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Behind the Great Wall: Wildlife conservation in the world’s most populous country- Part 1

March 27, 2008

As the third largest country in the world and the most populous, China’s influence on the world is exceedingly clear from an economic perspective. But China is very important from an environmental perspective as well. Its large size is reflected in its animals and plants. China ranks eighth in the world in biodiversity, and first in the northern hemisphere. Upwards of 10% of the world’s plant species can be found within its borders, and likewise, 10% of the world’s terrestrial vertebrates (over 2,000 species).Most importantly, nearly 100 of those species are endemic to the country and found nowhere else in the world, including many distinct and archaic evolutionary lines, like the Gingko tree (Ginkgo biloba) and the iconic Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) (Watters 2002) as well as ten endemic genera of birds.

China’s impressive biodiversity is a result of the vast geological and climatic variations found across the country. The eastern part of the country is characterized by extensive and densely populated alluvial plains caused by sediment buildup from the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. The area between these rivers was the center of ancient Chinese civilization and has been occupied for more than 5000 years. To the north lie grasslands and the rapidly expanding Gobi Desert. To the south lie low mountains and hills to the border with the Southeast Asian countries. The western half of the country consists of large excessively dry plateaus culminating in the great Tibetan plateau bordered in the southwest by the Himalayas, the world’s highest mountain range.

Significance of China’s Biodiversity

The amount of resources available in China is among the largest in the world.However, given the population, they are relatively scarce per person. Additionally, because over 65% of the country is covered by very high mountains, only a relatively small proportion of the land is suitable for agricultural use. While China is comparable to the United States or Europe in size, the large population and the minimum of land available for cultivation results in very high population density (Watters 2002). Therefore, in areas where human population density is particularly high, there is comparatively little habitat for wildlife, and what does exist is heavily impacted by economic and cultural forces. Endangered species, threatened for years by China’s rapid development, are especially at risk. For example, three native Chinese animals are among the ten most endangered mammals in the world; the Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) in the far north, the Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus ) in the west, and the aforementioned Giant Panda in the central part of the country. Other important endangered species include the Indo-Chinese Tiger (P. tigris corbetti), of which only as few as 50 may remain, the Baiji (Lipotes vexillifer), a freshwater dolphin native to the Yangtze River which may already be extinct, birds like the Crested Ibis (Nipponia nippon), Chinese Crested Tern (Thalasseus bernsteini), many cranes and several species of Mongolian Horses (Liu).

Threats to Wildlife in China

Wildlife in China faces threats from a number of different fronts. Not the least of which is the impact of practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Overutilization of already threatened species for use for their perceived medicinal benefits historically has been a driving factor in the rapid decline of tigers and bears and the outright extirpation of rhinoceros within China’s borders. The demand for animal parts, such as bile from bears, sex organs from tigers, and rhino horns, for use in TCM extends beyond China’s border. As the target species become increasingly difficult to find, poachers are forced to travel outside of China to Africa or Southeast Asia to find appropriate products (Still 2004).

However, the largest problem confronting China’s dwindling ecosystems and the greatest cause of species extinction is habitat loss. This is especially important in light of China’s emergence as an international economic power. The grasslands in China’s eastern provinces have largely been converted to agriculture. Ninety-percent of China’s temperate deciduous forest, that used to dominate the mid elevations across the country, has been decimated, existing still only in areas spared because of difficult terrain or for religious reasons. The tropical rainforests on south eastern China are all but destroyed, and with them, the tigers, bears and rhinoceros that were formerly native in the country (Chen 1993). For these reasons, it is crucially important for the government of China to protect what little open space remains.

More on China’s attempts to do just that, next time.

American University, The School of International Service “Three Gorges Dam Case Study”,. January 20, 2002

Chen L and Q Chen. 1993. The Forest Diversity in China. Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences. 20. Xiangshan,

Environment News Service (ENS). Endangered Pandas Not Safe in Chinese Nature Reserve April 6, 2001

Lau MWN, G. Ades, N. Goodyer and F. Zou. 1996. Wildlife Trade in Southern China including Hong Kong and Macao. Conserving China’s Biodiversity.

Liu J, Z Ouyang, SL Pimm, PH Raven, X Wang, H Miao, and N Han. 2003. Protecting China’s Biodiversity. Science, 300, Issue 5623

Mallon. 2003. Pantholops hodgsonii. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species IUCN 2006.

Still J. 2004 Use of animal products in traditional Chinese medicine: environmental impact and health hazards. Complementary Therapies in Medicine 11:2, 118-122

Watters, L., and W. Xi, 2002. The Protection of Wildlife and Endangered Species in China. Georgetown International Environmental Law Review

One Comment
  1. Jochen permalink
    March 27, 2008 8:57 am

    I have never been to China but was told by others that the birding there is strange: the ordinary cultivated landscape is apparently completely deprived of birds, nothing, not even your odd House Sparrow or Pigeon feeding besides the road, and what’s left of the birds is concentrated in the last few remote areas. There, aparently, the birding is quite good though.

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