GUIDE TO CHINA
WILDLIFE & ENVIRONMENT
The scale of China’s environmental problems is sadly comparable to the breadth of its wildlife, which includes such high-profile creatures as tigers, pandas and elephants. To begin with, China’s 1.2R billion souls account for a fifth of the world’s population, but the nation encompass es less than one tenth of the world’s arable land. Furthermore, almost the entire population lives in the well-watered eastern half of the country, where virtual ly every centimeter of farmland has been developed. Indeed, China has very lit dc land that has not been altered in some way by man. The sheer size of the population means that forests and wetlands, grasslands and agricultural fields are stretched beyond the limits of sustainable use. Dramatic growth in the econo u1y and the continuing need to raise living standards for some of Asia’s poorest people means that urban areas face a similar crisis: coal dust, untreated factory emissions, v ehicle exhaust and wind-blown desert sand make Chinese cities some of the most polluted on Earth; many of the nation’s rivers arc polluted and virtually all water in urban areas is heavily contaminated.
The world’s third largest country, China rises from sea level in the east to the peak of Mount Everest on the border with Nepal . The south shares tropical rainforests with Laos , Vietnam and Burma , while the Da Hinggan Mountains in Inner Mongolia have tundra vegetation on top of permafrost. China is also home to East Asia’s most important wetlands and Asia’s longest river, and is the source of two rivers of inestimable importance to hundreds of millions of peo ple in South and Southeast Asia – the Ganges and the Mekong . Deserts make up one-fifth of China’s total territory, largely in the northwest. Arid steppes cover additional areas in the Altai, Tian and Kunlun mountains in the far west, a region blocked from the southwestern monsoon by the Tibetan plateau and from the southeastern monsoon by its distance from the sea. This massive diversity of geography and habitats has resulted in an extraordinary range of plant and animal life.
Forests and grasslands
China contains a variety of forest types. Both the northeast and northwest reaches contain mountains and cold coniferous forests, supporting animal species which include moose and Asiatic black bear, along with sonic 120 types of birds. Moist conifer forests can have thickets of bamboo as an under- storey; replaced by rhododendrons in higher montane stands of juniper and yew Subtropical forests, which dominate central and southern China, support an astounding 146,000 species of flora, as well as the famous giant panda, gold en monkey and South China tiger. Tropical rainforest and seasonal rain forests, though confined to Yunnan and Hainan Island, actually contain a quar ter of all the plant and animal species found in China.
Grasslands make up about a third of China’s total land area. The immense and productive grasslands are largely concentrated in Inner Mongolia , Ningx ia Autonomous Region, parts of Qiughai and TibetThe natural wildlife they support includes three species on the verge of extinction: Przewa lski’s horse, the Asiatic wild ass and the Bactrian camel (the ancestor of domesticat ed camels). Others, including the Tibetan gazelle, are threatened by the influx of gold miners and truck drivers carrying goods to and from Tibet , who poach annuals for food and as trophies-There is often direct competition between domestic animals and wild fauna, and herdsmen poison or trap carnivores, and sometimes set fires to increase pasture area. The government has recently stepped up efforts to control the conversion of grasslands to pasture, but lacks the manpower to enforce policy.
Freshwater habitats are of massive importance to China , and a huge percentage of the population is directly dependent on wetlands – marshes, rivers, and lakes – for economic activ ity flood control and drinking water. Seven of the most importaut rivers in the world begin in the highlands of western China . The Yellow River , Yangzi River , Lancang Jiang ( Mekong ) and the Salween rise in the east of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. The Indus , Ganges and Brahmaputr a rise in the south. Downstrcam these rivers serve as sources of irrigation and drinking water, modes of transport and centres of cultural and religious impor tance for some two billion people in China , India , Pakistan , Bangladesh and throughout Southeast Asia . These rivers rise and gather strength from many of the thousands of freshwater lakes of the region.
China’s northeast is the focus for much of the country’s freshwater marshes. Two million hectares on the Sanjiang plain of Heilongjiang Province are essentially a collection of shallow freshwater lakes and reed-beds where the Heilongjiang , Sungari and Wusuli rivers come together. Jilin , Liaoning and Inner Mongolia all share these ecosystems. One of the most well-known wildlife areas in this ecosystem is Zhalong Nature Reserve, a 2000-square kilonaetre area which was created in 1979 to protect breeding areas for the red-crowned crane, and other wintering migrants. These marshes are also of great value for reed production, the bulk of which is turned into pulp for paper. Waterfowl and reed production can usually coexist, at least at present levels, so this is a useful confluence of conservation and economic uses. In Tibet and western Sichuan , marshland provides breeding grounds for the black-necked crane and bar-headed goose.
China’s freshwater lakes include the country’s best-known wetlands: Jiangxi’s Poyang Hu and Hunan’s Dongting Hu. Dongting Hu. China’s seco nd largest fr eshwater lake is vitally important for wildlife, including the high ly endangered Yangzi river dolphin and Chinese sturgeon as w ell as more wintering wildfowl. Poyang Hu is a similar complex of small lakes and marsh areas which fluctuates seasonally: summer floods give way in autumn to fertile agricultural land, attractive both to farmers and visiting birds. The importance of the area is hard to overstate, as the lakes provide a wintering habitat for almost the entire world population of two hundred Siberian cranes, and as many as five hundred thousand birds may be On Poyang Hu at am one tune during the winter months. It recent years, how ever, some of Poyang’s larger lakes have been drained at the end of autumn, leaving w aterfowl inade quate shallow land on which to feed.
Saltwater lakes and coastal wetlands
About half of China’s lakes are saline and, once again, are important breeding grounds for waterfowl. Most arc concentrated in northwest China on the inland drainage systems of the North Tibetan plain and in the Zaidan basin. The largest is Qin hai Hu, a 4,426 square-kilouletre reserve which attracts thousands of birds each summer, including cormorants, great black-headed gulls. bar-headed geese and pied avocets. Similarly, the Tarim River basin in Xinjiang supports one of die largest breeding populations of black stork in China . The Ordos plateau area of Inner Mongolia as well as the Xinjiang’s Tiolimiao-Alashan Nur (lake) support breeding sites for the endangered relict pill. Most of these lakes and marshes fluctuate seasonally and are threatened by increased diversion of water for human use.
China’s coastline is approximately 18,000km long, extending from the Bohai Gulf , which freezes in the winter, to the tropical waters of the South China Sea . Coastal wetlands are important as fuel stops for waterfowl on the migratory route between Siberia and Australia . Chongming Island in the Yangzi River Delta near Shanghai – China’s largest city and one of its fastest growing regions – is vital for these migrants.
Threats to China’s wildlife
Currently, China’s endangered flora and fauna includes the familiar, endemic and scarce giant panda; South China panda; Yangzi river dolphin; crested ibis; and a host of other plants and animals. Of these, the giant panda is most populous with approximately a thousand individuals left in the wild, while the entire known population of crested ibis is perhaps 45, and Yangzi dolphins number less than 20. Other endangered animals include the snow leopard, which depends on w estern China for over half its range; the Asian elephant, a resident of Xishuangbanna near Laos and Vietnam; the golden monkey; the Yangzi alligator; and migratory species such as the red-crowned crane and black-necked crane.
Ultimately, wildlife has declined because conserving it is not considered a productive use of land. Intensive cultivation of land for food production has led to diminishing habitat for wildlife, just as reclamation of wetlands for agri culture, and construction of power stations and water conservancy have dimin ished the area of freshwater ecosystem. Millions of domesticated sheep and cows are grazed on the grasslands of Inner Mongolia , leading to an increased threat of desertification, a situation heightened by serious droughts and fires in 2002. Demand has outstripped supply for virtually all natural , resources, including water (shortages are faced throughout the country), timber, annual products and w ild plants. The current economic boom (accompanied by a massive spurt in car-buying) has only served to worsen pollution and thus damage to habitats.
The extent of deforestation for commercial timber, fuel and the creation of new farmland over the last half-century has had massive consequences – most recently it has been blamed for the extent of the appalling flooding through the Yangzi Basin during the late 1990s. An acute illustration of the impact on w ildlife is the case of the giant panda. Giant pandas require vast quantities of bamboo, which grows as all under-storey to the Moist subtropical forests of mountainous Sichuan , Gansu and Hsanxi provinces. Without an upper storey of trees, bamboo will wither. The logging which has diminished the forest areas of these provinces has shrunk panda habitat as well. Another animal to suffer from deforestation in the tiger, of which there are probably fewer than one hundred remaining in China – it was deliberately hunted out during the 1950s and 60s. very little suitable habitat remains for the species to recover in numbers and one endemic variety, the South China tiger, is critically endangered.