My job is to race against the speed at which fireflies' habitat is being destroyed," he explained.

Fu, 40, is an associate professor at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, Hubei Province. He has  been devoted to protecting fireflies for 18 years. The researcher is known as the first expert on Chinese fireflies.

In 2006, Fu went to Mount Emei in Sichuan Province to search for the firefly's habitat. He saw large fireflies surrounding a plum tree, which struck a chord inside him as intensely beautiful and poetic.

"A plum tree full of glowing fireflies, it is a rare and enviable opportunity for most people to see." It is scenes such as this that inspired Fu to protect nature for the rest of his life.

In 2007, when he visited again, the fireflies had disappeared from the tree. Fu teared up like a child who lost a beloved gift, saying, "The most beautiful fireflies in China will never be back again."

Difficulties in finding fireflies

On his research trips, Fu has encountered poisonous snakes many times. Because fireflies like to stay in dark and moist places, which are also a favorite haunt of vipers, Fu always has to carry a set of snake venom inhalers.

He has even fallen into a stinky and grimy pig manure pit during a field trip in the countryside, because he was "too focused and engaged."

But his biggest problem is a lack of funding in research, which makes him "anxious, lonely and powerless."

Fu's research team now has only eight researchers supported by a dozen volunteers every year.

"Most of my students won't continue research after graduation. They all want to be civil servants, which is more leisurely than this research," he said.

Crackdown on peddling

China is the home of more than 200 species of fireflies, but excessive deforestation and the capture of fireflies to be sold to urbanites for festivals and celebrations have caused the firefly population to plummet.

As cities expand, fireflies' habitat shrinks. They cannot survive the heavy pollution in the city and artificial light in urban areas, which disrupt their mating and reproduction patterns. The insects are "endangered" and "unable to survive," according to Fu.

The Beijing News reported in 2017 that private vendors selling jars of fireflies were very common on the e-commerce platform Taobao. The jars were popular among young and dating couples.

The seller claimed that a single order had at least 1,200 fireflies, at 1.2 yuan ($0.18) each. Due to a high demand, there was not much room for bargaining.

But in response to Fu's criticism on irresponsible private sales, a public boycott successfully pressured Taobao to ban the sale of fireflies in 2017.

Since Fu hurt many merchants, he became a thorn in their flesh.

"One of the biggest firefly peddlers in the industry sent me a message to say he will hire an AIDS victim to track me down and bite me, which was a ridiculous threat. But it made me more alerted, and I always carry self-defense devices in my bag."

Poverty alleviation mission

In 2015, Fu cooperated with local governments in Hubei Province to create a firefly protection zone on Mount Dalei covering 22 square kilometers for an experimental ecotourism scheme. But his initial work did not go smoothly, with repeated resistance to his concept that environmental protection can drive the economy.

To avoid possible harm to fireflies, Fu asked local farmers to grow grains without fertilizers and weed killers, causing them to resist the plan.

However, the village head supported the idea. "The economic development of my village is the worst across the county," Qiaokou village head Xu Tangqi told The Beijing News. He said that Fu's arrival might bring new opportunities.

With the help of Xu, Fu successfully lobbied the villagers to accept that eco-tourism could drive new economic growth.

"After all, he (Fu Xinhua) has set up a business card for us. If the card works well, our opportunity will be coming," Xu said.

According to Fu's vision, the outer areas of the zone will eventually be opened to tourists. "We will use electric cars, and tourists can watch the fireflies in the car without getting out. It won't damage the environment."

Fu expects the number of visitors to reach to 500 to 800 every day, requiring a large number of tour guides and other service providers, boosting local employment.

"In the future, the protection zone will not only be a conservation base for fireflies, but also a natural education hub."

As for villagers' agricultural products, Fu suggests they can be sold as organic and branded with firefly imagery.

His research center is now working on a "national firefly map" to popularize scientific knowledge of fireflies, gathering amateur scientists and environmental enthusiasts, and providing them with training.

Fu wrote the first book focusing on Chinese fireflies, Ecological Atlas of Chinese Fireflies, which assembled the most comprehensive data on fireflies in China so far.

"Some of my colleagues believe that focusing on science popularization is not a priority, and even not a decent thing for a scientist, but I try to use my own example to show how proper and necessary it is. Its social value is as important as scientific research," he said.

His next research focus is on the study of systematic ecological restoration and reproduction of fireflies, in order to prepare for the return of fireflies to cities in the future.

Since fireflies are not protected by Chinese law, Fu hopes that a relevant law can be created, prompting local governments to designate protected areas.
Newspaper headline: A bright idea


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