This autumn, without much fanfare, China established a new government initiative that could have a profound impact on the nation’s increasingly threatened biodiversity.
In October, President Xi Jinping announced the formal establishment of a network of five national parks, covering a total of 230,000 square kilometers (88,800 square miles) and containing nearly 30% of the country’s key terrestrial wildlife species. China, this year’s host for the United Nations biodiversity conference, has vowed to use the new system to fix loopholes in its conservation work.
Once completed, it will be the world’s largest national park system, replacing a complex and unwieldy structure of preserved areas and regional reserves that critics say gave little real protection from logging, illegal development or resource extraction.
The new structure will “break the barriers set by different government departments and local interest groups” and “build a unified and efficient management mechanism” for its ecosystems, said Li Chunliang, deputy director of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.
China is one of the UN’s 17 mega-diverse countries, boasting nearly 10% of the world’s plant species and 14% of its animal species. But the introduction of alien flora and fauna, urbanization, deforestation, climate change and a lack of effective protection have pushed the extinction risks of vertebrate and higher plant species above the global average. About 90% of China’s grasslands and 40% of its major wetlands suffer from degradation or desertification.
The first effort to designate a large area of ecological protection was Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, set up in 1982, almost a century after Yellowstone National Park was established in the U.S. With rapid economic growth and the rise of a middle class, the government added parks, reserves and scenic resorts.
Today there are at least 1,865 such areas in China, run by the state forestry administration, land ministry, water ministry, or the ministry of construction. Many are leisure areas around tourist attractions, such as the Great Wall National Park, and most were created in the 2000s. “Some used to be called ‘paper parks’ because there was no actual management after you drew the line on the map and marked the place as ‘protected’.
Local governments were often keen to monetize natural areas, either by encouraging tourism or by allowing developers to encroach upon protected regions. In 2018, 1,200 illegally built villas were found on protected land in the Qinling Mountains, in northwest China. Most were either demolished or confiscated by the state. Last year, prosecution began of a company that reportedly had spent 14 years illegally mining 26 million tons of coal from the Qilian Mountains nature reserve in the western province of Qinghai.
China first launched a plan to create a unified national park system in 2015. Covering 18% of the world’s second-largest country by land area, it brought the reserves under centralized control and has the potential to encourage more investment into the biodiversity protection.
The newly designated national parks are an indication that the central government is taking the issue more seriously.
Zhang Dengping is one of the rangers at a panda habitat in southwest China’s Sichuan province. For two weeks each month, he rises at 6 am in a dormitory shared with three co-workers, dons a water-proof jacket and anti-skid shoes, and heads into the forest. Born and raised in the region, he’s happy that the mountains where he works have been chosen to be part of the new Giant Panda National Park.
“It’s a lonely job, but also a job that I am proud of,” said Zhang, 51, who records the date, location and pictures of what he finds via an app on his phone. “I witnessed all the progress we have made in the 10 years here on panda habitat protection.”
The monochrome mammal is no longer classified as endangered, but China said protection and breeding work on pandas won’t be downgraded. Officials say these “umbrella” species help other animals and plants living in the same area.
The five initial parks in the system are also home to some of China’s most impoverished communities. Improving the lives of those people while also preserving the natural environment will be one of the core issues for the new system.
Local people who live there for generations know those areas better than anyone else. In most cases, they live a pretty sustainable lifestyle that is integrated into the environment. Many are now employed as rangers charged with protecting the parks.
Former farmer Zhang Dengping is an example of a local who have been so employed in the parks. Wang Hui, another farmer-turned-ranger at the Giant Panda National Park, remembers how his fellow villagers used to hunt and sell wild goats and deer to make a living, and cut down trees to make fire for cooking before a panda protection area was created about a decade ago.
Its large potential human resource gives China an advantage few other national park systems enjoy. China has 1.7 million rangers across all its forests and parks. The U.S. National Park Service has the equivalent of 22,000 full-time employees, including fewer than 1,800 law-enforcement rangers, to cover an area almost as large as China’s five new national parks.
“A solution is the harmonious co-living of man and nature, and to make the local farmers the real hosts of the region. I think it is a reward that they deserve,” said Ni Jiubin, director of the Nature Conservancy’s southwest center.
To supplement the army of rangers, the government has turned to companies such as Huawei Technologies Co. to help harness innovations such as 5G, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.
A forest fire monitoring system developed by Huawei, for example, has been applied at the panda national park since February. Detectors continually report the risk of fire at 651 locations to more than 140,000 rangers, said Yue Kun, president of Huawei’s Global Government Business Department. He said the system helped eliminate 74 fires before they could take hold.
The combination of political will, deployment of labor and adoption of technology, including satellite monitoring, could turn China’s new conservation initiative into a model for other nature reserves in China and create a new and powerful lobby for the natural environment.
“My dream is in 10 years’ time, we can see and observe all kinds of animals from very high up in the sky,” said Wei Fuwen, a conservationist at the Chinese Academy of Science.
Physics.org, [Edited extract from article] December 13, 2021. https://phys.org/news/2021-12-china-world-largest-national.html
CGTN ‘The Gist: A look at China’s National Park system’, 20-May-2021.