Challenges and prospects for applied ecology in China


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This Special Profile of the Journal of Applied Ecology on challenges and prospects for applied ecology in China and its neighbours is timed to coincide with the Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) in Beijing in June 2009. It is notable that this meeting of the largest society of conservation scientists in the world, with a largely USA-based membership and mission, is being held in China. This is testament both to the growing international recognition of the importance of fully involving China if we are to make progress on many of the pressing environmental problems that beset the world, and to the growing openness to international scientific collaboration within China itself. China is important not just as a country that is home to substantial biodiversity, but because its position in the world economy means that its actions will strongly influence global environmental trends.

In this Special Profile, we bring you two contrasting standard papers, which were submitted to the journal in the usual way, as well as a set of four Forum articles which we commissioned from leading experts on Chinese applied ecology. Chosen to cover a range of issues and taxonomic groups, these short contributions reflect on trends that the authors have witnessed in the years that they have worked in the region, and offer their views on prospects for the future.

Our first standard paper, by Zhijun Ma and co-authors, is a cautionary tale of the unintended negative effect that development can have on the endangered species that biosphere reserves are aiming to protect. In this case, the population of a threatened crane species (Grus japonensis, the red-crowned crane), is becoming more concentrated in an artificially created wetland area in the core part of the reserve as the natural wetlands in more peripheral zones are degraded. The paper raises broad issues for the governance and management of biosphere reserves, which typically have mixed patterns of land ownership and occupancy with a range of zones. It is particularly important under these circumstances to ensure that the zonation works to promote continued healthy ecosystem function at a meaningful scale. Although the paper gives us very useful insights, its message is not specific to China; maintaining the ecological integrity of wetlands ecosystems, the value of natural vs. artificial wetlands and the price of development in biosphere reserves are all universal problems.

This is not so true of the paper by Cao et al. (2009), however. This paper evaluates the ecological effects of the Grain for Green project. It is a compelling analysis of a massive landscape-scale afforestation project, which was instituted by the Chinese government in response to concerns that deforestation and loss of land cover had led to a major erosion problem. Cao et al. (2009) show that tree planting had a strong negative effect in vulnerable areas – the trees took water from native vegetation in arid areas, around 50% of them died within a few years, and the act of planting destroyed existing vegetation. On the other hand, reducing grazing and agricultural activities were both successful components of the project, and Cao et al. suggest that these activities are much better ways to improve vegetation cover than relying on afforestation. This is a very ambitious conservation set-aside programme, in both scope and cost, and one that the Chinese government are fulfilling on time (49% of the 2010 target activity was already reached by 2003). This impressive achievement demonstrates that with political will, governments can act on a landscape-scale to address a major environmental problem. However, Cao et al.'s (2009) paper clearly demonstrates the need for sound applied science to inform these interventions, and for a more carefully chosen and location-specific suite of activities. The paper is an excellent illustration of the potentially positive effects that such interventions could have if they were more grounded in applied science, with effective and adaptive monitoring.

The four forum articles collectively show how much progress has been made in collaborative and outward-facing science within this region, but also, like Cao et al. (2009), highlight the extreme challenges that still exist.

Fangliang He's (2009) article is both a personal and a professional plea for recognition of the extraordinary and valuable biodiversity that China harbours, and the grave threats that it faces. The recent presumed extinction of the baiji Lipotes vexillifer, which can still be heard whistling on the internet (, is probably the most prominent example of the losses that China is incurring, but there are also many widespread and chronic environmental problems of the type highlighted in Cao et al.'s (2009) paper. However, He sees signs of positive change, including the likely adoption of green GDP that incorporates environmental change into national accounts, and substantial increases in spending on science.

David Mallon (2009) takes a broader look at the profound effects the socio-political upheavals of the last two decades have had on ungulates of the Central Asian region, which has involved China both as a consumer nation and a range state. China's response to the threat to these ungulate species has tended to be on the technical end (i.e. captive-breeding for reintroduction), but there has been less progress on measures to reduce the loss of the species in the wild, for example through strong curbs on demand for their products or through support of in-country conservation initiatives. This highlights a general theme that runs through several contributions (including Ma et al. 2009 and Cao et al. 2009) that the ‘technical’ solution, be it creating an artificial wetland, planting trees or captive-breeding of ungulates, is often beset with problems and may be much less effective than simpler solutions that address the damaging activities directly (through reducing grazing pressure, not developing natural wetlands or curbing poaching in range states).

Whitten's (2009) discussion of the initiatives that are being taken to promote the conservation of cave ecosystems is a good example of how much progress can be made when the Chinese government and an international organization (in this case the World Bank) work together to address a major problem. In this case, they have produced workable and transferable procedures for safeguarding a fragile and vulnerable ecosystem, that are applicable to other countries in the region.

Our final forum piece, by McGowan et al. (2009), addresses the Galliformes (game birds), a particularly significant taxon within China. The Chinese scientific community has had a long-term research interest in these species, but McGowan et al. (2009) highlight how this is shifting into active conservation. The authors particularly bring out the pressing need for capacity-building for science and conservation, recognized by all parties, and particularly for increased scientific exchange.

This scientific exchange is something that the Journal of Applied Ecology is in a particularly good position to promote, and that we intend to play our part in bringing about. We have compiled a virtual special issue of 20 papers addressing a range of issues in applied ecology Asia-wide (which will be published on the journal's homepage at The special issue includes two papers from China (Bai et al. 2007; Pech et al. 2007), but this is far fewer than we would like. Thus, we are using the opportunity of the SCB meeting in Beijing to reach out to potential contributors to the journals, not just from China, but Asia-wide. A key strategic aim of the journal is to increase both the authorship and readership of the journal from this region, and we are working proactively to achieve this. We are very keen to hear from colleagues within the region about any initiatives that they feel could help them engage more fully with the journal.

This is an exciting time for applied ecologists in China and in the region more generally. Hopefully, this Special Profile gives a flavour of the challenges that we face and indicates how they could be met. There is a pressing need for robust applied science worldwide; some of the leaders in applying science to China's ecological problems are showcased here.