CSU student researcher studies conservation in China

Zoë Jennings

The two hardest things that Francis Commerçon has done in his life are interviewing 200 rural Chinese villagers and raising a wild owlet.

Francis Commerçon studies biological sciences at Colorado State University. He studied conservation in China for his honor’s thesis. Photo by: Zoe Jennings

Many who know Commerçon describe him as modest, intensely smart and trustworthy.

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“Francis is one of the nicest guys I know,” said his friend, Nolan Bunting. “He’s kinda quiet, kinda reserved, but he’s very willing to help out and is always there to have your back.”

Beyond his modest demeanor and ability to put people at ease when talking to them, Commerçon is a hard worker who is constantly thinking.  

 When he was in fifth grade, older mentors taught him how to go birding.  In high school, he remembers catching birds in nets and putting numbered metal bands on their legs to track migration and participating in other various citizen science projects.

When Commerçon came to Colorado State University, he co-founded the CSU Field Ornithologists club in order to cultivate a birding community at the University.

During the fall semester of his sophomore year at CSU, he decided to study abroad in China under a program that concentrated on anthropology and journalism, although his majors are wildlife biology and biological sciences.

It was an intense semester, and Commerçon earned 16 class credits while traveling around China. The semester culminated in an independent study project, when he was given four weeks and an allotment of money and was expected to produce a 20-minute presentation and a 50-page report.

A rural village in a jungle area
A village in the Xishuangbanna region in China. Photo courtesy of: Francis Commerçon

Commerçon stayed with a family of a researcher he had never met. The family was ethnically Dai and lived in a small village in Xishuangbanna.

While in the village he talked with local researchers and observed that the bird populations had been “decimated,” he said. Silver pheasant, jungle fowl, even crow and duck populations were depleted and green peacocks were extinct in the area.

Returning in the summer of 2016, Commerçon came back to continue volunteering at the World Agroforestry Center under a grant he received from the Boettcher Foundation and the honors college at CSU.

Commerçon interacts with a villager in the Xishuangbanna region in China. Photo courtesy of: Francis Commerçon

Through surveys, he found that about 44 percent of households had a person who had hunted birds within the past three years, according to Commerçon.

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Beyond the obvious cultural differences, conservation had a different meaning for the people he surveyed.

“I see it as a public service that benefits everyone,”Commerçon said. “But for them conservation is law enforcement. It’s police raids. It’s undercover spies.”

Commerçon points out wildlife to villagers in the Xishuangbanna region in China. Photo courtesy of: Francis Commerçon

Commerçon returned to the village during the summer of 2017 to conduct more research. He planned for the research to be used for his honors thesis project at CSU.

Now that Commerçon could identify the problem while understanding the cultural differences he sought to ask questions that would lead him to answering why the wildlife was being over hunted.

Commerçon sought to answer questions through categories such as attitudes toward bird conservation, scale of hunting and motivations for consumption of wild meat.

Commerçon got help from locals to create survey questions and ask the questions to the local communities. Photo courtesy of: Francis Commerçon

Delwin Benson, one of Commerçon’s honors thesis advisers, studied hunters for most of his career and understands the complicated dynamic between hunters and conservationists. 

“I sometimes worried about him being in a situation where he is interacting with people who are doing something illegal and by inference does that make him a possible person to be looking down upon by the government,” said Benson, a professor in the department of fishery and wildlife biology at CSU.

In the end, Commerçon interviewed 200 people in five villages during that summer.

“The process this summer has got to be the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life, except for perhaps last summer when I raised a baby owl and that was very difficult as well,” Commerçon said.

Commerçon raised an owl. He taught it how to hunt and built an enclosure. Photo courtesy of Francis Commerçon

A villager had taken the owl from its parents. Commerçon could not help but raise it. The baby owl was nocturnal, blind in the day light and only ate meat. He constructed an enclosure and trained the creature how to hunt. As a result, Commerçon lost a lot of sleep, he said.

The extensive surveying led to Commercon learning how hard and time-consuming social science research is, along with the complex relationship between wildlife conservation and culture, he said.  

Many honors students receive platitudes from advisers and professors, but for Commerçon’s advisors, they really mean it.

“He’s a top-knotch person,” Benson said. “Should I give him my advice or should I just let him do it his way because it might be better?”

Jennifer Solomon also advised Commerçon’s thesis project.

“It’s pretty unusual for students to realize that conservation work revolves around the people,” said Solomon, a professor in the Warner College of Natural Resources. “To do that at his stage in his career is impressive.”

He’s a top-knotch person. Should I give him my advice or should I just let him do it his way because it might be better?”

-Delwin Benson, Commerçon’s honors thesis adviser

 

In the end, Commerçon extrapolated several results from his surveying. Some of these results included that eating wild meat tastes better than domestic meat, people would still hunt even if it weren’t fun, the villagers are aware of the bird population decline and they appreciate birds for aesthetic reasons. A finding that inspired Commerçon to conduct more research is the result that the greatest predictor of hunting was the community social norms around it. 

Commerçon plans on visiting Xishuangbanna over winter break. During this visit, he will be able to explore the culture more deeply, he said.

Mingxia Zhang, Commerçon’s advisor in China and an assistant professor at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Gardens, recently received a grant to improve conservation education in the village. Commerçon will return in summer 2018 to help with the project.

“He’s serious in data collection when he’s doing interviews and always works very hard,” Zhang said. “Many people in our office think his work is meaningful as over hunting is a serious threat to local biodiversity.”

Francis Commerçon will present his honors thesis on Nov. 28 in Wagar room 232 at 3:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. 

Collegian reporter Zoe Jennings can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @zoe_jennings4.