There are many ways to carry out conservation awareness-raising campaigns, whether by conducting local outreach activities, constructing permanent billboards, painting murals or distributing posters and other materials. Ideally, we would be able to use all these methods to help to raise awareness about the species we want to conserve. But in reality, financial constraints limit the resources we have available for this type of work. With all this in mind, we wondered: what is the most effective way to carry out a conservation awareness-raising campaign?

We investigated this question on Hainan Island, China’s southernmost province. Hainan is now the only remaining habitat for the Hainan gibbon Nomascus hainanus, an ape that has received increasing conservation attention over the past decade. To date, only a remnant population of approximately 30 individuals survives, in Bawangling National Nature Reserve, making this species the world’s rarest primate.

Two female Hainan gibbons and their young. Photo: Hui Liu, Hainan Univeristy and Bawangling National Nature Reserve Management Office

Numerous villages lie close to the reserve boundary, and local people utilize resources collected inside the protected area. As part of a wider conservation programme, public awareness-raising activities have been conducted since the early 2000s to promote awareness of the reserve and gibbon conservation, as well as offer environmental education. The reserve management office has worked with local and international NGOs to organize outreach sessions in villages and schools, to provide information about the status of the gibbon and conservation legislation, to construct permanent billboards displaying gibbon-related information and images, and paint murals and distribute posters and other materials showing gibbons and another local biodiversity. Ongoing educational activities have been identified as a priority action to support Hainan gibbon conservation.

We evaluated the outcome of previous conservation awareness-raising campaigns to help us understand better the current knowledge gap of Hainan gibbon conservation—local perceptions of its population size, threats, and protection status, and investigated factors that affected these perceptions.

As a native Mandarin speaker, Junfei carried out 207 interviews in May–June 2018 in 25 villages around Bawangling National Nature Reserve using a standard anonymous questionnaire that took 45 minutes to complete. Junfei conducted interviews on her own, but she always felt comfortable and warmly welcomed by local people. Most of the time when people were asked to participate in an interview, they would first give her a chair to sit by them, sometimes offering a cup of tea. Junfei said it just felt like visiting friends in the rural area. It was an unforgettable experience which to date she still draws inspiration and happiness from.

Left: Junfei conducting interviews with local people while they harvest mangoes. Right: A woman showing Junfei some locally collected grass fibres used for making brooms.

What is the most effective way to carry out a conservation awareness-raising campaign that is suitable for the local context? From our results, we found that many respondents knew about the existence, population size, conservation status, and threats to gibbons from past awareness-raising activities, with village outreach sessions and billboards widely identified as key sources of information.

Although educational activities have certainly improved awareness of gibbons and their conservation needs in relative terms, overall levels of knowledge remain low in many important areas. Ongoing improvement of local awareness is still needed, in particular, around topics such as gibbon conservation status, extinction risk, and the purpose of the nature reserve.

Our research on awareness among local communities forms part of the wider conservation programme of the Zoological Society of London’s Hainan Gibbon Project. Since the project began in 2010, we have been using interdisciplinary methods to build a robust evidence base, contributing science-based conservation recommendations to Bawangling National Nature Reserve. Although we previously focused on gibbon ecology, our research has now expanded into the human dimensions of the reserve–community landscape mosaic. In addition to awareness, we have also explored local knowledge and perceptions of other native species, attitudes towards resource use, and the cultural significance of wildlife such as gibbon-related folklore and associated values.

Left: Travelling to villages around Bawangling National Nature Reserve. Photo: Heidi Ma. Right: A typical village setting Photo: Junfei Qian.

In early 2020, the reserve became part of the newly established Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park, one of the 10 parks of its kind in China. Ethically engaging with local communities, by way of incorporating their views into management decisions and distributing concrete benefits derived from conservation, will be a vital component of fair and effective governance. Increasing awareness alone will not be sufficient for simultaneously achieving conservation goals and supporting human well-being.

Encouragingly, there is a growing body of conservation research in China. Our study of Indigenous communities in Hainan contributes to the understanding of human–wildlife dynamics, which is of particular importance as environmental management practices and policies are rapidly evolving in China. We especially hope that more voices of local people living alongside biodiversity will be heard at the upcoming UN CoP15 to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The open access article Assessing the effectiveness of public awareness-raising initiatives for the Hainan gibbon Nomascus hainanus is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Junfei (钱俊霏) is an alumnus of the MSc in Conservation Science at Imperial College London. She now works at UNESCO Beijing Office with the Man and Biosphere Programme, International Hydrological Programme in Geosciences and Disaster Risk Reduction in East Asian countries, on topics related to sustainable development of local communities, capacity-building of local villagers and reserve managers, and empowering youth in Biosphere Reserves.

Heidi is a PhD student at Royal Holloway University of London and project coordinator at the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology. She works with Chinese and international collaborators in academia, government, and grassroots organizations to conserve the Hainan gibbon and other threatened species. Her research focuses on the perceptions of native wildlife and conservation issues among local communities living around Hainan’s protected areas.