Conserving China's Wildlife


Wildlife Conservation in China. Preserving the Habitat of China's Wild West . Harris, R. B. 2008 . M.E. Sharpe , Armonk , NY . 384 pp. $74.95 (hardcover) . ISBN 978-0-7656-2057-6 .

Just in time for the Beijing Olym-pics and a short year away from the Society for Conservation Biology's first annual meeting in Asia (Beijing, July 2009), Richard Harris has published the first text that brings together biological and social perspectives on conserving wildlife in the People's Republic of China. Anyone with an interest in Chinese conservation now has 2 key sources to draw on: Elizabeth Economy's general overview of environmental issues, The River Runs Black (2004), and for the biological and environmental policy details, Harris' new volume.

This is an important book for several reasons. China is a megadiversity country; it holds about 10% of the world's mammals, along with 12% each of flowering plants, birds, and freshwater fishes. Rates of endemism are high across many taxa. In addition, the wild progenitors of many important food crop plants (i.e., rice, sugarcane) are located within China. Yet China, with 1.3 billion people and a GDP growth rate averaging 9.37% over the past 25 years, is developing at a rate and scale unprecedented in human history. With a 4000-year track record of human-transformed landscapes in eastern and central China, the last reservoirs of biodiversity in western China are now subject to the government's Great Western Development Strategy, a multiyear plan to bring the west up to the standards of the east. This does not bode well for China's plants, animals, and ecosystems (Grumbine 2007).

Wildlife Conservation in China also is important because Harris is the first biologist to address in detail the sociocultural context and environmental law and policy framework (or lack thereof) that so deeply influence doing conservation in China. This is a major achievement. In fact, given the importance of China to global biodiversity and the evolving politics of climate change, one might ask why integrated studies of China are underrepresented in the environmental literature.

Harris builds his presentation around 20 years of fieldwork in China's far west, primarily on the Qinghai–Tibetan Plateau. He uses his studies of various plateau mammals to frame a broader analysis of Chinese conservation. This treatment is strengthened by Harris' fluency in both spoken and written Mandarin. Another strength is his informal tone; this book is accessible to laypeople and experts alike. The 36-page literature-cited section (with both Chinese and English references) is the best current bibliography on Chinese conservation topics.

There is much to recommend in this book, but I want to focus on several key chapters. Chapter 3, “The Chinese Perception of Wildlife,” should be required reading for anyone doing environmental work in China. The Chinese are largely utilitarian in their approach to nature. Confucian instrumental values trump the minority traditions of Daoism and Buddhism. Confucianism colors Chinese attitudes toward nature and wildlife, but it also underlies conceptions of national identity, law, property, and more. Harris' point is that Chinese notions of all the above differ dramatically from other cultural traditions, and conservation professionals who do not seek to understand the Chinese view may be less successful in their work.

Chapters 5 and 6 cover the legal and policy bases for wildlife protection and the country's system of nature reserves. Aside from providing details, these chapters help readers see fundamental features of the Chinese political landscape: power differentials between Beijing and local governments, reasons why environmental laws are difficult to implement, how funding for conservation is problematic, leading local governments to develop nature reserves in order to protect them, and how ethnic minority peoples lack a political voice in land management decisions. Many foreigners hold incorrect notions about China: that the central government is all powerful, that the existence of Chinese laws means a rule of law has also been established, that the growing economy of China translates into funding for conservation, and that Western models of protecting nature have much traction in a country where the number of people living inside protected areas equals the population of Sweden. These chapters provide practical insights that correct false assumptions about conservation in China.

Biologists will be particularly interested in chapter 9, which explores the production of wildlife science in China. From the perspective of conservation biology, the concerns of Chinese scientists are somewhat bizarre: a focus on taxonomic detail over ecological relationships, statistical methodology often below international standards, lack of scientific skepticism, and intense publication pressures down to specific word quotas per researcher per year. Much of this results from wildlife science being new to Chinese academia. As of 2005, there was only one school offering a degree in wildlife biology. There are but a handful of conservation biology programs in the most populous country in the world. With so few programs, there is little connection between academic research and professional practice in the field.

Harris offers his view on the future of wildlife in chapter 10. The picture is decidedly mixed. Of course, Harris advocates for better professional training and a tighter link between research and practice. Recognizing the dominant role of Confucian values, Harris wants to see more regulated consumptive use (hunting) of wildlife outside nature reserves (all hunting is currently banned in China). He also believes wildlife populations will benefit from lifting the ban on subsistence hunting by local peoples. Both these policies are debatable, but if implemented properly, they would almost certainly improve on the status quo.

Harris also suggests that the nature-reserve system might be downsized; the government is not capable of managing the current system. Focusing on quality over quantity, he wants the government to fully fund a smaller set of reserves. Paradoxically, Harris recognizes that “even the largest of reserves are too small to maintain populations in perpetuity” (p. 226). This means China must soon realize that wildlife protection must extend in some fashion beyond the boundaries of nature reserves into the matrix of surrounding lands. How to do this is a problem China shares with every other country in the world.

One may quibble, however, with Harris' recommendations, and there are 2 pieces missing from this fine book. In the final pages, Harris offers up community-based conservation, “embryonic and experimental in China” (p. 229), as more sustainable than the current top-down, state-led approach. I agree, but there are numerous pilot projects in community-based conservation in China, and if this portends a better future, then Harris should have discussed these efforts more thoroughly (see Plummer & Taylor 2004). The other missing piece is how China's emergence as a global power may affect its conservation policies. Harris does not address this. But just as China adopted international models of nature reserves in the latter 20th century, there is little doubt that with enhanced international standing comes greater pressure to follow international conservation norms. Given China's expanding ecological footprint and the near-term consequences of climate change, much more than China's wildlife is at stake.