Conserving China's Biodiversity

By Kevin Pyne
Earth Common Journal
2013, Vol. 3 No. 1 | pg. 2/3 |

Challenges / Threats

The major threats to the conservation of natural ecosystems in China are rapid expansion and industrialization. There are currently just over 19,000 small cities in China—up from about 3000 twenty years ago—and another 50,000 towns are currently being developed (Lu et al., 2011, p. 1710). With this, China has seen a rise in urbanization and GDP, ranking as the second largest economy in the world (Lu et al., 2011, p. 1710). The obvious consequence of all this growth is an increased demand for agricultural and timber products (Zhang et al., 2000, p.2135; Lu et al., 2011, p. 1710).

Along the Qionglai Mountain Range in China’s Sichuan province, dense forests were destroyed beginning in the 1950’s and escalating in the 1970’s (Morell, 2008, p. 1442). Reports in 1998 that underestimated the extent of threats faced by China’s species have since been refuted with the actual results being far more severe than previously assessed (Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2008, p. 5). A booming tourism industry has led the degradation of protected areas (Wang & Jia, 2012, p. 25). The Chinese are also culpable of excessive reclamation, massive water conservancy projects such as dams, railway and highway construction, as well as the discharge of industrial and municipal wastes (Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2008, p. 6). All of these activities are the product of rapid growth and urbanization and all are harmful to the longevity of natural ecosystems.

One of the results of the massive growth of China’s industrial complex is the invasion of alien species, one of the most important factors endangering biodiversity (Xu et al., 2006, p. 2893). They expedite the loss of species and genetic biodiversity, destroy the harmonious structure and function of an ecosystem, and can even cause tremendous economic losses (Xu et al., 2006, p. 2901).

An invasive alien species can be defined as an alien species that establishes itself in natural habitats, is an agent of change, and threatens native biological diversity (Xu et al., 2006, p. 2894). More than half of the invasive species in China are terrestrial plants originating from North or South America (Xu et al., 2006, p. 2895). About half of the invasive species in China were introduced unintentionally, with about 40% being introduced intentionally as a means for turning a profit and almost 60% of all invasive species have invaded valuable agricultural land (Xu et al., 2006, p. 2895). Black rot of sweet potato (Ceratocystis fimbriata) and cotton verticillium wilt (Verticillium dahlia) are just a couple of the microorganisms which bear diseases in crops that are invasive alien species brought to China through timber or soil (Xu et al., 2006, p. 2897). There are 188 invasive alien plants in China that found their way there via introduction as useful plants, natural dispersion from neighboring countries, introduction through farm products, or invasion via imported wheat seeds (Xu et al., 2006, p. 2897). Approximately 25% of the invasive alien animal species were introduced intentionally – such as the Bullfrog, which was bred for characteristics of big body, rapid growth, and tastiness (Xu et al., 2006, p. 2899) – compared to 76.3% being introduced unintentionally.

Some estimates say invasive alien species have caused losses ranging up to $138 billion in the United States (Xu et al., 2006, p. 1496). Xu and his colleagues (2006) conducted a study examining data collected from 2001 to 2003 regarding invasive alien species in China and determined that direct economic losses – direct goods damage – caused by invasive alien species to be $2.397 billion with losses in agriculture taking the biggest hit at 61.48% (p. 1498). The same study determined indirect economic losses – loss of serviceable function of ecosystems – caused by alien invasive species to be $12.056 billion (p. 1499), with losses to forest and agricultural ecosystems losing $1.959 billion and $1.404 billion (p.1499), respectively. The total direct and indirect economic losses from this study added up to $14.45 billion, or 1.36% of China’s GDP in 2000 (p. 1499).

Of course, climate change plays a role in the loss of biodiversity, albeit a minor one compared to the threats of industrialization and invasive alien species. The major threat is the melting of glacial ice atop the Himalayan mountain ranges as global temperatures rise. Warming at high elevations occurs at three times the global average and annual mean warming is expected to be around 3oC by 2050 and 5oC by 2080 (Xu et al., 2009, p. 522). This runs the risk of increased melting, and thus increased soil erosion, flooding, and quicker depletion of 25% of the Chinese populations’ water supply (Xu et al., 2009, p. 522). The threats also extend to alpine plants, synchronous predator-prey relationships, increased invasions of alien species and endemic species being especially vulnerable due to their limited geographic range (Xu et al., 2009, p. 524 - 525).

Government Practice / Policy

Throughout much of the latter half of the 20th century, the centralized Chinese government paid little attention to conservation and protection of its wildlife. It was not until the 1980s that the National People’s Congress enacted the first forest legislation. The Grassland Law was enacted in 1985, which described principles for forest management, set up a timber harvest quota system, and required permits for shipping timber (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 298). Protection of China’s forests is critical not only due to the high levels of species - especially endemic species - throughout their forests (Hou et al., 2010, p. 378), but also because of the threats to globally cherished mammal species like the black-crested gibbon (Nomascus concolor) (Peng-Fei et al., 2009, p. 203). The greatest number of N. concolor are found in China and they are especially sensitive to habitat destruction (Peng-Fei et al., 2009, p. 203), so the protection of China’s forests is essential to the survival of this species. Although in recent years there has been extensive dam construction for hydroelectric power in some of China’s forested areas along the Yangtze River, forest conservation has remained a priority (Guo et al., 2007, p. 1558).

To its credit, China has taken action by rapidly establishing a large number of nature reserves, parks and other protected areas since the 1990s (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 316). As of 2011, 2538 nature reserves had been established, with more than 50% of these being established since 1995 (Zhou & Grumbine, 2011, p. 1315). These reserves cover more than 15% of China’s land mass (Zhou & Grumbine, 2011, p. 1315). But what is a nature reserve?

Protected areas in China include three separate management zones, core areas, buffer zones, and experimental zones. Core areas are not to be used for habitation or any other reason apart from limited scientific research. Buffer zones are areas where habitation is still not permitted, but there is more access for scientific research, along with some collection and measurements by amateurs. Finally, the experimental zone is where scientific investigation, public education, tourism, and raising rare endangered species are permitted (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 299). This zoning system copies the same one proposed by UNESCO for use in Biosphere Reserves (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 299).

The issues associated with China’s nature reserves revolve around funding and management capacity. In order to fund its natural reserves, China has adopted an American-style, free-market strategy, relying on funding from local authorities and large international corporations (Zhou & Grumbine, 2011, p. 1315). Also, it has been reported that the employees working in natural reserves have minimal education about the biological sciences, and ecology in general, with a recent study indicating that only about one third of China’s nature reserve staff have adequate training (Zhou & Grumbine, 2011, p. 1315). Until the federal government begins to increase funding for its natural reserves, this problem will not be ameliorated.

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