The China Exploration and Research Society (CERS) operates several research and theme museums in China and manages around two dozen projects in remote China concurrently.
Wong How Man was honoured by Time in 2002 as one of the 25 Asian Heroes, calling him “the most accomplished explorer of China”. He has worked in China for 34 years, since the Cultural Revolution, first as an exploration journalist and then as an explorer.
His experience with National Geographic uncovered situations and places that made him uncomfortable. He asked himself, “How can you keep documenting projects that disappear?” So he started with preserving monasteries and nunneries, and then branched out into wildlife.
I grew up in Hong Kong, and went to the States at 19. The organisation originally started in Los Angeles in 1986. I moved back here at 45 in 1994, moving the organisation back to Hong Kong as that’s where the funding is and where our administration is done.
The China Exploration and Research Society has many projects in the minority areas of Western China of a nature, cultural, conservation, economics mix. There are 3,000 projects on-the-ground. We will start branching out to neighbouring countries.
We’re non-confrontational, not affecting political groups.
We have biologists, zoologists, rural economists and anthropologists, and our advantage is that we’re a little ahead of the problem. We see the potential and create a management plan. We come to a realisation of how one project will work and how some don’t.
The Society is supported by key individual donors, international foundations, governments and corporations such as 3M, CDL, Coca-Cola, Dragonair, IBM, Land Rover, Omega, Panasonic, Shell, Swarowski, UBS and others.
My mission is not carved from stone: Explore, Research, Conserve, Educate. We are still at the forefront of exploration but we modify our mission. We believe in the sacred spirit of exploration and it permeates everything that we do. We explore new ways to conserve, and it may not be the most efficient way but we like to take up a challenge.
- Tibetan Mastiff Rescue
- Golden Monkey/Lisu Hill Tribe
- Dongjulin Monastery
- Discovering a new and definitive source of the Yangtze using NASA’s space technology
- Archaeological research and conservation to the Hanging Coffins of Southern China
- Cave exploration and scientific research
- Research and conservation of Tibetan Antelope and first discovery of a calving ground
- Restoration of architecture ad murals of Tibetan monasteries.
- Study of Tibetan sacred sites and establishing a clinic/teahouse for pilgrims.
- Research and protection of Asiatic beavers
- Documenting vanishing culture of fishing with river otters.
- Study and conservation of plateau flagship species including Wild Yak, Wild Ass, Gazelles, Ibex, and Argali Sheep.
- Controlling mudslides through building dams around ancient Tibetan monasteries
- Searching for lost airplanes of CNAC during WWII and establishing a museum to preserve the history of the Burma Road, CNAC Hump flight, the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers) etc
We have experience finding pristine areas and are finding some places that are still clean. Sometimes for example, you find dirty water but dirty water still powers a turbine! We do a lot of segmentation, identifying, just conservation as it is. I’ve come to this philosophy through long years of work. I’ve been working in China for 34 years, since the Cultural Revolution, first as an exploration journalist and then as an explorer.
My experience with National Geographic uncovered situations that made me uncomfortable, and we wanted to show people how easy and inexpensive it can be. Just build up a commitment (there will be a learning curve), and take a bunch of pictures and find a context and relevance to a group.
I started the organisation, in 1996, and it was an uphill battle for first 15 years – its hard to be the first – but my conscience asked, “How can you keep documenting projects that disappear?” We started with preserving monasteries and nunneries, and then branched out into wildlife.
Important flagship species are being massacred by poachers, for example antelope for Shahtoosh shawls. We made a movie and were the first to discover the calving ground of 7,000 females converging, with a third of them pregnant females. Everywhere you looked they were giving birth. Illegal poachers were there to take out the foetus, and we photographed this and put it in all the major media including CNN. Educated women are seeing the pregnant female and babies being killed – when you pay that much for fashion (US$5000) and you can’t show it off, where’s the allure? Women cannot accept this anymore. So very quickly, the demand shrinks and that’s what turns things around.
One project example: Nomads were overgrazing with 30-50 yaks each. We cut down on numbers of livestock, and increased the yield of revenue of fleece used for rugs/felt and down use for cashmere. Once you set a model people will replicate it. By cutting down the livestock number, we manage impact on economy.
With the yaks for example, we teach nomads how to make cheese. They used to make butter, generating 1 Yuan per kilo. Now they make cheese, which generates US$2.50/kilo.
We point out direction and partner with others, and create strategy with great social enterprises and create a model. We are not necessarily the ones to implement the model but we create this and then also manage how the generated money is spent.
It’s about the culture of conservation. To be responsible, moving to a stage in our human evolution that we need to gauge conservation as part of our culture. It’s not just scientific, we can build the lifestyle into conservation.
We want to de-mystify exploration for Hong Kong people. We speak to kids from nine-years-old to high school level. We occasionally speak to university students. Every March, we have a joint lecture with RGS Hong Kong.
I find you have to make conservation fun and add value; make it inspirational. You motivate people by adding a good cause and if you can inject this then people will be far more engaged.
We hope that we can spend more time with children. We learn from them. How do we preserve the child-like curiosity when the rest of their education time is so structured? If we want to contribute to education, this is what we want.
For the future generation, I am optimistic. Our generation is the generation of excesses; the new generation is far more responsible and far more educated, and has far more time, resources and technology to take care of the problems.