Conservation of China’s Tropical Biodiversity
May 07 - 08, 2016
|Day 1 – Biodiversity||Day 2 – Biodiversity, Economics, and Health|
Patterns of Biodiversity
The keynote address set an urgent tone for the conference, as Peter Raven gave an overview of the state of biodiversity in China and beyond. With the environment undergoing unsustainable anthropogenic change that China has increasingly contributed to with its own rapid growth, it cannot be ignored that biodiversity as well as human livelihoods are at critical risk. Dr. Raven emphasized that the problems of climate change, malnutrition, and biodiversity loss are inherently linked and that multinational cooperation is necessary in tackling these issues. The COP21 Paris Agreement serves as a hopeful symbol of the beginning of this cooperation. Of particular importance in this context is China’s role and participation in this landmark climate agreement, as the economic powerhouse has committed to significantly reducing carbon emissions and deforestation.
The rest of this session focused on varied topics on biodiversity in tropical China and beyond. Richard T. Corbett characterized China’s tropics as “paratropics” - these areas, unlike other tropical zones, have cold and wet winters. The flora and fauna have adapted to this unique paratropical climate, as evergreens populate the area and biomass can be highly seasonal. There are few other regions in the world quite like tropical China, as only northern Vietnam, northern Myanmar, and northern Mexico share this climate pattern. Notably, climate change is increasing the temperature of these cold winters, thus reducing the distinctness of this zone. In conserving these unique areas of biodiversity, Jinfeng Zhou discussed the role of NGOs, which is quickly evolving as China’s growth results in changing regulations for public interest groups. On the more technical side of conservation, Pierre Comizzoli described new technologies, methodologies, and approaches of conserving biodiversity. Noting the gap between “the technology and the ecology,” Dr. Comizzoli emphasized that an interdisciplinary approach is necessary for effective conservation - biodiversity must be conserved both in the field and in the lab.
Drivers of Species Loss
Some of the most impactful drivers of species loss were discussed in the next session. Fragmentation, as demonstrated by a case study in southern Thailand by Luke Gibson, presents an increasingly common concern in tropical forests. Currently, 20% of tropical species in China are located within 100 meters of a forest edge and 70% are located within 1 kilometer of an edge. Species richness is devastated by fragmentation, driven largely by deforestation and development. The threat of deforestation was underscored by Zhiyun Ouyang, who identified urbanization and agriculture as key driving forces in China. Although a significant portion - 14.8% - of China is protected by those forces as “natural reserves,” the large majority of these areas are deserts and not forests or grasslands. Conserving specific species rather than areas is also an oft-used strategy, which Stuart Pimm discusses in the context of conservation priorities. He notes that there are two types of threatened species: species with small ranges that are locally rare and species with large ranges that are locally common. There are a disproportionate number of the first type in southeast Asia, which leads in part to incredibly high extinction rates as small-range species are more vulnerable to extinction due to habitat loss. With this in mind, umbrella species that have large ranges should ideally be prioritized in order to conserve the greatest amount of biodiversity. The giant panda, an iconic symbol of species conservation, was found by Binbin Li to serve as a fairly effective umbrella species, as their range covers around 30% of endemic epicenters.
Connections to Social Sciences
Conservation of the giant panda can also be analyzed as a case study of how the coupling of human and natural systems can result in mutual benefit. Jack Liu discussed a conceptual framework for conservation in which a holistic approach to considering social sciences is necessary. It was noted that conservation incentives do not often lead to desired change in behavior such that area-specific needs of people and community desires must be taken into account. In giant panda conservation, for example, the Chinese government built free housing for communities close to panda habitats in an effort to encourage them to relocate. Unfortunately, no community members moved, demonstrating the necessity of considering community input in conservation efforts. However, Lu Zhi emphasized that people can and will protect their environment when empowered and educated to do so. In terms of top-down strategies to conservation, it was noted that the government must act with more transparency and engagement with both mid-level governing bodies and civil societies.
Conservation Psychology and Economics
Given that human actions and behaviors are integral drivers of biodiversity loss, a key component of conservation must then be to understand how to influence and change these behaviors. This understanding must be holistic in nature and take into account multiple perspectives including human psychology, health, and economic incentives. Aleah Bowie highlighted that human attitude change towards conservation does not always correspond to positive behavior outcomes. In her research, she found that taking advantage of human cognitive biases such as reputation consideration was a more successful way to change conservation behavior than the traditional approach of employing empathy-inducing, attitude-targeted messaging.
As previously mentioned, a clear motivator of human behavior is economic incentive and value. This value comes in many shapes and sizes, as shown by Jianjun Jin, who demonstrated that people value biodiversity through non-market values such as existence value. She found through contingent valuation methods and subsequent estimation of non-use value that people in China and other Asian countries valued species like the Macao black-faced spoonbill and marine turtles more than the cost of conserving them. Jin demonstrated that this estimation of value of biodiversity could be a significant economic leveraging tool in creating conservation policy. In terms of direct use value, Jintao Xu discussed the impacts of forest tenure reform on the conservation behaviors of farmers. He found that household tenure reform was a more effective and efficient system, as it resulted in higher household income and less forest degradation. Elizabeth Robinson also analyzed forest degradation in relation to community members; however, her research took place in Tanzania. Using a more theoretical approach, Dr. Robinson found that some traditional conservation values may need to be challenged in order to effectively link ecological health and human livelihoods. For example, she found that legalizing comparatively less degradative resource extraction may lessen more degradative illegal extraction.
Conservation, Biodiversity, and Health
Human health is another major though perhaps overlooked motivator of behavior in the context of conservation. Linfa Wang, an expert on emerging infectious tropical diseases, proposed that limiting wildlife consumption as well as general human contact with wildlife is key to controlling the spread of these diseases, given that many emerging diseases are zoonotic in origin. He highlighted the need for global surveillance and urgency in tracking these diseases, given the rapid emergence of zoonoses such as Ebola and Zika virus. Tong Wu elaborated on the public health risk posed by China’s wet markets, which sell fresh meat as well as a variety of live animals, making them ideal places for zoonotic transmission of disease. He emphasized that risk can no longer be contained with the globalization of the world economy - a risk for disease emergence in China is a risk for disease emergence everywhere. However, he recognized that this global risk would be best targeted with a local understanding of the role of wet markets in Chinese culture.
In a very concrete linkage between environmental conservation and human health, William Pan found that rapid deforestation and an exaggerated El Niño event - likely caused in part by climate change - led to a significant peak in malaria prevalence in Loreto, Mexico. Land use change and environmental degradation is linked with damage to human health and livelihoods in this context. Dr. Pan suggests health should be used as a leveraging point for conservation efforts in contexts such as these. In Peru, for example, he explains that backlash against mercury poisoning caused by artisanal gold mining would also prevent the environmental damage associated with mining.
The conference ended with a wrap-up session aiming to address future research, education, and conservation. It began with a survey of the audience to compare tropical China with the rest of China and with Southeast Asia. Most considered the biodiversity of tropical China to be different from the rest of China, and that drivers of biodiversity loss are more similar to that of Southeast Asia. However, the consensus was that conservation actions are more similar to the rest of China.
The speakers concluded that international cooperation, changes in behavior driven by bottom-up cultural change rather than just changes in attitude, and China taking on its role as a leader in conservation in Asia will be essential moving forward.
With the introduction of a new international master’s degree in environmental policy, Duke Kunshan in partnership with the Nicholas School of the Environment and Sanford School of Public Policy aims to provide a platform for addressing these goals.
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China, the world’s most populous country, is experiencing rapid economic growth and concomitant changes to its environment. Covering 10 million km2, it has diverse ecosystems from permanent ice fields to tropical moist forests and holds 15% of the world’s vertebrate and 12% of its plant species. In recent decades, rapid economic development, population migration, urban expansion, and natural resource exploitation have threatened China’s high biodiversity and varied ecosystems. Nonetheless, it has emphasized conservation of biodiversity in recent years. Importantly, the total protected area has expanded 35-fold since 1980. By 2010, China had dedicated 18% of its land to conservation in >8,000 protected areas.
Most of China’s biodiversity and especially its unique species are concentrated in its tropical areas. Here rapid expansion of tree crops — such as rubber — reduce native ecosystems and there is often extensive hunting of wildlife.
The challenges to conserving China’s tropical biodiversity are thus many and varied. This conference will bring together those with a knowledge of biodiversity with social and political scientists who are concerned with the factors that drive environmental changes. The aim is to improve the guidance that the scientific community (broadly defined) can provide to the managers and policy makers that shape China’s future environment.