Conserving China's Biodiversity

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


Over the past several decades, with the introduction of ecology as a scientific pursuit, China has made advancements in ensuring the health and sustainability of its forests and biodiversity. A very large number of endemic plant and vertebrate species are found in China, plenty of which have value in many areas, including aesthetics and medicine. China’s biodiversity faces many threats, including the invasion of alien species, urbanization and deforestation, as well as global warming. As the monetary value of the products obtained from the many endemic species has been recognized, an increase in environmental awareness has surfaced. Several domestic and international environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) committed to the preservation of China’s forests and wildlife have played an increasing role in educating both the Chinese and the rest of the world. The major issue concerning the preservation of China’s biodiversity is a lack of education in the biological sciences. Increased funding to attract more educated people to work in the Ministry of the Environment, as well as to aid in educating more people is the first logical step.


Loss of biodiversity is becoming an increasing global concern. What is biodiversity and why is it important? It can be described as the variety of living organisms on earth, the range of species, the genetic variability within species and the different characteristics taken on by ecosystems (McBeath & McBeath 2006, p.293). Some estimates state that currently over one thousand species are lost per year, compared to only about four per year before the arrival of humans (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 293).

In China, there are a large variety of species, including a considerable amount of endemic species. An endemic species is one that is restricted to a certain region (Lawrence, 2008, p. 201). It is one of the world’s most diverse countries with respect to biodiversity, housing more than ten percent of the world’s known species (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 293). China is home to more than 35, 000 species of vascular plants (Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2008, p. i; Liu et al., 2003, p. 1240), and nearly 6500 species of vertebrates (Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2008, p. i), of which, respectively, approximately 17,300 and 667 are endemic (Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2008, p. i).

There are several reasons for the high levels of endemism found in China, including: topographical isolation around the mountain ranges, its large size, approximately 9.6 million km2 (Huang et al., 2010, p.1252) — which gives it a great range of physical characteristics—, and the fact that it is an ancient center for evolution (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 316). Of these, topographical isolation seems to have played the largest part (Xu et al., 2009, p. 522).

We find high instances of both paleoendemism, the survival of ancient organisms due to being situated in high elevations, and neoendemism, the speciation of new organisms due to the wide variety of ecological niches provided to them with few competitors (Xu et al., 2009, p.522). Due to the high levels of endemic species found in China, preserving its forests and natural ecosystems should be a priority not only for the people of China, but for the entire globe.

Beyond the obvious aesthetic value of such species as the Chinese icon giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) (Morell, 2008, p. 1442) or the Asiatic elephant (Elephas maximus) (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p.296), we also use China’s biodiversity for a plethora of useful items. We also find plants that we would find in almost every garden in North America; the rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.), primrose (Primulaceae spp.), and lily (Lilium spp.) (Morell, 2008, p. 1442). Other plants with either economic or medicinal value include, but are not limited to, Liquorice spp., Ephedra sinica stapf, Aweto spp., Snow lotuse, and Saline cistanche (Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2008, p. 4).

An increasing loss of species threatens human’s ability to use those species for tasks such as air and food purification, as well as the compounds extracted from certain organisms used in medicines (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 296). In terms of economics, it has been estimated that species extinctions and threats to ecosystems could cost as much as $33 trillion (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 294).

Up until the 1950’s, China showed reasonable judgment when it came to protecting its natural resources. As it turns out, they were just waiting for an industrial revolution of their own. When the Peoples Republic of China was established in 1949 under Mao Zedong, very little attention was given to a preservationist attitude (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 297). With movements like the Great Leap Forward (1958 – 1961) and the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) (McBeath & McBeath, 2006, p. 297), China saw an increase in its timber harvest from 20 million m3/year in the 1950’s to 60 million m3/year in the 1990’s (Zhang et al., 2000, p. 2135).

It is estimated that approximately 90% of China’s grasslands are experiencing some sort of degradation and about 40% of China’s major wetlands are experiencing serious degradation, with special concern given to coastal mudflats and mangroves (Ministry of Environmental Protection, 2008, p. 5). A growing academic and environmentalist movement, combined with natural disasters caused directly by overconsumption – for example, the two floods along the Yangtze River in 1981 and 1998, the second of which caused an estimated $20 billion and claimed 1500 lives (Morell, 2008, p. 1442) – have forced governments into action and new policies and agencies like the National Forest Conservation Program (NFCP) (Zhang et al., 2000, p.2135) have been created.

This article will describe the challenges China faces in dealing with biodiversity; specifically, problems of industrialization and expansion, the invasion of alien species, and, of course, global warming. Government practices and policies will be evaluated, including its recognition of nature reserves and national parks. As well, governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations involved in the conservation of China’s biodiversity will be surveyed.

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