Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 10:33 PM CST – China

Environment

Biodiversity Decline

Saving Species

A new WWF report has detailed the massive decline in China’s wild animal populations over the past 40 years, a problem scientists, government officials and local communities are now working to reverse

A female snow leopard and her cub in the Wolong Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province Photo by CNS

The Chinese alligator is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List Photo by CNS

Wild bird populations in China rose significantly from 2000 to 2010 Photo by CNS

Numbers of Tibetan antelope have been growing since the late 1990s Photo by CNS

With sound protection measures, its common to see wild animals, like the Tibetan gazelle (pictured), on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau Photo by CNS

From 1970 to 2010, global populations of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish have shrunk by about 52 percent. China is right in the middle of the global pack with a 50 percent loss of its land-based vertebrate population, according to a first-of-its-kind report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in November 2015. The situation grows more stark when population data for the country’s surviving amphibian and reptile species are examined separately. Over that 40-year period, numbers of these two groups fell by 97 percent. Habitat loss, poaching and climate change all contributed to this devastation.

Yet despite these dismal statistics, recent data are also sprinkled with kernels of optimism –  such as China’s growing bird population and an increasing number of nature reserves –  which give experts encouragement. Coupled with recent shifts in policy and public awareness, environmentalists are hopeful that China can step up to the plate as a major player in future global conservation efforts.

Decline

The WWF’s Living Planet Report – China 2015 was a combined effort between the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), the Global Footprint Network, the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research and the Institute of Zoology (IOZ) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). While the CCICED and the WWF have collaborated before, this report is the first to combine three indices –  the Variation Trend Index of Chinese Vertebrates, ecological footprint and water footprint –  to create a more comprehensive look at China’s current situation.

Researchers analyzed data from 1,385 representative populations of 405 vertebrate species in China, which account for about 6.4 percent of the country’s total number of vertebrate species. Those species comprised 161 mammals, 184 birds and 60 amphibians and reptiles, which have far and away suffered the most of all the vertebrates studied.

IOZ researcher Yang Qisen said that there are two factors depressing amphibians and reptile numbers in particular: excessive hunting of certain species whose parts are used in traditional Chinese medicines, and the fact that these animals are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss, population isolation and climate change. Amphibians and reptiles are more sensitive to humidity and temperature shifts (studies indicate that populations plummet in dry years) and have less ability to migrate compared to birds and mammals.

River systems, particularly those in southern China where humidity and warm temperatures create an ideal habitat for amphibians and reptiles, have become severely polluted due to decades of rapid economic development, according to IOZ associate researcher Xie Yan. Breakneck development along China’s eastern coast has also destroyed habitats, leading to further population decline.

Aquatic animals suffer alongside their terrestrial brethren. A typical example is the Yangtze River dolphin, which scientists declared functionally extinct in 2006. The Yangtze finless porpoise, the world’s only freshwater porpoise, has begun to face a similarly fatal situation to that of its cousin. The species was upgraded from Endangered to Critically Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species in July 2013. Fewer than 1,000 of them remain.

Despite an overall decline, Chinese land-based vertebrate populations experienced a short-term increase during the 1980s. Yang Qisen explained that a possible reason for the temporary fluctuation was the turbulence China experienced during the mid-20th century. When people were starving during famines in the 1960s and 1970s, they killed bats and rats for food, causing huge losses in vermin populations. As the country’s economic and political situation changed in the 1970s and 1980s, high fertility rates caused the same populations to explode. Another possibility, according to Xie Yan, was the nationwide campaign to stop the killing of large mammals such as tigers that kicked off in the early 1980s. Their numbers increased for a few years, but took a turn for the worse in the following decade due to habitat loss caused by human activities, including the widespread adoption of pesticides in the agricultural sector.

Revival

The 2015 report is not all bad news. Research shows that the bird population remained relatively stable from 1970 to 2000, and then began to rise significantly, resulting in an overall increase of 43 percent by 2010. The report suggests they bucked the trend because of the benefits of an increased number of reserves and the protection of recently enacted laws and regulations. China’s wildlife protection law, adopted in 1988, and its principles on nature reserve management, implemented in 1994, have both effectively curtailed poaching.

In the 1990s, enhanced awareness of environmental protection and biodiversity led to a significant change in the public’s attitude towards animal protection. “According to my personal experience in the field, I think the general [biodiversity] situation has improved since the 1990s, when protection measures were adopted,” Yi Shaoliang, senior national resource management specialist at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, told NewsChina during an interview in late November. According to Yi, wolves that had almost disappeared in some mountain regions in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces started to reappear in the early 2000s. “In 2014, the last time I went to that area in northwestern Sichuan, locals told me more wolves were coming back, which also posed a big threat to their livestock,” Yi added.

Some of China’s conservation campaigns for certain species, particularly crowd-pleasers such as the panda, have shown encouraging results in reviving lost populations. During an event at the Paris climate conference, world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall said that there has been a “huge change in awareness” in China since she first visited 17 years ago. “Think of the panda: No Chinese person I’ve ever met would be happy if the panda went extinct, and now they are beginning to realize that the other animals are important, too,” she said.

Over a 10-year period, from 2003 to 2013, the number of pandas living in the wild increased from 1,596 to 1,864, according to China’s State Forestry Administration.

“Often people’s engagement starts around what we refer to as a charismatic animal… the panda, the tiger, the snow leopard, things that people just don’t want to lose,” IUCN director general Inger Andersen told our reporter. “And that’s very good because this is a symbol for people for nature as a whole.”

Protecting “cuddly“ animals may have real-world as well as symbolic benefits, according to Xie Yan. These animals, like the Siberian tiger in northeastern China and the snow leopard in China’s west, are often “umbrella species,” meaning they are more or equally sensitive to deviations in their habitats than surrounding animals, so by monitoring and looking after the umbrella species, scientists can theoretically also protect many other animals under its umbrella. They also tend to have large habitat ranges, so safeguarding these animals may lead to a more intact ecological environment for entire regions.

Over the last two decades, as urbanization has driven rural farmers to China’s sprawling cities, swathes of farmland have been left unattended. Former mountain slopes that farmers had previously harnessed for agricultural purposes have now returned to nature. This habitat shift is particularly apparent in southwestern China, including Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces. As a result, some species have seen their numbers tick upward. Yunnan golden monkeys, which were thought to be extinct until the 1960s, have begun to grow in number, from a few hundred to the present few thousand in the wild.

The Tibetan antelope is another good example. Poachers hunted the animal for its soft and warm wool known as shahtoosh, driving the antelope to endangered status. The animal, also known as the chiru, started to attract international attention in the late 1990s. With an effective anti-poaching movement, the population has increased from some 60,000 to the present 200,000. In the newest China Species Red List of Vertebrates that was released by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the CAS in December, the Tibetan antelope has been moved from the Endangered section to Near Threatened.

Prospects

China ranks eighth among the world’s 17 “megadiverse” countries, which have been so identified based on their exceptional biodiversity. Its vast land area supports more than 30,000 higher plant species (half of which are endemic to China) and 6,347 vertebrate species –  that is 10 percent and 14 percent of the total number of recorded global species, respectively.

In recent years, China has gradually shifted the focus of environmental protection and sustainable growth to the more integrated approach of “ecological civilization,” a concept that aims to achieve the benefits of development in “harmonious coexistence” with nature. These principles are reflected in numerous policy documents and government actions.

One step in the right direction is the increasing number of the country’s nature reserves. From 100 in the 1980s to the present 2,700, they now make up more than 18 percent of China’s land area. Particularly in the last two or three years, more effective financial support has been invested into protected regions and reserve management has visibly improved. Xie Yan said that, while government funding in this sector is significant, there is still a long way to go. “Reserves that protect forested areas have shown great progress, but the degree of protection [allotted to] grasslands, wetlands and particularly river systems is far from sufficient,” Xie said. “They will require more attention in the future.”

China’s National Development and Reform Commission has signed contracts with the Paulson Institute to set up a national system of parks and protected areas. The goal is to research the optimal model for China’s park system that will fit the country’s unique circumstances and meet international standards at the same time.

The change isn’t just happening at the top –  effective pilot programs for animal protection are sprouting up across China because of grassroots initiatives. The protection of the snow leopard in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau region is a prime example of the combined efforts of community members, scientists and local governments. Tibetans, under the support and guidance of related NGOs, are practicing animal protection and monitoring measures. Such activities, coupled with strict government regulations on rifles, have made great strides in the protection of certain local animals. “Despite being listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, the possibility of a recovery for snow leopards is very high,” Gao Yufang, executive director of Everest Snow Leopard Conservation Center, told NewsChina. “Hopefully China can play a leadership role in the protection of this species.”

With more and more young people starting environmental NGOs, the Chinese public is growing more environmentally aware. “That is how environmental voices start, and that voice echoes with the government of China when they are talking about eco civilization... [which is] imperative to support biodiversity,” Anderson said.

Li Lin, executive program director of WWF China, expressed his aspirations for the future in a statement after WWF’s 2015 report was published: “We hope that China can detach economic growth from ecological degradation and incorporate biodiversity protection into its going global strategies such as [the] One Belt, One Road strategy and [the] ‘South-South’ cooperation strategy, to contribute to global sustainable development within the limits of our one planet.” 

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