At an October 11th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, China said that it is the “first country to accord ecological civilization as much importance as economic, political, cultural and social civilizations.” Whether or not that is indeed the case, China’s announcement about addressing biodiversity loss comes none too soon. China has some of the richest biodiversity in the world, with the largest number of bird species. But many, including the iconic panda, are endangered or threatened, with few survivors remaining in the wild.
Along with habitat devastation, China’s poor record in protecting its environment is surely a factor. Air pollution has been cited as one of China’s top environmental problems, according to the the World Wide Fund for Nature. The British medical journal The Lancet recently found that the huge increase in car emissions in China and India has made Asian cities the “epicenter of global air pollution.” Far more people in Asia have died from air pollution than had been thought: 2,100,000 million people died prematurely in 2010 from air pollution, mostly from tiny particles of diesel soot and gases from cars and trucks. 1,200,000 million of these people were in China and east Asia and 712,000 in India and South Asia.
“No one can escape toxic air,” as Anumita Roychowdhury, head of air pollution at the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) in Dehli, tells the Guardian.
The Chinese government has marked out some 15 percent of its land for over 2,000 nature reserves but a survey by the State Forestry Administration (SFA) from 1995 to 2000 found that dozens of endangered species were among some 252 types of wildlife hunted.
Let’s hope that China is truly prioritizing the protection of biodiversity. If any of the following five animals were to disappear forever from the earth, it would be a true, and tragic, loss.
1. Crested Ibis
30 years ago, only about seven of these birds with their distinctive red cheeks and long beak remained in the wild. Conservation efforts have helped their numbers to grow to some 700 in the wild, with about the same amount in captivity.
The crested ibis could once be found in China, Japan, Russia and North Korea but now survives only in the wild in one location, in Shaanxi Province.
Video of the first artificially incubated crested ibis born at the Shanghai Zoo uploaded by NTDTV/YouTube
2. River Dolphin
The Yangtze River is central to China’s economic and industrial development and, as Xie Yan, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society China Program and an authority on the country’s biodiversity, has noted, ”it would have had to have been a big decision for the government [to save the dolphin]. 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.”
Video uploaded by BaijiFoundation/YouTube
3. Chinese Alligator
Today there only about 130 Chinese alligators — one of the two alligator species in the world — remaining in the wild; they are one of the most endangered animals in the world. 230 million years ago, they were, like the river dolphin, plentiful in the Yangzte River.
Smaller than the American alligator (the males can grow to be about five feet long, the females about four-and-a-half feet), the Chinese alligator has been bred in captivity and efforts are underway to reintroduce them to their natural range. They are locally known as Yow Lung or T’o meaning “dragon,” suggesting that the Chinese alligator is the source for the mythical Chinese dragon.
Photo by Mark Dumont/Flickr
Conservationists consider the South China Tiger to be “functionally extinct”: this beautiful creature has not been sighted in the wild in more than 25 years. Considered a pest, the tiger was extensively hunted — 4,000 remained in the 1950s but only 30-80 in 1996 — and only a few species remain in China’s southeast forest, where their habitat is heavily fragmented.
The Chinese government has made it a goal to reintroduce the tigers to the wild. But one such effort has used “unorthodox methodology” that has caused international experts to raise concerns: captive tigers were sent to preserves in South Africa to learn to hunt in the wild. In addition, the genetic diversity of the captive tigers is limited and their habitat, and a wild prey base, are lacking in a country that has devoted a huge amount of resources to economic development and industry.
Photo by HBarrison/Flickr
5. Chinese Pangolin
The Chinese pangolin, a scale-covered insect-eating mammal, is highly prized for its meat, which is considered a delicacy. It is also hunted for its skin and its scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and attract high prices in local and international markets.
The pangolin’s range is extensive (including Nepal, northern India, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, southern China and Taiwan) though difficult to determine precisely, as the pangolin is nocturnal and solitary in its habits. In most countries, pangolins caught in the wild cannot be exported for commercial trade. But since it is difficult to patrol the forests in which they live, hunters can catch them and not be caught. As its numbers have decreased significantly over the past 15 years and are expected to continue to do so by another 50 percent, the Chinese pangolin is on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
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