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Behind the Great Wall: Wildlife conservation in the world’s most populous country- Part 2

April 3, 2008

Part one of the series.

Protection of Natural Resources

For as far back as the 26th century B.C., China had restrictions at certain times of the year on the books relating to forests, mountains, rivers and lakes. Disposal of waste on public roads resulted in punishment, as well as excessive use of water in early spring. Ostensibly, these laws existed to protect the basis for agriculture, but succeeded in setting aside land and resources for more than just humans. Legislation existed in the Qin Code (359 to 206 B.C.) to prohibit logging of forests in the spring and limit the burning of grassland. Taking fish and removing timber in violation of the law were also criminal offenses from the time of the Tang Code (619 to 907 A.D.) through to the Qing Code (1740) (Watters 2002). Enforcement of these laws is uncertain, but they indicate an understanding of man’s impact on nature. In the last 30 years, China has adopted a series of important laws and regulations for the protection of the environment. This includes 12 national statutes and 20 national administrative regulations, as well as 260 standards and 600 local laws.

China has only relatively recently begun federal protection of areas of natural or biological importance.The first legislative act, the Circular on the Stringent Protection of Endangered Wildlife, was ratified in 1983 as a means to protect China’s endangered wildlife. Under the ruling of the circular, a ban was established on hunting, buying, selling and trafficking in endangered species and investigation and punishment for illegal activities was stressed. The export of rare wildlife and wildlife products was prohibited, and the only exceptions were those approved with a special permit from the Office for the Management of Import and Export of Endangered Species. Further, the act states that all economic activities that affect the breeding and survival of endangered wildlife in their main nesting areas should be banned (Watters 2002). Of course, such protection is difficult to enforce, especially in places where a market for rare wildlife and wildlife products still exists and there is pressure to continue the exploitation.

In 1988, China’s legislative body, the National People’s Congress, adopted the Wild Animals Protection Law focusing on all aspects of protection and use. The law sought not only to define wild animals, but set provisions on the ownership of wild animal resources and lists protected wild animals. The ambitious law addresses wild animal reserves, hunting, domestication permits, the sale, purchase, and transport of state-protected wild animals and wild animal products as well as transportation, and the import and export of state-protected wild animals. Under this legislation, all wild animals are owned by the state. Important regulatory roles are authorized for the Forestry Administration and the Fishery Department of the State Council. Both agencies have nationwide responsibility for management, which is shared with local governments (Watters 2002).

Under this law, wildlife is divided into specific categories. Animals deemed the most endangered are listed in the first class, while the remainder are listed in the second class. Management of this first class of species is overseen by the national government and the second class by the provincial governments. Hunting, killing, buying and selling animals on this first list is prohibited A special exception for trade in a species in the first class requires approval from the State Council; for instance, the provision that all Giant Pandas on display in North American zoos belong to the government of China. A similar exception for an animal in the second class requires approval from the provincial government. Additionally, provincial, autonomous regions or municipal governments directly controlled by the central government may also draw up additional lists of locally rare species designated for protection (Lau 1996). Likewise, China has legislated additional laws concerning management of the nation’s forests (1984) and fisheries (1986). China is also a signatory to many international wildlife agreements, such as the Convention on trade of international Species (CITES) and the Convention on Biodiversity.

Another response of the government to the needs of wildlife and endangered species habitat has been the creation of nature reserves and parks. China initially established 56 national nature reserves and by 1991, increased the number to 708. However, this still covers only 5.5% of its territory (Watters 2002). Currently, an increase in the number of nature reserves is underway, as officials realize the amount in the past was fairly small for such a large country. In its Agenda 21 Plan, the government envisions 1,000 interconnected reserves, though this ambitious plan is still a long way from fruition and may never be achieved (Liu 2003).

With regard to dealing with individual species, the reserves are classified hierarchically as national, provincial or local. They are established to achieve a variety of objectives, from focusing on specific endangered species like the Giant Panda, the Hainan Eld’s deer (Cervus eldii siamensis) or the Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis), to protecting sensitive ecosystems or endemic plant communities and range in size from many thousand acre tracts to botanical gardens. There are also marine nature reserves for aquatic animals and plants. However, despite governmental action ins setting these sensitive areas aside, there is very little in the way of enforcement.

An example of the best and worst of China’s park system can be found in Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province in the southeast part of the country. It is uniquely situated where the Tibetan Plateau meets the Sichuan lowlands and was largely untouched by the most recent ice ages allowing its wildlife to evolve in isolation for many thousands of years. The area is significant for its high rate of endemism including Giant Panda, Snow Leopard (Uncia uncia), Golden Snub-nosed Monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana), and over 300 species of birds. The plant life is similarly unique, with nearly 4000 species, of which 20% are endemic to the region (

The area was designated a protected area by the Chinese government in 1963, and internationally in 1980 as a protected area for research on Giant Panda. However, ecotourism seems to have had a detrimental effect on the surrounding area. Local populations have exploded following the tourist boom and, in 2001, a research team from Michigan State University found that panda habitat has degraded faster since the reserve was created then before (ENS 2001). The pandas, then, appear to be a victim of their own success.

China’s relatively recent headlong rush into the industrial age has occurred at the expense of the nation’s natural resources, and as the nation’s environmental movement is still in its infancy, little is done to protect for potential ramifications. Such conflicts can be clearly seen surrounding construction of the infamous Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest, along the Yangtze River in the north of the country. The environmental impact of the facility was largely overlooked in the fervor to build the structure, which has lead to the functional extinction of the Baiji, or Yangtze River Dolphin, and the destruction of wetlands that are important wintering grounds for the critically endangered Siberian Crane (Grus leucogeranus) (American University 2008) This incidence is sadly typical of modern China, especially in the dense eastern half of the country. The priorities of the nation are not in protection of wildlife, even with such iconic species such as the Giant Panda. That is not to say that the nation has not done anything. Populations of some species, such as Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) are increasing, especially those in the largely arid and unpopulated west (Mallon 2003). However, as long as suitable habitat continues to decrease and industrialization continues to increase, the trend will continue in a negative direction.

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


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