The Environment in China: Inside the Middle Kingdom

Given widespread concern about China’s depredations on the global environment, what is going on inside China itself in terms of environmental conservation and wildlife protection? The picture is complex, unpredictable, and perhaps without structure. It is perhaps a mosaic of competing interests and forces, some of them genuinely in favor of conservation, others more insidious.

In late 2016, Chinese authorities delivered welcome news when they said the government was creating a 6,000-sq. km protected near the Russian border for the purpose of conserving Siberian tigers and Amur leopards, the world’s rarest. The fact that there is a city in the midst of this proposed conservation zone and that it’s probably a little too big to manage effectively might get overlooked, but China gets credit for grand vision. And if it means that wildlife black markets in the northeast come under pressure or get shut down and that tigers, leopards, and their prey species enjoy better protection, that is a big step in the right direction.

A few months later, in February 2017, some seemingly cute news came out of the northeast that tigers living in an enclosure had attacked a drone. How beautiful and playful those great cats seemed. However, as the Washington Post and others reported, this apparently benign video masked a much darker reality: the location was actually a tiger slaughterhouse, and tigers lounging around outside were probably due to be killed, skinned, and broken down into various “traditional medicine” products that have no known scientific value.

Despite the fact that this sort of imitative magic “medicine” is no different than the snake oil medicine of yesteryear in North America, Beijing is pushing hard to promote this quackery as bon fide medicine that can cure cancer, rheumatism, erectile dysfunction, and a host of other ailments.

Worse still, China announced last month that it is ending its 25-year ban on tiger parts and rhino horn for use in Chinese medicine. The announcement shocked almost everyone in the conservation community. The problem is that wild-caught tigers and new rhino horns can be easily laundered into the existing supply in China. In fact, many traditional medicine consumers of tiger parts feel that wild tigers are “more powerful” than farmed tigers, and so it’s worth it to pay a bit more for the “real deal” for a cat shot on the terai in India or Nepal, or snared in the jungles of Sumatra or Malaysia and get a medicinal wallop.

China is home to the world’s rarest gibbon, the Hainan gibbon from the island of the same name, with only 25 in the wild in a habitat threatened by golf courses and other economic development schemes. Back on the mainland, Chinese fishermen dragged a large whale shark through the streets of Fujian province in the back of a truck looking for a hotel to sell it to, while farther inland in Sichuan, a Chinese panda was attacked and killed by a group of yellow-throated martens in a sign that nature is still playing out as it should in some areas of this vast country.

In fact, a rewilded panda surprised Wenchuang county, also in Sichuan, when it appeared downtown and took a stroll by the teashops before heading back up into the hills. Wild pandas are doing well in China, one last year one was found outside of the species known range down in Yunnan province. However, Beijing has been trumpeting its reforestation projects in Sichuan and the surrounding areas, but the benefizzzts to wildlife have not been as great as hoped for.

Yunnan, which means “south of the clouds,” is easily China’s most biodiverse province, with Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve, which borders Laos, home to the country’s last population of wild elephants (they once roamed as far north as Beijing), and Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve, bordering Myanmar, home to rare snub-nosed monkeys, gibbons, and even the rare marbled cat (includes camera trap video). Yunnan, along with Tibet, is probably the nation’s greatest biodiversity bank and should be a focal point of future conservation efforts.

China wants to build new roads, a mountaineer center and other projects on the Tibet side of Mount Everest, developments that are sure to cause ecological problems in this sensitive ecosystem. In fact, Beijing floated the idea of burrowing a train line straight under Everest en route to Kathmandu, a seeming engineering impossibility. However, the little-known but gargantuan (at 334,000 sq. km) Chang Tang Nature Reserve in central Tibet demonstrates a major commitment to environmental protection. Home to snow leopards, chiru, wild yaks, wolves, Tibetan antelope, Tibetan sand fox, and a myriad of other high altitude species (including the Yeti), call this vast ecosystem home and the protection of the Chang Tang could mean long-term survival for these species.

To the north in Xingjiang province, Beijing dreams of running a huge water pipe down from Tibet to turn the arid desert landscape of the Islamic area into a flower-strewn “new California.” The water would come from the Brahmaputra River, which currently tumbles into India and Bangladesh and waters Kaziranga National Park and the Sundarbans, but which would be diverted and rechanneled into Xingjiang, if all goes to plan. This is not mere tinkering with the environment but large-scale anthropogenic change that would have consequences for everyone involved—China, the Tibetans, the Uyghur people of Xingjiang (one million of whom are now estimated to be incarcerated in re-education camps), India, Bangladesh—and all the wildlife in between.

The Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia is expanding, threatening even the capital of Beijing with sandstorms and hence poor air quality; I’ve experienced the effects of the sandstorms myself far way in Taipei. To top it all off, more evidence points to China being the source of the ozone-destroying gas that has been banned across the globe; rogue factories are thought to be responsible.

But China is so big that its tastes, desires, and demands have a massive outsized impact beyond its borders. While its ivory ban has spurred a decline in ivory sales, a twisted taste for “blood beads” made from the skin of recently slaughtered (or still living) elephants is appalling; most of these elephants come from the jungles of Myanmar. China had a hand in voting down a plan for the creation of the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica, while Xi Jinping himself has said that he wants to see more Chinese investment in Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast, a strategic location with major military and environmental implications. However, some are beginning to doubt the feasibility of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with Malaysia and Pakistan leading the way. From an environmental standpoint, the BRI is the last thing the world needs.

And so it is a mixed bag for China’s natural heritage; gains are made while losses continue, problems are addressed while others are exacerbated. What is the plan, and is there any rhyme or reason? As is the case with so many things in China, it’s difficult to know for sure.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.