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Keywords:

  • karst;
  • cave ecology;
  • cave management;
  • cave fauna;
  • conservation;
  • biodiversity;
  • China;
  • offset;
  • Hubei;
  • Guangxi;
  • World Bank

Summary

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Cave ecology
  5. Cave management
  6. Recent case studies
  7. Acknowledgement
  8. References
  • 1
    Caves are arguably the hottest of the biodiversity hotspots as measured by endemism and threat, yet they receive very little attention or appropriate management. Some recent investigations in China have found that up to 90% of the animals collected in caves are new to science, yet environmental assessments for development projects in karst areas rarely if ever give attention to the cave fauna.
  • 2
    The lack of light, and the cave-specific conditions of humidity, air flow and source of energy have resulted in extreme adaptations among the animals living within them.
  • 3
    There is no government agency or non-governmental organization (NGO) on conservation concerned with caves in China or many other countries, and although there are caving expeditions, they concentrate on exploration rather than the cave fauna.
  • 4
    Disturbance by limestone quarrying, visitors, tourism infrastructure, and changes in water flow through, or from above, the cave can have devastating effects on the highly adapted and range-restricted fauna.
  • 5
    Some examples of World Bank-financed development projects which have led to cave conservation are given.
  • 6
    Synthesis and applications. The cave biodiversity of China and neighbouring countries is worthy of conservation and there is a huge number of nationally endemic species, most of which are unknown. Destruction or damage to caves can cause entire communities of cave species to become extinct. To address this problem, the disparate, taxon-limited specialists interested in cave fauna need to reach out to the cave exploration community, the major conservation NGOs, and the state and local conservation agencies. Those charged with the task of conserving biodiversity should give thought to how the current national protected area systems and processes manage – and fail – to address the needs of the cave fauna, and look for the means to effect the necessary changes in management, based on the peculiar ecology of caves.

Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Cave ecology
  5. Cave management
  6. Recent case studies
  7. Acknowledgement
  8. References

China and other countries in the region, and the donors which support them, give ever increasing attention to the plights of forests, mountains, grasslands, mangroves, coral reefs, lakes, and other wetlands. In contrast, cave ecosystems get very little attention because they are difficult and not so pleasant to visit, and they lack the charismatic (avian or mammalian) flagship species of the other ecosystems. If the biodiversity were unexceptional and unthreatened, this would be of little consequence, but China and Southeast Asia have some of the richest cave faunas in the world, they are threatened by any development which will cause any change to the balance of light, humidity and energy flow in the cave, and many species are highly range-restricted and highly adapted to specific conditions. China has one of the largest extents of cave-containing limestone karsts in the world, mainly in the southern provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou, Guangdong, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Hubei, yet there is no biological management of any cave. By the standard assessment of biological hotspots using degree of endemism and threat (Myers et al. 2000), cave ecosystems must rate very high.

Cave ecology

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Cave ecology
  5. Cave management
  6. Recent case studies
  7. Acknowledgement
  8. References

The key to understanding the ecology of caves is appreciating the consequences of the lack of light. Plants clearly cannot grow there, and the most important effects of this exclusion of green plants are to make almost all cave dwellers dependent on organic material brought in from the outside, and to exclude all animals that feed directly on the above-ground parts of green plants. Given such unusual conditions, it is not surprising that cave biodiversity is highly characteristic and range-restricted. Indeed, some species are confined to single cave systems. Common cave adaptations include the loss of eyes, the loss of pigment, and long appendages which allow food, danger, predators and prey to be detected. Many of the species concerned are relatively small, little known, and are rarely if ever included in lists of protected species which tend to focus on the larger and more conspicuous species. Extinctions of limestone-restricted species as a result of economic development have already been recorded, and the status of other species is perilous. The vast majority of cave species are invertebrates, many of them small, but caves are also occupied by echo-locating bats and swiftlets, although these species have vastly larger ranges.

Although China's caves are quite often the object of expeditions (e.g. Waltham & Willis 1993; Senior 1995; Pouilly 2003; Bensley 2004), the biodiversity is poorly known (Chen et al. 2001; Clarke 2006), although certain groups such as cave fish (Chen & Yang 2005; Li, Lan & Chen 2003; Li, Chen & Ran 2004; Mao et al. 2003; Zhao et al. 2006), beetles (Deuve 2002; Ueno 2005), springtails (Deharveng & Chen in press; Wang, Chen & Christiansen 2004), millipedes (Golovatch et al. 2007), amphipods (Hou, Li & Gao 2005), decapods (Li, Cai & Clarke 2006) and spiders (Xu & Li 2006; Tong & Li 2008) are or were actively researched locally. It is likely that many surprises await discovery by those who descend into caves properly equipped and knowledgeable. A recent and thorough cave biodiversity survey in Mulun, a nature reserve immediately south of Maolan, a World Heritage Site (see below), found that it had the richest-known cave fauna in China and among the richest-known terrestrial cave faunas in all tropical and sub-tropical karst (a limestone landscape shaped by the dissolution of soluble rock such as limestone) with 34 species found to be strictly limited to cave habitats, up to 16 cave-obligate species within a single cave, and about 90% of the collected species unknown to science. Of great relevance to conservation was the finding – consistent with other known sites – that the fauna of each karst unit, and even each cave system, was generally different, leading to the conclusion that many of the species are narrow endemics (Deharveng et al. 2008; http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=rNscxhRQF0w).

It should be added that caves also have enormous (pre)historic interest as sources of recent and Quaternary fossils, and their characteristic geological features include deposits which can serve as bioclimatic archives.

Cave management

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Cave ecology
  5. Cave management
  6. Recent case studies
  7. Acknowledgement
  8. References

Of all China's many and varied ecosystems, probably none gets less attention than its caves. What is more, whereas the State Forestry Administration has authority over the nation's forests, the Department of Water Resources over its rivers and lakes, the Ministry of Agriculture over its remaining natural grasslands, the State Oceanographic Administration over its mangrove forests and coastal mudflats, and the Ministry of Construction over its natural tourism sites, no government agency has jurisdiction over (or any particular interest in) its caves. Some of the larger caves have attracted local government interest and have been cleaned, reconstructed, lit, and paved in order to encourage use by tourists – the ecological aspects of the caves rarely if ever gets any attention and are generally exterminated by the insensitive developments. As far as is known, with one exception, no biologically credible biodiversity survey has ever been done for a cave prior to its development for tourism.

Some caves are serendipitously protected within nature reserves, but no site is specifically protected to conserve cave fauna. The reason for their protection is typically the forests above and around them. Indeed, the recent inscription of a cluster of areas in the South China Karst as a World Heritage Natural Site (UNESCO 2007) was founded on its beauty and geological/geomorphological features, not on any biological criteria. As mentioned above, in Mulun Nature Reserve across the Guizhou border in Guangxi from the Maolan Nature Reserve part of the cluster, the cave biodiversity could be the richest in all the tropical/sub-tropical regions.

Cave protection is clearly not just about the void of the cave itself, but about the complex, dynamic and interactive nature of the karst system that created it which requires an integrated approach (Yuan 1988). It is this complexity and dynamism which exposes caves to threats – the most important being the changes to water quantity, quality, periodicity, and use. Thus, attention must be given to the management of the entire catchment of the cave water including the land above it (Watson et al. 1997; Hamilton Smith 2006).

Guidelines for projects that could lead to the destruction of caves have been provided by Vermeulen & Whitten (1999). In summary, it was suggested that sites chosen for development should: (i) avoid caves if possible; (ii) be located in limestone deposits that have already been affected by other use, or by accidents; (iii) be dolomitic limestone, limestone with limited karstification, or both (assuming the criteria for the intended use can be met); (iv) be located in the largest limestone areas; (v) leave a substantial part of the areas untouched; (vi) avoid isolated limestone hills (remote from other limestone hills) because such hills are usually rich in site-endemic species; (vii) be located where one large quarry or development affecting part of a limestone area can replace a number of small quarries throughout the area; (viii) be at the foot of limestone massifs to avoid unnecessary damage; (ix) avoid sites with caves, small voids, and underground streams and springs; (x) be placed to control sedimentation in stream and local drainage systems.

Recent case studies

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Cave ecology
  5. Cave management
  6. Recent case studies
  7. Acknowledgement
  8. References

In 2007 and 2008, the World Bank instigated some cave biodiversity surveys in Hubei Province as part of the due diligence required under its policy on Natural Habitats (World Bank 2001) prior to the construction of the moderate-sized Zhamushui dam on the Guangrun River, and an expressway from Yichang to Badong along the northern bank of the Yangtze.

guangrun

Although caves were not identified as an issue within the environmental assessment for the project, maps of the dam site showed that some caves were present. A small team was fielded from the Hong Meigui caving group based in Guilin, Guangxi, and in the time span of a few days, the group had found 29 caves and received reports of others. Eight of the longer caves that would be inundated when the reservoir was formed were prioritized for the rapid collection, using baits, of cave invertebrates, (Lynch & Collis 2006). Preliminary identifications showed that there were a number of new species of springtails, millipedes and snails. Having established that caves (‘natural habitats’ according to the World Bank definition) were going to be lost as a result of flooding, and that the biodiversity was indeed significant, a second survey was conducted to identify similar caves above the reservoir level that might be protected as compensation (Collis & Wu 2007). Finally, another consultant visited the caves and devised a management plan that would effectively and efficiently protect similar caves close to but above the reservoir in Daichen Valley and the recharge area of about 3 km above and around the caves (Wu 2008). The protection requirements were codified by a local government decree signed by the county government, the hydropower company, and the village authority, covering the use of fertilizer, tourist visits, quarrying, cutting of vegetation, mining, and the gating of cave entrances (the responsibility of the hydropower company).

yichang-badong expressway

Although the environmental assessment for this project was completed when the World Bank determined that there was a risk of the alignment of the expressway cutting through caves, it was agreed that a team would look for caves and determine to what degree they had biological interest. The work was done by a local team which collected a few large invertebrates, some bats and frogs, and plants from around the cave mouth. They reported that the caves had nothing that was not found elsewhere in Hubei and beyond (Liu 2008). However, an additional, brief survey focused more time on the smaller invertebrates (Collis 2008) and found a new genus of cave-adapted beetle and various new species (M.-Y. Tian and L. Deharveng, personal communication). While it was determined that none of the caves found would be directly impacted, a number of measures have been adopted in the project's environmental management plan to safeguard the caves and their biodiversity. The priority is to keep runoff patterns, in terms of flow volumes, flow rates, water temperature, water quality and sediment load, as close as possible to the pre-construction conditions. Both pollution and sedimentation share the characteristic that they can spread over a large area, sometimes reaching locations far from the point of origin. Both can result from ignorance, laziness, cost-cutting, genuine accidents, unforeseen consequences, and inappropriate use of agricultural or other chemicals.

Thus, the recharge area of the largest and closest cave along the expressway alignment will be identified and protected by controlling activity that could affect groundwater quality, such as deforestation, quarrying, construction or changes in farming practices, the vegetation would be maintained around a pair of sink holes during the construction period, and at the same time measures would be put in place to control runoff of pollutants and sediment that might enter caves, and the management of waste. In addition, the largest and richest of the caves would be protected using a grille in the culvert at the entrance, to be designed to prevent human access but to allow the passage of bats and not to impede the flow of water or water-borne material. Finally, should any unknown cave be encountered during blasting work, then the authorities will be informed and a biological survey will be conducted.

Over the last decade, the governments of China and its neighbours have given dramatically increased attention to biodiversity conservation. The greatest emphasis has been on forested areas, with grasslands and freshwater systems getting somewhat less attention. If the region's caves are going to be managed effectively, there will need to be some initial acknowledgment that significant biodiversity confined to caves exists, that it is threatened, and that deliberate steps are needed to address its special needs. One such step has been proposed in Malaysia (Malaysian Karst Society 2008) to simply establish a national database to pull together the strands of information and thereby to reveal gaps and needs. Such a programmatic approach is required in all the countries and could be facilitated by informal networks of those working on cave biodiversity either as taxonomists or explorers. For its own part and in order to avoid the inefficiencies of project-by-project approaches, the World Bank, together with partners, is preparing practical guidelines to cave surveys in China (L. Deharveng in preparation) along the lines of the guidance available for New Zealand (Hunt & Millar 2001), as well as helping to raise the quality of the attention given to biodiversity in environmental assessments in China by working with and training the design institutes and universities most likely to be engaged in such work.

Acknowledgement

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Cave ecology
  5. Cave management
  6. Recent case studies
  7. Acknowledgement
  8. References

My thanks are due to Louis Deharveng for advice on this manuscript and on caves in general.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Summary
  3. Introduction
  4. Cave ecology
  5. Cave management
  6. Recent case studies
  7. Acknowledgement
  8. References
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