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Conservation in China? It’s hard to be hopeful

By Jack Ashby, on 14 December 2011

Last night I went to one of the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) excellent Wildlife Conservation Series. It was a series of short talks from conservation scientists working in China, under the heading “Conservation in China: Unique Challenges or Global Lessons?

Simply mentioning conservation and China in the same breath regularly causes people with an interest in the environment to raise their hackles. China is a land of staggering numbers; 1.3 billion people; 10 million square kilometres (and yet one of the highest population densities of any country); and only 23 Hainan gibbons. In a place where national parks are managed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Construction, the human population is a huge sink for traded wildlife, however rare (for pets, food and Traditional Chinese Medicines) and with natural resources under so much stress from development, how can wildlife be expected to survive? Last night we were told that in the Great Leap Forward 10% of the country’s trees were felled in a month.

Pollution in the Yangtze

Pollution in the Yangtze (image from https://confluence.furman.edu:8443/display/Lipscomb/River+Water+Pollution+%28RM%29)

ZSL’s Samuel Turvey, an old friend of the Grant Museum gave a passionate, angry account of his long-term work to protect and study the Yangtze cetaceans – the baiji and the finless porpoise. Following a wide-ranging survey in 2006, Sam declared the baiji extinct – it was the first large vertebrate do so in fifty years, and devastating had been top of the list of ZSL’s “Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) programme. It was the sole member of it’s family. I cannot recommend his book “Witness to Extinction” highly enough. A similar fate also appears to have befallen the giant Chinese paddlefish in the same river.

Sam got back from another Yangtze survey on Saturday, and was pleased to report a number of finless porpoises definitely hanging on in the river, but the threats have continued to grow since the baiji’s demise. He sought to evaluate which of these threats was the main cause, and whether alleviating them would be possible or effective. The threats are many and massive – fisheries by-catch (from nets, trailing hook long-lines and electrofishing); huge dams; sand-dredging; boat strike and billions of tonnes of effluent and other pollutants are just some of the threats faced by the porpoises. Given that he found that by-catch has decreased along with the population, while that threat would be the easiest to control (but by no means easy), and the other individual threats are growing and impossible to isolate, he has concluded that in situ conservation will not be effective, at least on its own – the Yangtze is broken. That leaves the controversial process of ex situ conservation – maintaining an isolated population in semi-natural conditions in an ox-bow lake off of the river’s main channel.

Finless porpoise

Finless porpoise. Author: ori2uru

This is something that is very unpopular with many conservation organisations. When it was proposed (and attempted) for the baiji Sam and ZSL received several cease and desist letters from organisations like the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. If they can’t all agree, and take serious note of the leading expert in the field, it is hard to be hopeful.

Other talks, while all genuinely shocking, were slightly more encouraging. Bosco Chan from Kadoorie Conservation China in Hong Kong has been working on the conservation of the world’s most endangered primate – the Hainan gibbon (something that UCL is also involved in, with Jessica Bryant undertaking a PhD on its conservation. We ran an event about it last year – write up here). I suppose the difference is hardly statistically significant, but the population has since risen from the mid-teens to 23 confirmed individuals since the early 2000s and went from one single breeding group to three. It is a/the main aspect of wildlife conservation that¬† local human communities are heavily involved, and Kadoorie’s efforts include training very many local people to survey for gibbons, and restore habitat.

Another friend of the Museum, ZSL’s Helen Meredith went on to talk about the Critically Endangered Chinese giant salamander – one of 31% of amphibians known to be threatened with extinction, and second in the EDGE rankings. The amazing thing that I learned is that farming for this species has rocketed, and that there are 2 million of them in farms in one Chinese province alone. Helen pointed out that captive breeding for conservation has very little in common with farming, but it’s not hard to see why the farmers are confused about why the species receives so much protection.

Helen explained how the threats facing this species, such as exploitation and habitat loss have recently been compounded by catastrophic disease outbreaks on the farms. Government endorsed conservation methods include releasing 13% of farmed animals annually, with no consideration of conservation genetics or biosecurity, and potentially infected effluent also runs straight from farms into natural habitats.

There is some hope, it seems, and Helen outlined some of the actions being planned, which involves captive breeding for conservation and, again, grass roots education and involvement.

Overall, the political messages of the night were frustrating – politics rules, and bureaucrats require a lot of hand-holding and placating to take even minute steps. So much work goes into building relationships that it’s hard to think that actual science takes a back seat. Action is slow. Very slow, and all the while China’s economic boom is increasing pressure on its environment. Local action is being taken, but it’s hard to be hopeful.

Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology

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