Galliformes – barometers of the state of applied ecology and wildlife conservation in China


  • Philip J. K. McGowan,

    1. World Pheasant Association, Newcastle University Biology Field Station, Close House, Heddon on the Wall, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE15 0HT, UK
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  • Yan-Yun Zhang,

    1. Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Biodiversity Sciences and Ecological Engineering, College of Life Sciences, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
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  • Zheng-Wang Zhang

    1. Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Biodiversity Sciences and Ecological Engineering, College of Life Sciences, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China
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*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1Human population pressure is placing huge demands on China's environment. In recent years, the Chinese government has established a suite of programmes designed to meet these challenges and one such programme is the Wildlife Conservation and Nature Reserves Development Programme launched in 2001. This is intended to safeguard the future of some of the country's highest profile and most threatened species.
  • 2The avian Order Galliformes (pheasants and their relatives) are one such high-profile group and 38 of the 63 species that occur in China are listed as nationally protected. This is the most studied group of birds in the country and some of this research has contributed directly to informing conservation management and policy at all administrative levels.
  • 3There are examples of communication and collaboration between researchers in China and those from other countries since the late 1970s. However, there is now a pressing need for increased and more structured collaboration to take advantage of current opportunities to strengthen applied ecology in China and thus provide greater scientific input to environmental policy and decision-making.
  • 4Synthesis and applications. China is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and faces substantial environmental challenges because of human population pressure. Applied ecological research is increasingly informing policy and decision-making at all administrative levels. Strengthening China's applied ecology base therefore offers unprecedented opportunities. International collaborative research programmes have substantial potential to develop high quality research and train talented young Chinese researchers, both of which will substantially enhance the quality of science informing China's biodiversity conservation policy.


Substantial human modification of landscapes throughout China has significant and, as yet, largely unstudied consequences for the country's many species and diverse habitats. China is vast, occupying 9·6 million km2 with complex topography and climate. The First National Report to the Convention of Biological Diversity reports 30 000 species of higher plants, which is 10% of the world total (only Brazil and Colombia are richer) and 6347 vertebrate species, about 14% of the world total (State Environment Protection Administration 1998). Here we outline Chinese government policy towards forest wildlife conservation, review the status of applied research on the avian Order Galliformes (as indicative of birds in general, if not all vertebrates), and summarize collaboration and communication with non-Chinese researchers on these species. We conclude with a few thoughts on the future.

Government policy

In 1998, disastrous flooding occurred in the Yangtze, Songhuajiang and Nengjiang Rivers. Hundreds of people lost their lives and the estimated cost of damage and losses was RMB 200 billion. In the same year, great sand storms swept through eight provinces in northern China (State Environment Bureau 1999). In order to reduce the chances of such disasters happening again, the National Ecology and Environment Construction Outline was issued by the State Council of the People's Republic of China, and a series of related policies were adopted (State Environment Bureau 1999).

Pressures on China's biodiversity as a result of increasing human demands led to the recent adoption of the National Natural Forest Protection Programme and five other programmes. RMB183·5 billion has been spent on the resulting ‘Six Key Forestry Programmes’ since 2000 (Wang et al. 2007). One of these, the Wildlife Conservation and Nature Reserves Development Programme was launched in December 2001 (see Zhang et al. 2003) and identified 15 species or species-groups that should be the target of concerted conservation action. These included global conservation icons such as the giant panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca, south China tiger Panthera tigris amoyensis and Asian elephant Elephas maximus as well as three bird taxa, crested ibis Nipponia nippon, cranes (Gruidae) and pheasants (including grouse and partridge: the avian Order Galliformes). As part of the Wildlife Conservation and Nature Reserves Development Programme, the State Forestry Administration commissioned a National Action Plan for each of these species/species-groups. Collectively, the six key programmes provide the background against which applied research can contribute to management and future policy.

The National Action Plan of Pheasant Conservation (State Forestry Administration 2001) identified six strategic objectives for pheasant conservation: nature reserve development; habitat restoration; captive breeding; development of resource management and monitoring systems; reintroduction; and scientific research. It named 22 existing nature reserves as high priority for conservation of selected species, identified 20 sites as suitable for the establishment of new protected areas and 102 protected sites that were considered of especial importance for the conservation of pheasant species. It also proposed the establishment of a National Pheasant Research and Conservation Centre in Beijing, which is important because it will provide an independent scientific research group to address the applied issues that are emerging. These include the impacts of fragmentation and the nature of dispersal of many species in highly modified landscapes, and the application of conservation genetics to understanding population structure and population isolation.

Research on Galliformes

China's exceptional biodiversity includes 63 species of Galliformes (pheasants and their relatives, Zheng 2005), of which 19 are threatened or near-threatened (IUCN 2007). They have a pre-eminent role in conservation in China because of their economic and cultural value and flagship status, and because 38 of them are listed as Nationally Protected Animals under the 1988 Wildlife Conservation Law of China (Zhang et al. 2003). More papers have been published on Galliformes than other avian Orders in the higher-ranking zoological journals in China since 2000: publications on Galliformes account for 23% of all publications on birds during this period. Therefore, an assessment of the status and prospects of their applied ecological study is informative far beyond this avian Order.

The potential for this research to contribute to biodiversity conservation cannot be overstated. Scientific research on pheasants has already contributed significantly to conservation policy in China. At a national level, knowledge and understanding gained from long-term field studies on several endemic and threatened species underpinned the National Action Plan of Pheasant Conservation in China mentioned above. These include the 25-year study of Cabot's tragopan Tragopan caboti conducted at Wuyanling National Nature Reserve in Zhejiang Province (see Zhang 2005; Zhang & Zheng 2007) and long-term studies of Chinese grouse Bonasa sewerzowi in a fragmented landscape in and around Lianhuashan National Nature Reserve in Gansu Province (e.g. Sun et al. 2003).

There are also many examples at provincial and county levels or in regard to specific protected areas. For example, field surveys by an international team in Laojunshan Nature Reserve in southern Sichuan found out that it held a good population of the globally threatened Sichuan hill-partridge Arborophila rufipectus (see Dai et al. 1998, in press), and this led the State Forestry Administration to agree on its promotion from a provincial nature reserve to a national one.

Between 1998 and 2006, 1228 new nature reserves were established throughout the country (161 national nature reserves and 303 provincial nature reserves), and more than 85% of these were previously forest farms (see Xu et al. 2007). Forest farms are areas of forest that are typically clear-felled and the timber removed for use. The land is then replanted with commercially valuable tree species which are then managed for timber production. Many of these forest farms ceased operations immediately after the 1998 Yangtze floods in recognition of their water management functions. In some cases, ecologists have been able to identify areas of high biodiversity value that were formerly forest farms so that they are now protected areas. For example, Dongzhai National Nature Reserve in Henan Province has been identified as a key protected area for the nationally protected Reeves's pheasant Syrmaticus reevesii which is considered to be Vulnerable to global extinction (IUCN 2007). This reserve was extended from 100 km2 to 450 km2 in 2001 and includes areas that were formerly farmed for timber; many other protected areas in the Dabie Mountains were also formerly forest farms (see Xu et al. 2007).

There is a need to build upon these ways in which applied ecology has directly influenced policy and management. Areas that have already been identified by Galliformes researchers for future research include: (i) greater genetic analysis of some threatened species suffering exceptionally high levels of fragmentation, such as brown eared-pheasant Crossoptilon mantchuricum, Reeves's pheasant Syrmaticus reevesi and Cabot's tragopan; (ii) increasing understanding of the population–habitat dynamics of a suite of species occupying particularly threatened habitats, including sub-tropical forest (e.g. Hainan peacock-pheasant Polyplectron katsumate), temperate broadleaf forest (e.g. Sichuan hill-partridge) and high-altitude alpine habitats (e.g. Chinese monal Lophophorus lhuysi); and (iii) providing better information for the management of former forest farms as protected areas, such as those for Reeves's pheasant and Sichuan hill-partridge.

Communication with the international scientific community

Over the last 10 years, there has also been a concerted effort to increase communication with the international scientific community, with the 2009 Society for Conservation Biology meeting in Beijing as the latest example. China has a long and very distinguished intellectual tradition that differs in many ways from that which has developed in the West. It is important to understand the differences between these traditions as a prerequisite to a deep and genuine understanding that will allow significant progress to be made in applied ecology. Galliformes researchers inside and outside China have seen the benefit of a working relationship that stretches back to 1977 and which has made substantial progress in the last 15 years. In 1994, the diversity of Chinese research became widely known when researches from China were extensively referenced in the Handbook of the Birds of the World (see McGowan 1994) and, soon after, cultural differences in approaches were first openly discussed (see McGowan 1996) and understood. There are now many examples of collaboration encompassing all steps of the research process from project design and data analysis to co-publication (Deng et al. 2006; Sun et al. 2003, 2007; Xu et al. 2007). The fourth International Galliformes Symposium (Chengdu, Sichuan, October 2007) furthered this relationship significantly.

Publication in journals listed in citation indices, both Chinese and international, is now very important for the career development of Chinese ecologists. Indeed, the demands are arguably stricter than in many other countries. For example, for a student to be awarded a PhD degree, he or she must publish at least one high quality paper in an international journal listed in the Science Citation Index (SCI) or two papers in domestically listed journals. This policy has led to an increase in submissions by Chinese authors to international journals and a resultant increase in papers published in peer-reviewed journals. Now, key Chinese journals, such as Acta Ecologica Sinica, are also published in English and a new English language journal Frontiers in Biology, China, which was launched in 2006, publishes translations of papers that have already appeared in Chinese language journals.

The future

Looking ahead, it seems as though government policy, the state of research within China and international communication and collaboration are all extremely favourable to a considerable expansion of applied ecological research in China in the near future. Biodiversity policy and decision-making are asking for a much greater understanding of the impacts of change on species and their habitats, and the fledgling field of Chinese applied ecology is ready to meet the challenges. What is needed, however, is more structured engagement between Chinese and non-Chinese scientists and greater support from donor agencies to make this happen. In particular, there is a need for greater responsiveness and creativity by donors so that existing long-term relationships can be built upon and new ones created. Short-term or partial funding programmes have limited potential to provide the sustained support required by this new field of research in China. The need is for collaborative research programmes that last several years, even if modestly funded, so that the entire research process from design to analysis and publication can be conducted collaboratively. At the same time, substantial guidance and support for graduate students at the start of their research degrees and periodically throughout the course of their projects also has huge potential to benefit applied ecology in China in the medium-term.

There is much to do in a country as vast and diverse as China, but the policy, capacity and collaborative groundwork has been prepared. If this can be built upon, then the gains not only for applied ecology, but also for biodiversity conservation, will be significant.