National Geographic
Emerging Explorer

Gao Yufang


Picture of Gao Yufang

Photograph by Sarah Gordon/Yale University

Dedicated to conserving wildlife, from elephants to snow leopards

​As soon as he realized he didn’t want to be in a lab all day, Gao Yufang didn’t waste time. As a college student, he took a year off to work on the conservation of everything from tigers to alligators as an intern with the Wildlife Conservation Society in China. After graduation, he went to work on the Tibetan plateau, working to save endangered species there.

He paused just long enough to get a master’s degree in environmental science at Yale, where he researched China’s role in the poaching of elephants to feed the ivory trade. Then he returned to Tibet, where for the past two years he has been executive director of the Everest Snow Leopard Conservation Center. Here, he talks about his wide-ranging work. —By Christina Nunez


What got you interested in conservation?

I chose biology as my undergraduate major, but when I went to Peking University, I found that most of what biologists do is in the lab. This is not what I wanted to do. I liked to travel. I liked to go to different areas to experience the culture and see different things. This is what I wanted in my life.

In my second year, I remember I read a book on giant pandas, The Last Panda by George Schaller. This book changed my life, I think. I remember I ran across this book in the library and I spent the whole afternoon finishing it.

In 2008, I got an award from the Conservation Leadership Programme that allowed me to take one year off school to work for the Wildlife Conservation Society, or WCS.

When I told my advisor, my undergraduate mentor, and my parents that I would like to take one year off school, they did not understand. They felt I was in the best university in China, that I should stay at university, get my degree, and try to get a good job. This was their idea of my career. But I was very determined.

The China director of WCS gave me a lot of trust. She allowed me to assume a lot of responsibility, even though I was just 20 years old at the time. So I had the opportunity to meet all these good people—very excellent researchers—and work with them and learn from them. That year was quite important. It’s kind of a milestone in my life, I think.

After that year with WCS, I was determined to pursue a career in conservation. I found happiness in this kind of work, and I also felt I could make a living by doing things that I’m quite interested in, and think I’m good at.

“I feel I need to do something at my age. I need to gather more on-the-ground experience and try to do something on my own rather than just talking.”

—Gao Yufang

And then how did you end up focusing on the ivory trade?

I started my master’s degree in 2012 at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. At the time, conservation organizations, especially in the U.S., started to talk a lot about the ivory trade. Elephant poaching started to attract a lot of media attention. As a Chinese citizen doing my master’s in the U.S., I was exposed to two different outlooks. I could read the Chinese news articles and I could also read the English news, and I felt a great discrepancy.

I was very curious about what was going on here. I saw such different things in China and outside of China. That is why I decided I was going to do my master’s research on the ivory trade. This also allowed me to travel to Africa, to a new place, which opened new doors for me.


Was it hard to then turn your focus from the ivory trade to snow leopards in Tibet?

Not really, they are not that different. To me, it’s about how to analyze the problem and participate effectively to solve the problem.

I didn’t leave the elephant community. I’m still quite engaged in the ivory trade issue. I’m also now working on the rhino hunt trade, doing research, trying to help the international community to understand rhino horn consumption, ivory consumption, and wildlife trafficking issues in China. I try to bridge the gap on all these different perspectives and foster more effective cooperation on these issues.

I did a lot of research on the policy process on the ivory trade, so I can talk a lot on the policy, but it’s just talking. I feel I need to do something at my age. I need to gather more on-the-ground experience and try to do something on my own rather than just talking.


Tell us about the problems facing snow leopards in Tibet and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Actually we know very little about snow leopards in the Mt. Everest [Qomolangma] National Nature Preserve. [See a blog post with images captured by Yufang’s organization.] Almost nobody has done any research in this area in the past two decades. We do field surveys to estimate the distribution and population of snow leopards. We also conduct social science research to understand the human-snow leopard interaction. We have to start from the very beginning, trying to collect data.

The major problem, I think, is habitat destruction, due to infrastructure development and big economic development projects. Climate change is also another factor. But we don’t really know how habitat loss, how all these infrastructure and economic development projects, will influence the habitat. We still need to do more research in order to understand this equation.


I’m curious, what do your parents say now?

[chuckles] Actually my parents don’t understand what I’m doing, still. My parents are very traditional Chinese, so they would like me to get married, to find a good job which can earn a lot of money. Then I can buy a car, a house, and settle down in a big city. That is what they want.


And here you are in Tibet.

Yeah. So it is difficult to pursue a career in conservation in China. But the good thing is I have a younger brother so my pressure is relieved somewhat. [laughing]


What inspires you to keep going? What do you see when you look ahead?

I’m still very young in my career and I still need to learn a lot of things, but in the past few years I have seen more and more Chinese participating in conservation. People are talking about conservation issues, and they try to do something for wildlife and biodiversity. We are making progress in the right direction.

People tend to be very stereotyped. For example, some people say Chinese government officials are not interested in conservation. But when I build personal relationships with officials, companies, local communities, all these different stakeholders—when you get to know them, you feel they also care. It’s possible for them to work together with you if you build trust with them.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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