China Unveils Ambitious Plan to Protect Wildlife at UN Talks

The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts describes China’s new plan for , unveiled as the UN COP10 talks on biodiversity begin in Nagoya.

China’s biodiversity action plan designates 52 priority conservation areas, covering 23% of the country; it promises state funds for protection; and sets a target of controlling biodiversity loss by 2020.

Sichuan, has been the first province to put the plan into action. It has set aside about 930m yuan (£87m) and identified five ecological protection areas: one links to existing giant panda reserves, another restores an area damaged by industry, two conserve semi-tropical flora and fauna, and another offsets the impact of dams.

“These are solid commitments. If China can implement this plan systematically, then they will be managing better than any other country,” said Matthew Durnin, lead scientist in north Asia for the US group Nature Conservancy, which has advised the drafters of the new strategy ….

Gretchen Daily, associate professor at Stanford University, claimed China went further than any other country in embedding “natural capital” into decision making.

But some conservationists have warned that poor enforcement often undermines such initiatives. “Sometimes the laws are not well implemented so the destruction … goes unpunished,” said Yan Xie, of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “China has done a great deal, but we cannot be optimistic about biodiversity conservation while the underlying problems remain of habitat loss, pollution, overuse of pesticides and over consumption.”

While explaining the importance of the Nagoya talks, Mike Shanahan at China Dialogue cites inadequate communication as another problem that has frustrated past efforts:

In 2002 governments agreed to reduce significantly the loss of biodiversity by 2010. But they failed, in large part because they did not address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss – such as a lack of awareness of the true value of biodiversity and a failure to include the true costs of biodiversity loss in policies and plans. With a new, more ambitious and better-designed strategy, governments now have another chance to create a global agreement to preserve and wisely use our planet’s living resources in ways that bring benefit to all.

Key to this will be better communication about biodiversity, conveying why it is important, what its decline means and what can be done about it.

A major issue in wildlife conservation both in China and beyond is the country’s appetite for endangered animal parts in traditional medicine, which such communication might help suppress. To that end, the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies issued a statement earlier this year discouraging the use of bones by its members and dismissing some of their purported health benefits (while reaffirming others):

According to TCM theories, tiger bones are able to strengthen muscles and bones, and relieve pain and epilepsy, which has been confirmed by TCM practice over thousands of years. However, WFCMS notes that, some individuals and organizations with little understanding of the essence and modern development of TCM misinterpret and exaggerate the medicinal properties of tiger bones. Such misinterpreting shows little respect for TCM practices and is harmful to tiger conservation efforts.

To protect wild tigers, the Chinese government and the international community banned the use of tiger bones in medication, and tiger bones were removed from Chinese pharmacopeia in 1993. Since then, China has successfully reduced the demand for tiger bones in its domestic market, which contributes to the conservation of wild tiger population in China and its neighboring countries.

In the recent BBC documentary Lost Land of the Tiger, however, zoologist Alan Rabinowitz accuses the Chinese medicinal market of continuing to contribute to the species’ decline. According to a Observer report on the looming Global Tiger Summit in St Petersburg, China, like Vietnam, Cambodia and North Korea, no longer has a viable breeding population in the wild.