Helen Meredith describes her visit to China to attend the World Congress of Herpetology.
A mystery toad in Tonglu.
Much like the Olympics, the World Congress of Herpetology (WCH) has punctuated my life in four-yearly instalments since 2008. Eight years ago was the caipirinha-fuelled WCH-6 in Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon. I was representing the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE Amphibians programme and it was my first major conference. It proved an education in the drinking stamina and hedonistic tendencies of my herpetological colleagues, and largely took place in and around the conference venue’s impressive selection of swimming pools. 2012 brought the large and impeccably-organised WCH-7 in Vancouver. It was also a blur, but alas this time due to some heavy work commitments associated with my PhD. Then 2016 appeared, and on this occasion I was the Executive Director of the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA), representing a partnership of over 100 organisations. Without a caipirinha in sight, I was to embark on a dense itinerary of symposia and meetings to better understand challenges associated with improving the impact of global amphibian conservation.
However, before I could settle into the frantic life of a conscientious conference attendee, there was an exciting plot twist. WCH-8 was due to take place in Hangzhou from 15th to 21st August. Hangzhou is a large city (population circa 9 million) on the delta of the Yangtze River, about an hour’s bullet train ride west of Shanghai. Since being selected as the host of WCH-8 back in 2012, it had also been chosen as the location of the 2016 G20 Summit. It transpired that the prospect of up to 800 potentially suspicious herpetologists descending upon Hangzhou troubled the Chinese Government so much that we were unceremoniously evicted just two days before WCH-8 was due to commence. Fortunately, I have worked in China before whilst developing a conservation project for the Chinese giant salamander, and was no stranger to last-minute itinerary changes brought about by government directives. I calmly enquired where we were now headed, and was marginally surprised to hear that the new venue was over 100 km away in the small town of Tonglu (population circa 400,000). The organising committee of WCH8, together with an army of resourceful student volunteers, achieved a spellbinding show of hasty manoeuvring. Before we knew it, a brand new conference had sprung up on the forested, mountain-flanked banks of the Fuchun River. Amid much murmuring from delegates that never in their entire careers had a conference vanished 100 km over the horizon 48 hours before it was due to start, everyone obediently boarded the buses and followed WCH-8 to the brave new world of Tonglu.
Tonglu, the unexpected venue for the Congress.
Our new hangout for the week was the Legend Hotel. If you ever find yourself in Tonglu, do pay a visit. It is a 36-floor vision in marble, with several metric tonnes of chandeliers gracing the ceilings of its vast event rooms. And like a lot of hotels in China, it is lit up like a psychedelic Christmas tree at night. Tonglu was very hot and very humid. Getting to the exquisitely air-conditioned and elegant Legend Hotel involved a sweat-drenching 15 minute walk from my own accommodation, meaning that I arrived on most days looking like a malaria sufferer. In the spirit of the show that must go on, everything kicked off as planned on 15th August and the symposia dutifully got underway. Among the highlights for me were: “Captive breeding and conservation strategies for amphibians and reptiles”; “Chinese giant salamander conservation ─ from genes to farms”; “Recovery restoration”; and an entire day devoted to “Refining priorities for global amphibian conservation”.
Nestled in the middle of this last symposium was my own talk, imaginatively entitled “Developing species conservation strategies to improve the impact of amphibian conservation”. Attempting to fit a third of my PhD research and an explanation of strategic conservation planning into 12 minutes proved difficult. I somehow made it to the end of my 44 slides under the intensifying glare of the symposium organiser, and sprinted off stage left before I could be forcibly removed. The other talks tackled key threats such as ecotoxicology, infectious diseases, climate change, over-exploitation, trade, and habitat destruction. Targeted conservation responses were described in presentations dealing with captive breeding, reintroduction, habitat rehabilitation, communication and education, and the global distribution of amphibian conservation expertise. I came away with renewed appreciation of the key issues, as well as a sense of hope. The future is as uncertain as ever for amphibians, but this crisis consistently attracts talented and enthusiastic people who a share a strong resolve to build a better future for our wonderful cold-blooded cousins.
I also departed with much gratitude towards the people of Tonglu, who were so kind and surprisingly pleased to find their town besieged by herpetologists. You can generally spot a herpetologist from a great distance, as they will be the ones in shorts and T-shirts adorned with amphibians or reptiles (or both) who look poised to leap into the undergrowth at any minute. No wonder the G20 Summit was reluctant to share Hangzhou with such characters. Herpetologists also often like their beer, and talk loudly and at extravagant length about their study muses with genuine fondness. I enjoy their company immensely, and this is one of the main reasons I have chosen this path in conservation, as good communities inspire good projects. I also am very thankful to the conference organisers, who steered a remarkably straight ship through the high seas of utter chaos that initially unfolded. It was a fascinating conference that will be long-remembered for its many surprises, and for the stoicism and hospitality of its Chinese organisers. During the speeches in WCH-8’s closing banquet, our Tonglu hosts loudly encouraged us to enjoy every single minute of our lives. Through cheers and the spray of rice wine sloshing out of tiny glasses, it was clear that the delegates of WCH-8 were embracing this sentiment to their core. WCH-9 will take place in Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand. Whatever unfolds in four year’s time, I am sure it will be celebrated by a throng of merry herpetologists chasing their reptile and amphibian friends around the world with bountiful enthusiasm.