China’s Rich Natural Heritage Under Threat

Songqiao Yao
Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dr. Zhou Dequn is a professor at Kunming University of Science and Technology and guest professor at Virginia Tech. He worked for The Nature Conservancy from 2004- 09 and is currently on the editorial board for the journal Plant Pathology & Quarantine. His expertise includes ecology, fungal diversity and conservation biology. We talked to him about China’s biodiversity crisis.

WRR: What is known about biodiversity losses in China's rivers?

ZD: Currently, our knowledge is relatively limited and mostly focuses on research and active monitoring of a few key rivers. For example, the Institute of Hydrobiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wuhan has long been researching and monitoring the hydrobiology of the Yangtze River. They also established a comprehensive database of China’s inland aquatic organisms. However, as a whole, our inland rivers are suffering from severe losses of biodiversity.

For instance, aquatic organisms living in our largest inland river, the Yangtze, are facing severe challenges due to the rapid development of economic zones along the Yangtze River, which has directly caused the decline of biological resources. Many species are endangered or have already become extinct. Due to overdevelopment and pollution along the Yangtze River, the Chinese River Dolphin, which was under first-class state protection, has essentially disappeared.

There is a serious lack of conservation measures and a shortage of funding to protect other aquatic species. According to an expert from Changjiang Fishery Resources Managing Committee, there used to be more than 1,100 species in the Yangtze, including more than 370 fish species, over 220 zoobenthos (organisms which live on the riverbed), and hundreds of aquatic plants. The Yangtze is also home to many rare fish species and wild animals. But currently these resources are declining dramatically and many species are facing extinction. For example, the “Water Panda” (Chinese river dolphin) and the “King of Freshwater” (Chinese paddlefish) can hardly be seen. The famous Reeves’ Shad has not been seen for many years. “Living fossils” such as the Chinese sturgeon have also rapidly decreased in numbers and at an even faster pace. The juvenile fish recruitment numbers for the famous four major Chinese carps (the herrings, grass carps, chubs and bigheads) has rapidly decreased since 2003.

WRR: What is known about the impacts of the Three Gorges Dam on biodiversity?

ZD: It is baffling to me that when we were initially constructing the Three Gorges Dam, we didn’t learn from the experiences of developed countries that built fish ladders for migratory fish. When we were making these decisions, we didn’t consult with any experts or organize any public hearings. The dam has blocked the migratory routes that the fish need in order to reproduce. The number of rare aquatic animals, such as the Chinese river dolphin, Chinese paddlefish, the Chinese and Yangtze sturgeons, cowfish, and mullets has decreased drastically. As a result of the strategy to “transform rivers to lakes,” many fish that are used to living in the rapids are gradually migrating upstream. This has led to ecosystem changes in the entire Yangtze River.

The dam has also had a major impact on fisheries. When Three Gorges started impounding water, the water level of Dongting Lake dropped by 1-2 meters. Poyang Lake was once full of sauries, but now they are nowhere to be found. During this year’s rare summer droughts, thousands of fishermen along the water basin have been left with empty nets.

WRR: Describe the “biodiversity-scape” in the Three Parallel Rivers basin.

ZD: The Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site is home to the upper reaches of three famous rivers in Asia: the Jinsha (Yangtze), the Lancang (Mekong) and the Nu (Salween) rivers. These rivers run parallel north to south and pass through 3,000-meter deep valleys and 6,000-meter high icebergs and snowy peaks. This is China’s most biodiverse region.

The Three Parallel Rivers region is home to more than 210 families, 1,200 genera and 6,000 species of vascular plants – 20% of all higher plants in China. Among these, 40% are endemic to China and 10% are endemic to the Three Parallel Rivers region. This region has the most plant species per unit area in the world. Given the complex geological history of the region, old and new species co-exist here, making it home to some of the world’s most famous plant species.

Today, this region is home to 77 kinds of rare and endangered animals, such as snub-nosed monkeys, antelopes, snow leopards, black-necked cranes, and 33 kinds of nationally protected plants, as well as 500 kinds of medical plants. The Sichuan Snub-Nosed Monkey is the most iconic mammal in the World Heritage Site. This genus is very important among all primates. On the level of development, it is in a special category between old world monkeys and apes. It has a very high research value as it helps us understand human evolution. It is also one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world, and should be viewed as a national treasures.

To accurately predict the impact that the extinction of these precious species may have on this region’s ecosystem is difficult because the consequences are often felt along very long time scales. Perhaps the impact of species extinction can best be described by “the butterfly effect”: a butterfly in the Amazon can cause a tornado in Texas by just flapping its wings.

WRR: What is unique about the Nu River ecosystem?

ZD: In the Three Parallel Rivers region, the Nu River valley rep- resents the most important biological corridor. Damming the Nu would erase the most mysterious and visually stunning river valley before its value can be fully recognized and researched.

The Nu River is located at the canyon of the Hengduan Mountain Range. The completely vertical climatic belt created positive conditions for the growth of animals and plants. Due to these reasons, the Hengduan Mountain Range is one of the most important among the 17 biodiversity conservation regions in China. In addition, the Nu River’s rich water resources have given birth to tens of millions of people from various ethnicities.

There are countless aquatic species that depend on the Nu, including more than 50 kinds of fish in Yunnan province alone, and about 20 unique species. In 2001, Kunming Institute of Zoology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and a fish exploration team from the California Academy of Sciences caught the biggest eel in the world, the Yunnan Manli Eel, in the middle reaches of the Nu River. This eel travels more than 1,500 kilometers between the Nu River and the Indian Ocean. A large number of amphibians, reptiles and aquatic mammals (such as otters) also call the Nu mainstream and its tributaries home. These animals have become interdependent as they coevolved during the formation of the valleys and rivers. They also carry information about the geological and natural history in the entire East Himalayan region.

WRR: What is being done in this watershed to protect biodiversity?

ZD: On the government level, the emphasis on biodiversity is growing. The Nujiang prefecture government has expressed that it will increase and strengthen public advocacy around ecosystem protec- tion and biodiversity conservation. The government is strengthening the protection and management of biodiversity resources in its own prefecture and should provide more support to the depart- ments of environmental and natural protection, to better adapt to the needs of modern biodiversity conservation management. The government should also construct a Nu Biodiversity Protection Base and public education centers.

Academics have been closely monitoring the biodiversity of the Nu River. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, other national and Yunnan universities, international conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, and some domestic environmental organizations have done comprehensive research on different aspects about the biodiversity in the Nu valley and have taken different protection measures. However, there needs to be comprehensive and in-depth research done for the entire river basin.

Thanks to non-governmental environmental organizations, the Nu River hydropower controversy in 2003 and 2005 launched the dam project to national attention. Because of the work of organizations such as Green Earth Volunteers and Green Watershed, central government suspended the Nu River hydropower project. For the first time in China. the voice and activities of domestic non-governmental organizations directly influenced the decision – making of the central government. Right now, there is no consensus around whether the Nu should be developed for hydropower or not. However, the activities of the Chinese environmental organizations represent an important step forward toward the social modernization of China.