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Biologist devoted to preserving biodiversity

Biologist devoted to preserving biodiversity

Choe Jae-chun heads the nation’s largest ecological park

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Published : 2013-12-27 19:54
Updated : 2013-12-27 20:44

An artist’s conception of the National Institute of Ecology

Over the past few years, dams were built on large rivers and hundreds of ultrahigh-voltage power lines were erected along villages, despite public outcry over environmental concerns.

The construction affected endangered species’ habitats, and drinking water, sitting stagnant, became contaminated.

Biologist Choe Jae-chun strongly believes that such major disruptions in the ecosystem could be prevented if only people knew more about the environment. He vowed to help bring people closer to ecology as the first director of the National Institute of Ecology, the country’s largest ecological park, which opens on Jan. 1.

An artist’s conception of the National Institute of Ecology

“I like to say, ‘You’ll love it more when you know more about it,” Choe told The Korea Herald in an interview last week.

Hopes are running high for the 59-year-old biologist’s role in promoting and drawing a blueprint of the center for the next three years.

Although there are about 70 ecological centers and arboretums, the new park in Seocheon, South Gyeongsang Province, is the first of its kind to be firmly based on the study of ecology.

“Other organizations in Korea similar to the park often come up with short-sighted solutions because they lack an ecological foundation and experts,” Choe said.

The director stressed a state-run organization that can provide a clear ecological paradigm is desperately needed in the country, where economic and environmental interests often clash.

The center’s role is largely divided into two parts: exhibition and research.

Five interlinked glasshouses, together called the Ecorium, have been designed to create the climate conditions of a desert, tropical area, Mediterranean region, warm temperate zone and polar region.

More than 71 ecology experts ― about one-third of the total 204 employees ― were carefully chosen to secure the center’s foundation.

The 326 billion won project to build the ecological research and exhibition facilities began in 2007 as a replacement of the 1989 plan to develop the coastal area into the Janghang Industrial Zone.

The center’s key mission is to boost public awareness about biodiversity and the environment.

Choe was, in that respect, the right man for the job. The public was already familiar with him through numerous lectures on TV and his avuncular image helped the center to cooperate smoothly with Seocheon residents.

Choe says he may have been destined to be part of the town.

In 2004, he met the residents for the first time when he was offered to give a speech for a town development project that aimed to advertise its unspoiled wilderness.

At a related event, he suggested a high-ranking government official establish a state-run ecological center where people can understand the provision of nature.

Years later, that became a reality.

“I’ve sacrificed my other duties in Seoul as a scholar to be at what could become the cornerstone of ecological studies in Korea,” he said.

Choe believes the culmination of the center’s lengthy efforts could one day be comparable with the Eden Project, Kew Garden in the U.K. and Masoala Rainforest in Switzerland.

The three are among the world’s largest and most renowned artificial natural reserves, each attracting about 1 million visitors every year.

The Eden Project and the new ecological center, Choe noted, share one interesting fact: The first directors of the two parks have varied careers involving time working as scientists and creating other environment centers, and both have a strong interest in the arts.

The Eden Project’s former chief executive and cofounder Tim Smit is known for his work as a musician and creating the Lost Gardens of Heligan. He is known to have played a major role in creating some sunny ground in a former clay pit, and making it a global brand.

Choe, too, has had an interesting career, specializing animal behavior and writing more than 30 books. He has always collaborated with designers when conducting research projects to fulfill his interest in design, and established the Biodiversity Foundation with Jane Goodall this year.

The question is whether it will be fun, creative and attention-grabbing for visitors ― which are deemed the success factors of the three artificial natural reserves.

Choe says he would like to collaborate with various artists to show scientific discoveries in the form of arts.

“It could be a music festival like the Jarasum Jazz Festival or an art exhibition. We’re in the process of developing ideas about what can come out when science and arts are blended together,” Choe added.

“To make it happen, we first need to collect various specimens over time, study deeply into each subject and make a solid storyline with them in exhibition facilities.” 

Profile of Choe Jae-chun

● Choe is the chair professor of the Division of Ecoscience, director of its research institute and director of the natural history museum at Ewha Womans University.

● He served as a professor of biology at Seoul National University from 1994-2005. He was named a junior fellow of the University of Michigan and worked as an assistant professor from 1992-1994.

● Choe graduated from Seoul National University with a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1977 and earned his doctoral degree at Harvard University in 1990.

● Choe, who specializes in animal behavior, ecology and sociobiology, has published more than 30 books and appeared on numerous TV programs over the last 10 years on making science more interesting to the public.

By Suk Gee-hyun

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