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Few outside of China have heard of the zokor, but the endemic burrowing rodent’s impact on China’s vulnerable alpine grasslands has lead to research collaboration between Gansu and Massey Universities.
A joint research centre based at Gansu Agricultural University in the city of Lanzhou in northwest China will address alpine grassland degradation – an issue the central government in Beijing has identified as a key priority.
Scientists from both institutions will pool their expertise to investigate what can be done to help restore the biodiversity of the vulnerable region, which is beset with a host of pressures including overgrazing of cattle, sheep, goats and yaks, deforestation, soil erosion and water shortages.
Leading the venture is Massey University conservation biologist Dr Weihong Ji, a former lecturer at Gansu Agricultural University now based at the Institute of Natural Sciences at Massey’s Albany campus. She had been involved with a series of collaborative research projects at Gansu, and was keen for Massey to forge a formal link with the institution. The Gansu Agricultural University and Massey University Research Centre of Grassland Biodiversity is the result. Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin, who heads the University’s New Zealand Institute for Advanced Study, and Gansu Agricultural University’s Chancellor, Professor Gaobao Huang, signed the MoU last week.
One of the key projects for the centre is the effect of alpine grassland degradation on the plateau zokor, a subterranean rodent native to the region. “Not much is known about the ecology of this species – there’s a big gap to be filled,” Dr Ji says.
“Zokor are normally not pests. Quite the contrary, they are part of the ecosystem and their grazing and tunnelling are good for the soil chemistry and structure, and plant diversity. However, they become problems when the grasslands are overgrazed by livestock and they aggravate the grassland degradation,” she says. “Degraded alpine meadow restoration is a very complex task involving the balance of human needs, wildlife and plants which are all part of the natural system.”
Research will target the effect of livestock grazing and wildlife populations on grassland ecology and ecosystem health to find new solutions that will benefit the local grassland economy while conserving biodiversity.
Other Massey scientists involved in the centre’s research team include nutritional ecologist Professor David Raubenheimer and conservation biologist Associate Professor Dianne Brunton.
“The memorandum covers a range of doctoral and postdoctoral exchanges and secures significant research funding and postgraduate support for Massey,” says Professor Martin.
Gansu Province is a long, narrow region in northwest China of around 400 million hectares, with an estimated population of 40 million people. The southwest region of Gansu is alpine grassland, part of the Tibetan plateau. The average annual temperature there is below 2° C and vegetation only grows for three months of the year. Eighty per cent of the grasslands in Gansu are considered degraded.