Ecosystems and Nature Conservation (生态系统与自然保护)
China is one of the earth’s most biologically diverse countries. This may surprise readers familiar with the massive industrial cities and appalling pollution problems that plague much of the country. China’s ecological wealth is even more remarkable following four millennia of intensive land use and environmental transformation north of the Yangzi (Chang) River, and two millennia in much of the rest of the country. To understand China’s species richness, we must realize that is a function of much older processes of evolutionary adaptation to a tremendous variety of landforms, climate zones, vegetation types, and ecosystems covering a vast land area. It is also a result of the country’s geographic location between arctic and subarctic regions to the north and tropical zones further south. China has long been the meeting ground for an astonishing array of plants and animals from quite different bioregions.
To put this into global perspective, Conservation International designated China as one of seventeen megadiversity countries and the eighth most biologically diverse after Brazil, Indonesia, Colombia, Mexico, Australia, Madagascar, and the Philippines (Mittermeier et al. 1997, 10). With 6,347 species of vertebrates, including 3,787 fish, 1,310 bird, 539 mammal, 390 reptile, and 321 amphibian species, the country places third for mammals (9.8 percent of the global total), eighth for birds (12.6 percent), and seventh for both reptiles and amphibians (3.4 percent and 4.3 percent respectively) (Xu et al. 2008, 633–635; Coggins 2017, 130–132). This represents the greatest biological wealth of any country lying mostly outside of the tropics.
Another way to understand China’s mammalian diversity is to compare the number of species within the order Artiodactyla (even-toed hoofed animals, including deer, pigs, peccaries, hippopotamuses, camels, giraffes, pronghorn, sheep, goats, and cattle) to the number within the same order in North America (Canada, the United States, and Mexico). China has forty-three species, whereas North America holds only fifteen. High endemism, which refers to species unique to a given geographic region, is another important indicator of biodiversity. In China, endemics include such well-known animals as the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis), and the Yangzi River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer). Roughly one-sixth of China’s mammal species and two-thirds of its amphibians are endemic, but long-term anthropogenic ecological disturbance since the earliest dynasties, and the intensification of environmental change since the mid-twentieth century have resulted in the extinction or severe depletion of many species. One hundred and sixty-five vertebrates in China are on the IUCN Red List of Critically Endangered or Endangered Species, and over 600 additional vertebrates are listed as Vulnerable (MEP 2014, 16–19).
Climate Regions, Biomes, and Ecosystems
Much of China’s biophysical diversity emerges from its topography, which ranges in elevation from the earth’s highest point, the summit of Mount Everest (8,850 m), to Ayding Lake in the Turpan Depression in Xinjiang (-154 m). Within this 9,000-meter gradient lie five topographic regions running from near sea level on the eastern coastline to the “roof of the world” in the west, in a three-stair step pattern (Veeck et al. 2016, 21–4). The first stair step comprises the low elevation regions of eastern China—the Northeast Plain, North China Plain, and the Southern Hills and Mountains. The second step lies to the north, west, and northwest, including much of the regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. The third and highest stair consists of the Qinghai-Tibet High Plateau and associated mountain ranges. Representative landform regions within each step include the snow-capped high mountains of the Himalayas and Hengduan ranges, which fringe the frigid Tibetan Plateau; the deep river valleys of the upper Yangzi and Mekong that dissect the eastern reaches of the top stair, passing low latitude glaciers before plunging into lower regions to the south and east; the broad, mountain-ringed bowl of Sichuan’s Red Basin; desert sand dunes of the far northwest interior, which grade into the rolling plains of the northern and western grasslands and define much of the second step; the teeming rainforests of Xishuangbanna and Hainan Island, which share ecological characteristics with nearby Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam; the myriad craggy karst formations of the mountainous south; the volcanic calderas such as Heaven Lake (Tianchi) on the border with North Korea; and myriad variations on these landscapes that defy enumeration. Though the land is generally high in the west and descends to the east coast, mountains, plateaus, and hills comprise roughly 70 percent of China’s land area. Altitudinal zonation of habitats further enhances biodiversity, requiring adaptation to specific microclimates and soil types. Rugged terrain not only drives habitat heterogeneity, but also helps ensure the survival of wild species since most of the country’s arable land and human population are found in lowland plains (12 percent of the land area) and basins (19 percent), and much of the latter are not arable because they occur in desert zones in the north and northwest (Coggins 2017, 129).
Through evolutionary time, China’s complex terrain has undergone dramatic changes in geology and climate while playing host to plants and animals associated with two of the world’s eight major ecozones—the humid tropical and subtropical Indomalaya Ecozone, which includes South and Southeast Asia, and the temperate and cold Palearctic Ecozone, which is associated with Central Asia, Russia, and Europe. China is a biological mixing ground, resulting in unusually diverse ecological assemblages. In situ evolution and vicariant events (processes that connect or divide the geographic ranges of individual taxa or entire biota) also account for habitat heterogeneity and high levels of endemism. China’s eight major vegetation regions reflect this diversity at a general level.
The border between the two ecozones is known as the Qinling (Mountain)-Huai River Ecotone, an approximate line (and actually a mixing zone itself) that divides the humid tropics and subtropics of the south from temperate, cold, and dry regions further north and west. South of the line lie tropical monsoonal rain forests and subtropical broadleaved evergreen forests, China’s Indomalaya Ecozone. North and west of the line lie the Palearctic vegetation regions, including deciduous forest throughout the North China Plain and parts of the Loess Plateau; mixed conifer and hardwood forest in the northeast; steppe grasslands across Inner Mongolia; highland deserts in northwestern China; and a variety of highland vegetation types across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the Himalayas. These vegetation regions are products of long-term adaptation to China’s monsoonal climate, which is associated with a markedly decreasing precipitation gradient from the south and eastern coasts to the western and northern interior zones. The western boundary of the potentially forested regions is roughly defined by a 38 cm isohyet (line of equal precipitation), west of which lies the steppe, highland vegetation, and highland desert (Coggins 2017, 129–130).
Human-Induced Ecological Changes—Effects on Fauna and Flora
Over the long course of Chinese civilization, the highest levels of ecological disturbance have occurred in forested ecoregions east and south of the 38 cm isohyet, which have mostly been converted to agricultural civilization marked by high human population densities. Since roughly 3000 bce, agrarian expansion has driven extinction and range reduction through habitat loss and hunting pressure. The spread of civilization since the Bronze Age (2600–650 bce) correlates with large-scale deforestation, vertebrate population decline, range reduction, and extinction (Coggins 2003, 51–86; Coggins 2010, 433–35; Elvin 2004, 19–39; Marks 2012, 55–70). While anthropogenic ecological disturbance progressed steadily, it accelerated with the rapid human population growth of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), increasing still more rapidly after the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power.
Responses to ecological disturbance vary by species, and Chinese historical sources provide valuable data on long-term range reduction and extinction in tigers, elephants, gibbons, monkeys, peacocks, alligators, dolphins, and other vertebrates. Three large mammals that were once keystone species, the South China tiger, Asian elephant (Elaphas maximus), and Yangzi River dolphin provide instructive examples. The South China tiger adapts well to habitat disturbance as long as prey are available and refuge from humans remains amid rugged terrain with adequate vegetation, but they were recently driven to extinction by hunting. Asian elephants were driven out of most of their range beginning early in Chinese history, as forest clearance destroyed their habitat, including refugial zones. Yangzi River dolphins succumbed to habitat alteration and pollution along their principle range in the Yangzi Basin, which peaked following the construction of the Three Gorges Dam from 1994 to 2006 (Zhang 1999; Marks 2012, 293; Coggins 2003, 51–86; Elvin 2004, 11–17; Turvey et al. 2008, 160–163; 2013).
Ecological degradation culminated in the Great Leap Forward (and Backyard Iron Smelting Movement) (1958–1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), with brutal campaigns to “conquer” nature and convert wild and domestic plants and animals, minerals, and water sources into industrial resources (Shapiro 2001, 80–93). Timber resources were exploited without regeneration plans or sustainable harvests. The Great Leap Forward has become known as “the First Great Cutting,” and the Cultural Revolution as “the Second Great Cutting.” The “Third Great Cutting” came with decollectivization and deregulation in the Reform Era catalyzing a timber boom driven by rural entrepreneurs and government officials. Modernization also entailed a radical transformation of ancient conceptions of nature; the CPC explicitly encouraged this, and the famous quasi-military campaigns against “the Four Pests” (rats, flies, mosquitos, and sparrows), beginning in 1958, was supplemented with anti-predator campaigns such as the Kill the Tiger movement (dahu yundong) and its slogan “kill the tiger, banish evil” (dahu chuhai). Systematic tiger extermination by teams of farmers and soldiers decimated a population of perhaps two-thousand to four-thousand in southern China, precipitating their extinction in the wild by the end of the century (Coggins 2003, 51–86; 2010, 433–435). Through the early 1980s, farmers harvested myriad species of wild plants and animals, selling them at state-run foreign trade stations (waimaozhan) run by county foreign trade bureaus (waimaoju). The latter purchased pelts, bones, fruits, roots, and other products, selling them in the cities and abroad. Eight provinces in southern and central China averaged four-hundred tiger pelts per year from 1951–1955, but declined to less than ten in most provinces by the 1970s (Coggins 2003, 60–65).
The Modern Nature Conservation System
China’s nature conservation system has emerged in three main stages. The first, from 1949 to 1978, marked a period of selective conservation amid large-scale ecological devastation. The second, from 1979 to 1996, saw the rise of a national nature reserve system and initial alliances with global conservation organizations. The third, from 1997 to the present, involves the maturation of China’s national, multi-agency nature conservation system and its integration with global conservation networks (Coggins 2017; 133). In 2019, enormous problems and challenges remain.
The First National Forestry Conference (1950) established forest protection policies, promoted afforestation, and encouraged rational timber harvest and utilization systems (Yang 2001, 90). Biodiversity was not an operative concept; the goal was to afforest roughly 10 percent of China’s land area for watershed protection and timber production by planting fast-growing species on barren hillsides and mountain slopes. The results were mixed to poor, with a net national forest loss of some 25 percent by 1962 (Robbins and Harrell 2014, 3). The Third Meeting of the Number One People’s Congress, in April 1956, established logging ban areas in specific natural forests to protect wild fauna and flora. In the same year, the Seventh National Forestry Conference established Dinghushan Nature Reserve in Guangdong Province, the first formal protected area in modern China (Xu 2005; McBeath and Leng 2006). Only nineteen reserves were established over the next decade, and these lacked uniform national laws and regulatory codes. By 1979, a net loss of habitat combined with uncontrolled hunting and gathering caused radical declines in the populations and ranges of numerous species of fauna and flora (Li and Zhao 1989; Harris 2008).
The Reform Period, beginning in 1978–1979, marked a shift in ideology, ushering in a period of exponential growth in the protected area network and conservation policy. China entered its first international conservation partnership, working with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) on panda conservation in Sichuan (1979). The Ministry of Forestry passed the Forestry Law of the PRC in the same year, establishing nature reserves in places of special ecological value, and held meetings with the National Committee of Man and the Biosphere. In the first eight years of the reform period, the number of nature reserves grew from 34 to 481, a fifteen-fold increase, and Changbaishan was China’s first biosphere reserve to join the international UNMAB Biosphere Reserve system (1980) (Wang et al. 2011). The WWF established a tropical rain forest conservation project in southern Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna (1986) (Hathaway 2013). At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio “Earth Summit,” 1992), China was one of the earliest signatories of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The Wildlife Protection Law (1988), the Nature Reserve Law (1994), and the Firearms Control Law (1996) promoted unprecedented levels of state control over rural lands, hunting, and trade in wild plants and animals. By 1996, there were 926 nature reserves and by 2000 the number increased by 93 percent (Harris 2008). From the late-1990s on, central and regional state agencies expanded nature conservation within an increasingly multi-faceted network of reserves and other protected areas, in tandem with sustainable development policies, and in conjunction with international agreements on the protection of biological diversity. The Sixth Plenary Session of the Seventeenth Communist Party of China (2011) called for the building of an “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming). A new national zonation system aimed to conserve and rationalize the management of natural resources nationwide. Despite these efforts, a number of keystone species were found to be extinct in the wild, and habitat degradation continued. It became clear that biodiversity conservation had to be enhanced dramatically if China was to preserve significant vestiges of its biological heritage.
Major policy shifts toward integrated conservation and development include the Sloping Lands Conversion Program (SLCP, 退耕还林, tuigeng huanlin) (1999 to present), the Natural Forest Protection Program (NFPP) (1999/2000 to present), and TNC’s Yunnan Great Rivers Project (YGRP, 2000–2008). These have involved multiple government agencies, regional conservation initiatives, and key roles for international conservation organizations. The SLCP (aka “Grain for Green Program),” aims to reduce runoff and soil erosion while increasing forest coverage by converting crops on sloping lands into forests. The world’s largest program of payment for ecosystem services, the SLCP gives farmers saplings, grain, and cash subsidies in lieu of agricultural income, encouraging less-intensive agricultural activities and off-farm employment. The SLCP affects the landholdings of some 40–60 million households across twenty-five provinces, and works in conjunction with the NFPP, aka the “logging ban,” which calls for reducing annual timber harvests in natural forests by 63 percent and for the afforestation and revegetation of 31 million hectares. Implemented in eighteen provinces and autonomous regions, the NFPP predominantly targets the upper Yangzi and Yellow River watersheds, the Northeast, and Hainan. The NFPP and SLCP helped raise China’s total forest coverage to 21 percent by 2008 (Robbins and Harrell 2014). These policies also strengthened alliances with international nature conservation organizations. TNC helped facilitate the establishment of China’s national parks that meet IUCN standards—Pudacuo NP in 2007, Meili Snow Mountains NP in 2009, and Shangrila Yunnan Golden Monkey NP also in 2009. From 2000 to 2004, the total number of nature reserves increased by 25 percent, and by 2007 there were 2,500 reserves (Yeh 2013). By 2010, the total number of nature reserves was 2,541, and by that year there were also 208 national scenic areas, 660 national forest parks, and 28 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves (Zinda 2012; Yeh 2013). In 2014, 21 new national level nature reserves were established, bringing the total to 428 (State Council PRC, 2014). By 2015, the total number of nature reserves was 2,671 and there were 428 national nature reserves, with reserves at all levels protecting 14.8 percent of China’s total land area. During the second decade of the twenty-first century, the expansion of the nature reserve system began to slow, with 5.1 percent growth in the last five years. Today, only 9.78 percent of China’s land area is strictly protected, and if nine super-large national nature reserves (>10,000 sq. km.), in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, and Xinjiang were removed, the percentage of strictly protected area would be a mere 2.66 percent of the land area (Guo and Cui 2015). Also notable is the expansion of marine protected areas, numbering over 240 at different levels, but only comprising 3 percent of the marine areas within China’s national boundaries (MEPA 2014).
By 2010, the central government raised land use and conservation planning to a new level of specificity and intricacy. The State Council launched the National Plan for Major Function Zones (NPMFZ), dividing all land into four function zones: land for priority development, land for key development, land for limited development, and land prohibited from development. This “ecological security strategy” conforms with the Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2011–2015), the Fifth National Report on the Implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity (FNR) (MEP 2014), and the China National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy and Action Plan 2011–2030 (CNBCSAP 2010, 1). The short-term goals of the FNR, to be achieved by 2015, centered on in-situ and ex-situ conservation objectives, increasing forest coverage, developing biodiversity monitoring systems, management of genetic and other biological resources, reduction of pollutants, and building a more “environmentally friendly society” (MEP 2014, 3).
In-situ conservation was to be strengthened and terrestrial protected areas maintained on approximately 15 percent of the country’s land area, protecting 90 percent of national key protected species and typical ecosystem types primarily through the growing network of nature reserves (ziran baohuqu) complemented by scenic spots (fengjing mingshengqu), forest parks (senlin gongyuan), community-based conservation areas (ziran baohu xiaoqu), wild-plant protected sites (nongye yesheng zhiwu baohudian), wetland parks (shidi gongyuan), desert parks (shamo gongyuan), geological parks (dizhi gongyuan), special marine protected areas (haiyang tebie baohuqu), and germplasm conservation areas (zhongzhi ziyuan baohuqu) (MEPA 2014; Coggins 2017). Ex-situ conservation focused on endangered species and included 1) botanical gardens and zoos; 2) protection of crop germplasm; 3) protection of forage germplasm (for livestock); 4) protection of livestock genetic resources; 5) protection of forest/tree germplasm resources; 6) protection of non-woody, lower plant, fungal, micro-organism, and wild animal germplasm resources; and 7) protection of marine germplasm resources (MEP 2014).
Short-term goals of the FNR were to increase forest coverage to 21.66 percent. By 2020, national forest holdings should have increased by roughly 10 percent over 2010 holdings. Mid-term goals for habitat restoration included strategies to decrease and reverse land degradation, including the control of salinized and desertified grasslands by improving grassland ecology and pastoral management. Coastal and near-shore biodiversity protection focused on reversing the degradation of near-shore marine habitats and the decline of marine biodiversity, while freshwater aquatic ecosystems were to be gradually restored and the depletion of fishery resources and species populations contained. Given the scope of this comprehensive, overlapping, and integrated national strategy for biodiversity conservation, the FNR calls for funding amounting to over 2.5 percent of GDP by 2020, and contributions from science and technology agencies exceeding 60 percent (MEP 2014). The FNR’s long-term goal is to have “effectively protected” biodiversity in China by 2030 (MEP 2014, 3).
Present Threats to Ecological Integrity and New Nature Conservation Challenges
Despite the revolution in nature conservation since 1979, biodiversity loss continues. In 2001, an eight-month field survey in the southern provinces determined that the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis) was extinct in the wild (Tilson et al. 2003), and in 2007, research by Sam Turvey (2008) and others found the same for the Yangzi River dolphin. The Chinese government refuses to acknowledge these findings, but the rapid establishment of new nature reserves continues apace. Since the implementation of the NFPP and the SLCP, the central government has incorporated large-scale nature conservation and ecological tourism into national development policies such as the Great Western Development Strategy (Xibu Da Kaifa 西部大开发) (2000 to present). The latter program aims to bring impoverished regions of western China into closer economic parity with prosperous eastern provinces through infrastructural development, enhanced foreign investment, education, and ecological protection projects. The strategy aims to alleviate tensions between the Han and non-Han nationalities, supporting the broader initiatives of “harmonious society” (hexie shehui), “the ecological state” (shengtai liguo), and “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming) (Yeh and Coggins 2014, 96). Following the logging ban, many Tibetans and other inhabitants of the upper Yangzi and Yellow River can no longer participate in the timber industry and find themselves without a stable livelihood. Thus, eco-cultural tourism in the Sino-Tibetan borderlands and southwest China is a matter of economic urgency. Indigenous identities, as well as scholarship and activism, are being renegotiated around new understandings of nature, landscapes, indigenous knowledge, and national identity (Yin 2001, 20; Hathaway 2013, 2; Yeh and Coggins 2014, 264).
Transnational conservation projects have been critically important. TNC’s YGRP advocated a system of nature conservation based on Tibetan, Naxi, and other non-Han peoples’ sacred landscapes, indigenous knowledge systems, and local resource management practices, prioritizing locations with high biodiversity lacking formal protection. Despite these efforts, the new national parks, all within the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, became top-down, conventional Yellowstone-style parks where planners and administrators lacked deep concern for local community needs and aspirations. Complex intragovernmental policy conflicts prevail, favoring high revenue mass tourism (Moseley and Mullen 2014, 135; Zinda 2014, 110). Given the astonishing advancement of China’s nature conservation infrastructure, a primary political challenge is to balance biodiversity conservation and environmental justice. Chinese and foreign experts see many protected areas as insufficiently large to provide adequate habitat—particularly for large mammals like the giant panda. Also, due to the nature reserve zonation system allowing for human activities in buffer zones, habitat degradation is commonplace even in world-famous reserves such as Sichuan’s Wolong (Liu et al. 2001, 99). Increasingly sophisticated ecological assessment, monitoring, and development initiatives have become primary strategies as protected areas and wildlife laws threaten to enclose local peoples’ resources, exacerbating ongoing conflicts, and nullifying potential conservation gains. Conservation expert Richard Harris points out that the 1988 Wildlife Protection Law:
prohibits killing of endangered wildlife, but fails to establish an infrastructure that can monitor or enforce these strictures…[I]t allows virtually no participation of local people in even limited taking of a great number of species that are numerous enough to be sustainably used…[I]t acts principally to alienate people from the wildlife with which they live, providing them little benefit beyond the vague sense of helping to preserve national treasures. Such a blanket prohibition in the absence of accompanying incentive programs tends to encourage movement of existing use patterns out of the mainstream and into the underground economy. (Harris 2008, pp. 101)
Similarly, the geographer Emily Yeh (2013, 1170) shows that in implementing large-scale programs involving payment for ecosystem services, such as the NFPP, the SLCP, and grassland conservation programs, government agents often blame local people for ecological problems that stem from earlier government interventions such as wetland drainage and pasture degradation. Technocratic “solutions” to these problems include relocation of communities, enclosure and privatization of resources, and environmental injustice against non-Han nationalities posing as rational resource management. In short, contradictory inter-agency development goals may preclude socially just and ecologically effective biodiversity conservation. As the political scientist Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith and his colleagues noted, the leadership “wants to do right by the environment but not at the expense of doing other things…like sustaining economic growth, modernizing the economy, alleviating poverty, corralling pastoral people and containing social unrest…the center isn’t getting the balance right between competing and even conflicting concerns” (Wandesforde-Smith, Denninger Snyder, and Hart 2014, 93).
Future Prospects For Nature Conservation
The emerging national system of biodiversity conservation in China is increasingly interwoven with the rights, obligations, and access to resources advocated by international treaties and supranational organizations—a realm of increasingly transnational engagement. Given China’s unique biological heritage and unusual history of human-environment interactions spanning several millennia, the future preservation of biodiversity worldwide depends on a clearer understanding of the problems and opportunities influencing nature conservation policy and environmental justice. With the world’s largest human population and many of the world’s most endangered species, China is a bellwether of “ecological civilization,” requiring collective international commitments to the venerable ideal of “humans and nature united as one” (tian ren he yi 天人合一), with all of its contemporary global implications.