Research highlights gaps in China’s biodiversity conservation coverage | Duke Kunshan University

Research highlights gaps in China’s biodiversity conservation coverage

December 4, 2020

Western hoolock gibbon, aka the white-browed gibbon, are an endangered primate species found in the Gaoligong Mountains of Yunnan province. Photo by Binbin Li

By Craig McIntosh
Staff writer

China has made great strides in biodiversity conservation in the past 70 years, but a focus on broad targets for protected areas has left some species neglected and under threat of extinction, experts warn.

To address the issue, policymakers should go beyond area-based objectives and pay more attention to threatened and small-range species in temperate and tropical forest ecosystems, according to new research in Current Biology.

Since creating its first nature reserve in 1956, China’s has expanded its protected areas to 18 percent of the land, surpassing the target set for 2020 at the 10th meeting of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10) in Aichi, Japan, the research shows.

In addition, the central government’s Ecological Red Lines policy, which places restrictions on construction and other disruptive activities, aims to expand safeguards to more than a quarter of the country.

However, as China’s negotiators prepare for the 15th meeting of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) next year to decide on targets for the next decade, the research report shows that despite advances in the past seven decades, “more of the same” will add little to the portfolio of protected species.

“We can clearly see that China has more than met the Aichi target, but are its protection areas ecologically representative? Right now, no,” said Binbin Li, assistant professor of environmental science at Duke Kunshan University, who co-authored the research.

China’s nature reserves are home to many rare bird species. Photos by Binbin Li

Like most countries, China’s largest reserves are in high-altitude or arid places with low human population density. “This coverage mostly includes montane grasslands and shrub lands. Much less protection is provided to its temperate and tropical forest ecosystems, which are home to a vast array of species – 36 percent of bird species, 38 percent of mammal species and 60 percent of amphibians,” Li said.

Nonetheless, over the past decade, as the expansion of protected areas has slowed, forest ecosystems and the species they contain have steadily increased. For temperate broadleaf and mixed forests especially, this led to a rapid increase in protected area coverage, according to the report.

“China, home to an exceptional array of ecosystems and 1.4 billion people, has found it easier to protect remote, cold or dry places rather than the humid forests where most species live. But it has made progress there, too,” said Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke Distinguished Professor of Conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and co-author of the research.

“The country has shifted from protected area expansion to a more targeted, top-down conservation planning in the recent decade, which is good for biodiversity. Small-ranged species are generally better protected than expected,” he said. “I hope China’s progress will continue and inspire other nations when they meet in Kunming next year to set global targets for the next decade.”

Kunming, in southwest China, will host COP15 from May 17 to 30. The meeting was to take place in October but was postponed due to the Covid-19 epidemic.

A giant panda habitat in the Changqing National Nature Reserve in Shaanxi province. Photo by Binbin Li

At the 2010 Aichi conference in Japan, one of the principal strategies to countering human pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity was to expand protected areas. So far, conversations leading up to COP15 on a post-2020 framework have centered on protecting an even larger proportion of land – 30 percent or even “half the Earth.”

However, using land coverage to measure the success of biodiversity conservation is misleading, Li said. She suggested that a baseline agreement at COP15 should be for each nation to commit to introducing and implementing laws or policies that protect threatened and endemic species within their borders, especially their habitats.

More importantly, she added, countries should create conservation financing mechanisms to support effective management of protected areas.

“China has a law on nature reserves, but there’s a lot of habitats in other types of protected areas or completely outside protected areas that are actually very important,” she said.

In addition, Li called for negotiators to look beyond broad area-based targets like “30 percent by 2030” to pay greater attention to threatened and endemic species, as well as small-ranged species that, although not currently threatened, could become endangered if no effort is made to protect their habitats against human activities.

“Research suggests that, globally, we have failed every target set at Aichi,” she said. “Compared with 10 years ago, the language leading up to COP15 suggests we could be heading for less ambitious targets. But that doesn’t need to be the case.”