Conservation: the new Chinese philosophyBeijing, China: Tigers are everywhere in China this year on stamps, calendars, traditional papercuts, and paintings. It is, after all, the Chinese Year of the Tiger. But in real life the big cat is on the verge of extinction in China, with estimates putting the population at only about 160, so low that conservationists are debating whether the animal can even survive into the next century.
Sadly, it is an all-too familiar story for the wildlife of this vast country. China boasts more 4,400 kinds of vertebrates, 10 per cent of the world's total. There are about 500 mammals, 1,186 birds, 320 reptiles, 210 amphibians, and 2,200 fish species. But numbers are dwindling and overall some 100 species are close to disappearing, among them the giant panda, snub-nosed monkey, South China tiger, Chinese alligator, and Yangtze river dolphin.
Part of the reason for this sorry state of affairs is the attack on animal habitats arising from China's economic boom. Wilderness areas are rich sources of raw materials and that leaves them open to abuse, predominantly pollution. But other threats come from the past, such as the value placed on animal bones and body parts by traditional Chinese medicine.
In many rural areas even common creatures such as sparrows are few and far between. But most conservationists' attention is being focused on the plight of about 400 animals listed as endangered. Among them, several dozen species have dwindled to a few score in number.
"China's big cats have suffered a lot, especially the Siberian tiger," says Wang Weisheng, an official from the State Forestry Administration, which is in charge of wildlife protection.
Railways and roads now provide easy access to the virgin forest domain of the tiger. The howl of chain-saws, which can reduce 30-year-old trees to a truck load of planks in as many minutes, sound the death knell of the Siberian tiger. Deforestation kills off the animal's main prey species, herbivores such as red deer and wild boar. In Yanbian Prefecture, Jilin Province, the population of red deer population fell by 81.5 per cent in a decade, of musk deer by 78 per cent, and of sitka deer by 74 per cent.
Hungry tigers are therefore drawn towards villages to prey on farm animals, which provokes a violent reaction. Hunting goes on despite a ban, so that by 1997 the number of Siberian tigers in Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces was down to just 10.
The Chinese government has paid considerable attention to wildlife protection. Since the late 1950s, laws have been passed to protect endangered species such as giant pandas and golden monkeys. After the National People's Congress, China's parliament, passed the Wildlife Protection Law in November 1988, the number of species involved jumped to 97 for first-grade protection and 238 for second-grade.
A nationwide protection network has branches in every forestry monitoring station and each province designates a month or week to publicize wildlife conservation and raise public awareness. There are now 574 official nature reserves, covering in total about six per cent of the country's territory. That number is expected to double in the next 10 years. In addition, China has opened 14 wildlife rescue centres to give special care to endangered and wounded animals.
The tiger rescue centre at Hailin, Heilongjiang Province set up in 1986 at a cost of 10 million yuan (US$1.18 million) has successfully bred more than 70 tigers from an original stock of just eight. "Artificial propagation is a necessary stage in the strategy to save tigers the next is training them to be wild before letting them return to their natural homes," says Liu Xichen, head of the centre.
China has also launched seven rescue projects for individual species and there have been striking successes. For example, giant pandas now number 1,000; crested ibises have recovered from seven in 1981 to 102; Hainan slope deer have prospered from 26 in the early 1980s to more than 700, and Chinese alligators from 200 in the early 1980s to 5,000 now.
But the problems of conservation are enormous in such a huge country and the continuing efforts are hampered by lack of money. Forestry police are ill-equipped to fight hunting gangs who use jeeps, trucks, and radio communications, while the 13,000 professional wildlife protection personnel nationwide are simply too few. In Qinghai Province, for example, one man is responsible for about 2,600 square kilometres.
Yet many individuals maybe even more than illegal hunters have rallied to the cause of China's animals, some even transforming themselves from villains to volunteers. One such is Zhang Houyi, who lives beside Dongting Lake in Central China's Hubei Province. Once a prolific hunter who shot more than 100 wild ducks in a single outing, he now feeds and protects cranes. For 11 years they have returned to the same place after their annual migration, each time with a new member in the family.
After the East Dongting Lake Nature Reserve was set up in 1984, Zhang became a volunteer there and his work with birds earned him membership of the World Crane Protection Fund.
In the country as a whole there are now more than 40,000 full members of the China Wildlife Conservation Association, founded in 1983. It is clear that people are becoming increasingly aware of the value of wildlife, and that more than anything will help to ensure its protection.
*Wu Qi writes for China Features