Introduction to Biodiversity Conservation
China was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity, in 1993. Since then, the government has catalogued national species, created an endangered list, shown real determination to enforce the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and designated many species and habitats as 'protected.' Unfortunately, however, protection mechanisms themselves remain very weak, as does conservation financing.
Centuries of intensive farming and human settlement across eastern China have whittled away at wilderness areas and left very little biodiversity in managed cropland. Recent years have seen some recovery of wild bird populations, as the most destructive tendencies of Maoism have been checked. However, more general recovery of biodiversity in farmland is constrained by the spread of high yielding varieties (and, now, genetically modified crops), intensive use of agrichemicals, rural industrialisation, pollution of freshwater and general infrastructure development. Most eastern and central provinces are biodiversity-poor, and it is highly likely that prized, indigenous mammal species such as the Yangtze Baiji Dolphin and the South China Tiger are now in fact extinct.
China's residual 'biodiversity reservoirs' and are thus mainly to be found in upland and western areas, (especially in Yunnan Province, which has a wide range of micro-climates and environments, from the Tibet plateau in the north to tropical forests in the south.) Biodiversity conservation in these areas is of course intimately related to natural resource management, especially of forests (see separate section).
The State Forestry Administration and its sub-national offices are responsible for most (but not all) of China’s protected areas, which together cover more than 7% of the national territory. However, nature reserves, especially locally-designated reserves, have very little funding and very few staff—and they, in the main, have little specialist knowledge or expertise. In the past, forest conservation efforts were almost exclusively confined to fire prevention. In the years prior to the 1998 logging ban, Forestry authorities in many areas actually oversaw logging operations and sought various other ways to themselves extract revenues from the forests.
New forest protection policies aspire to change this pattern. Financing for conservation remains a major difficulty, however, especially as local governments in the most biodiverse-rich regions are among the poorest in China. Likewise, tens of millions of China’s poorest people live within or near protected areas but there have been relatively few, credible examples of reconciling their livelihood needs with conservation efforts (notwithstanding the numerous, internationally funded projects that have attempted to demonstrate this approach). Both local governments and local people now also have very frequently to with well-organised groups of outsiders who come to hunt, mine or collect plants in nominally protected areas.
Mass tourism is a newly emerging threat, and one in which Forestry authorities are again implicated, as in many areas they promote quite large-scale ‘eco-tourism’ development that can easily create unsustainable demand for local, 'wild meat,' medicinal plants, etc.
Even if managed better, it is doubtful that a nature reserve system would suffice permanently to protect China’s remaining biodiversity unless, minimally, eco-friendly ‘corridors’ were also maintained between protected areas, to improve survival prospects for, especially, mammal ‘flagship’ species such as snub-nosed monkeys, pandas, wild camels and Tibetan antelope. Unfortunately, trends in the western China, under the aegis of the Western Development Strategy, are moving in a somewhat different direction. New road, rail, energy and other infrastructure projects are further dividing habitats, confining large wildlife to more and more precariously isolated pockets.
Further reading and resources in English:
Worldwide Fund for Nature
The Nature Conservancy
The International Fund for Animal Welfare in China
State Environment Protection Agency’s biodiversity webpage
National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plan
China Biodiversity Conservation Action Plan
"Protecting China's Biodiversity" by Jianguo Liu and Zhiyun Ouyang. Science, Vol 300, Issue 5623, 1240-1241, 23 May 2003.
Updated: November 15, 2005