Zongbo Jiang Digital heroes inspired by Earth’s most endangered species

WordsAlia Wilhelm

Meet Zongbo Jiang’s Climate Heroes. The villain they’re battling? Global warming. Each of these lovable, digital characters are based on one of Earth’s most endangered species. Existing on a cramped island, space is scarce and sought after, and Jiang sees the project as an imagining of each species’ final encounter with “looming demise.” It’s a fun and colorful—and hence accessible—take on a very real problem, and here, he tells writer Alia Wilhelm about the process behind some of his favorites.

Zongbo Jiang’s digital art exhibition “Climate Heroes” is a fantastical foretelling of what the future could hold for twelve of the earth’s most endangered species. The villain, of course, is global warming. Based on WWF’s “Feeling The Heat” report, which forecasts a 1.5°C increase in the global temperature by 2050, Jiang has conjured up a universe that is at once intimate and divided. Anthropomorphic renderings of tropical coral, squirrel monkeys and snow leopards in shrunken versions of their usual habitats are packed onto a small island. Space is scarce and sought after. Jiang describes the video as an imagining of each species’ final encounter with “looming demise.”

The visual activist began working on the self-initiated project following an abnormally hot summer in the UK, where he is based. Partway through a year-long residency at the Sarabande Foundation, founded by the late Alexander McQueen, Jiang hired a team of interns to collaborate full-time on the research and design. The first step, most important to get right, were the characters. For each species, starting with the bumblebee, Jiang created a “hero profile” consisting of classification and geographical range, as well as its strengths and biggest global warming challenges.

After designing the characters in Z-Brush, Jiang moved onto creating the species’ garments in CLO3D. Studying fashion at the Royal Collage of Art taught him to think deeply about garment design, which is evident in all of his projects but particularly so in Climate Heroes. For each character, Jiang designed a bespoke digital garment symbolizing the adaptive changes necessary for the species to survive climate change. He reimagined the Atlantic Puffin, for example, as an armour-clad female warrior gearing up to protect its young from erratic weather. Meanwhile, Darwin’s Frog, surrounded by mushrooms, dons a dotted waterproof cape and pointed hat to warn off impending floods and the spread of infectious diseases. 

Grounded in fact but embellished by Jiang’s creative thinking, the project is unique in that it exists at the intersection of climate activism, data visualization and digital art. His hope is to captivate visual learners and members of the younger generation not as amenable to engaging with text-based data. What is important to him, following a childhood in China, is not to tell people what to think but to present them with the facts. “It’s my way of protesting,” he says. “But people can take however much they want from it, based on their own perspectives.” The aim, he explains, was to steer clear of creating something decidedly utopic or dystopic. “It is a protopia landscape,” he says. Part horror story, part fairy tale, it is about working towards a better tomorrow based on what is possible today.


When designing the bluebell, a member of the lily family native to the UK, Jiang focused on representing the fact that the flower’s bloom times may soon be out of sync with the seasons. As WWF’s “Feeling The Heat'' report explains, “for each 1°C temeperature increase, the plants were leafing or flowering between three and eight days earlier than they used to.” Consequently, bluebells may not be able to take advantage of blooming in an open canopy in the early spring and will likely become a rarer flower in the future. With this in mind, Jiang designed his version of the bluebell with a confused dancer in mind. “The idea is that it is caught between two stages,” he says of his arresting magenta-headed character. “On its front it has flowers, already open. On the back they are unborn.”


The largest of all living penguin species, the emperor penguin requires stable ice for at least nine months of the years, in order to “mate, incubate their eggs, raise their chicks, and replace their feathers during the annual moult.” Higher temperatures mean that parents and their offspring are forced off the ice too early. “My character speaks to this lack of space, to their being less ice,” Jiang says. His penguin dons sunglasses and a red and black fleece, reflective of its need for waterproof plumage. “The penguin is standing, looking around, asking itself how it’s going to survive,” he explains.


According to WWF, these ancient reptiles are declining as a result of plastic pollution, poaching and habitat destruction. Though adult species often weigh more than half a tonne, they are considered gentle giants, sensitive to the smallest increases in temperature. When animating them, Jiang was inspired by the idea of a dance, since hotter sand makes it difficult for the turtles to select nesting beaches to settle on, and the interrupted incubation period, combined with rising sea levels, higher tides and more frequent storms, has a direct effect on both the sex and survival of the offspring. “Becuase they are shy creatures, I chose to hide their faces under sunglasses and a hat,” Jiang explains. In Climate Heroes, they are weighed down by a life jacket and an overcoat “with wires across its back” and a love-heart cut-out, showing that they cannot move as easily. “They look really sad,” he says, pointing out their downcast eyes. “This part of the design process was more emotional.”

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Mountain hares display a brown pelage in the warmer months but moult and switch to a white coat in the late fall, so as to camouflage when it snows. However, rising temperatures mean less snow days, during which the hare’s camouflage is mismatched to its environment. Jiang chose to symbolize this by showing the hare as though caught in the spotlight while going to the bathroom. “Its dress is halfway up, to show that it is nervous and anxious about the situation,” he says. Like the bluebell, the hare is caught between transitions, its timing out of sync with its surroundings.


According to WWF, “human settlements and agricultural activites have encroached into the wetlands, lakes, rivers and ponds that hippos use.” The species also face multiple threats to their existence due to meat and ivory poaching. “Because people are cutting down more and more of the hippo’s habitat, I decided to show them as territorial boxers,” Jiang says. The hippo, bouncing on its feet as though warming up for a fight, is shown in a wooden boxing ring. When designing its garment, Jiang was inspired to create an outfit that references the species’ geographical range of sub-Saharan Africa. The result was tribal wear with headgear that conceals the animal as much as it protects and empowers it.