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    China Business
     Sep 20, 2007
Page 1 of 2
China's biodiversity takes a beating
By Dinah Gardner

BEIJING - China may be going all out to save the panda, but its record on protecting its native flora and fauna took a beating last week when the World Conservation Union (IUCN, or International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) published its latest Red List of Threatened Species.

China has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, yet its number of species is declining at a frightening rate. The Swiss-based IUCN picked out mainland China, along with Mexico, Brazil

and Australia, as being homes to "particularly large numbers of threatened" animals and plants. Worldwide, it listed 16,306 species as being under threat - almost 800 of them in China.

But it's not just animal lovers and environmentalists who should be worried about the trend, argue conservation groups. Beijing should be concerned about the heavy economic costs linked to biodiversity loss and the fact that its political infrastructure is ill-equipped to halting that trend.

"The loss of biodiversity in the short term can be seen as worth it for the gain in the economy," said WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) China's head of conservation strategies, Li Lin. "However, in the long term, the loss of biodiversity ends up as a loss of human wealth - the whole wealth of the country."

As a way of putting a price on biodiversity, scientists and environmental non-governmental organizations have coined the term "ecosystem services". Simply put, ecosystem services are such benefits as food sources, clean air and water, and the regulation of climate that are provided by "nature" and are essential for people's well-being.

"It's difficult to calculate the value of these services," said Seth Cook, IUCN's China program coordinator. "But in 1995, the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development Biodiversity Working Group ... estimated that the benefits and services provided by China's biodiversity were worth between US$255 billion and $410 billion per year." That's about 10-15% of China's 2006 gross domestic product (GDP) of $2.7 trillion.

"Whatever number value you put on China's biodiversity, it's clear that it supports the country's rapid economic development and the lives of its citizens," Cook said.

Certain industries, such as tourism, Chinese medicine, fishing, agriculture and logging, pay a more direct price for species loss, he said.

Emblematic of the nation's shrinking biodiversity is the baiji tun, a sharp-snouted river dolphin that has plowed the Yangtze River for 20 million years. That is, until now. The IUCN has just downgraded its status to "critically endangered (possibly extinct)", its numbers decimated by pollution, loss of habitat, fishing, and boat traffic. A possible sighting last month means little for the survival of the species. To all intents and purposes, the baiji tun is as dead as a dodo.

The baiji tun didn't stand a chance because the river is just too important a center for industrial and economic development, argues Xie Yan, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society China Program and the country's main authority on biodiversity.

"The Yangtze River is an economic base for the whole country, and so it would have had to have been a big decision for the government" to intervene and save the dolphin, she said. "They would have had to take serious action - clean up the pollution, reduce the number of boats, control construction along the banks, and set up protected areas."

The country had invested too much money in developing industries based along the Yangtze, and that could not be stopped, Xie said.

The dolphin's demise is just the tip of the iceberg in a pattern of loss for China's wildlife. The root cause of species decimation in China is hunting for food and Chinese medicine, said Xie.

"Rural people are eating too many endangered species," she said. "If you go to some parts of the countryside, there are lots of restaurants that attract customers by offering this kind of meat."

A survey by the State Forestry Administration (SFA) from 1995 to 2000 found that more than 252 types of wild animals were hunted, including dozens of endangered species. "Snares and poisoning are still very common, even in nature reserves. And this is more important than loss of habitat and pollution, right now."

On paper the government looks as if it's serious about protecting wildlife. A map of the country showing protected areas - the key way of preserving biodiversity - is covered in swaths of green. As of last year, the country had marked out 2,194 nature reserves, or some 15% of its territory, according to the IUCN. And although environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) working in China are under pressure to be diplomatic when commenting about government policy, most are fairly adamant that the central administration is committed to doing something about biodiversity.

"I think the government is putting [its] mind to protecting the environment," said the WWF's Li, adding that she has felt a 

Continued 1 2 

Cashing in on pandas (and their poop) (Sep 7, '07)

Asia's river systems face collapse (Mar 24, '07)

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