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China's Troubled Relationship With Mother Nature

Time for a major ecological awakening in the world's most populous nation. The planet is at stake.

Tigers in a Chinese zoo
Tigers in a Chinese zoo
Mang Ping

BEIJING — The relationship between man and nature is increasingly fused with a new ethical consideration. Wild animals for instance are no longer viewed simply as a useful resource for humans to exploit: They are considered to have their own intrinsic value as part of the Earth's biological community.

Beyond ethics, there is also ecology, with protection of the natural world gradually cherished in the face of the rapid development of industry, agriculture and commerce since World War II.

And indeed, there are more and more clear catastrophic consequences on the environment in the 21st century. As ethical concerns develop and evolve, the laws governing global conservation and wildlife protection are changing too. Species preservation and biodiversity have become part of the international community's most important objectives.

But things look different here in China. The 1989 Law on the Protection of Wildlife specifies in Article 1 that "This Law is formulated for the purpose of protecting and saving the species of wildlife that are rare or near extinction; protecting, developing and rationally utilizing wildlife resources, and maintaining ecological balances." It's evident in the language that one of the central goals of this law is to "fairly use" the wild animals that are considered "resources."

In addition, resources are measured as "precious" or not depending on what level of economic value they offer: What the Chinese wildlife protection legislation aims to protect are "the species of terrestrial and aquatic wildlife that are rare or near extinction and the species of terrestrial wildlife that are beneficial or of important economic or scientific value." Needless to say, this leaves many wild animals and species out of the scope of this legal protection.

According to academic research, out of the 580 species of mammals in China, about 30% are defined as wild animals. Only 60.8% of birds are defined as wildlife, and only a very small proportion of them are protected. Meanwhile, many rare and endangered animals that are seen as having important economic or scientific value are domesticated, bred and commercially utilized under different names.

China's wildlife protection law is full of contradictions. Not only does it fail to effectively curb overfishing and the killing of wildlife, it also brings about enormous harm to wildlife — including the animals' second generation — via their domestication, breeding and use. Bear bile farming and the sales of tiger, tiger bone, tiger skin and tiger meat are perfect examples. Not to mention the severe mistreatment of animals in China's increasingly popular circuit of animal taming shows.

Not only has the survival of wildlife not significantly improved, in certain aspects it is deteriorating. Take the massive slaughtering and extinction of the unique Tibetan antelope as an example.

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Tibetan antelope on Tibet's Changtang plateau — Photo: 6-A04-W96-K38-S41-V38

In the 1990s, in the Hoh Xil — a no-man's land in the northwestern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau — hundreds of thousands of Tibetan antelopes, an ancient species, were hunted mercilessly. Many wild animals in the region, such as the yellow gazelle, white-lipped deer, red deer, brown bear, wild donkeys, etc., suffered the same fate.

As the Qinghai Wildlife Bureau's 1995 survey showed, the number of white-lipped deer and red deer had plummeted by more than 90% in just one decade. Qinghai Lake used to be widely populated with Przewalski's gazelle, Tibetan antelope and argali; they have basically all disappeared — a huge blow to the plateau's biodiversity.

As our country grows more affluent, many Chinese will make the journey all the way to Africa to observe wildlife. Yet it was only 30 years ago on our own lands that mass migration scenes, like Africa's, could still be observed in all their magnificence.

Some hope for change

Some other statistics worth noting from a study titled "China's Agenda 21 — China's 21st-Century Population, Environment and Development:" 15 to 20% of Chinese flora and fauna are threatened, while some 200 species have become extinct and another 398 kinds of vertebrates, accounting for about 7.7% of the total Chinese vertebrates, are currently endangered.

Considering China's growing urbanization, agricultural reclamation, forestry planting, mineral development, tourism development and further road and dam construction, unless new strict protections of wildlife are enacted, we will face an increasingly severe loss and habitat and elimination of endangered species.

Since China's Law on the Protection of Wildlife was enacted, there have been several challenges to the law on ecological grounds. After launching joint proposals in 2012 and 2013, the National People's Congress (NPC) deputies Jing Yidan and Luo Shenglian finally saw their proposition for revising this law included in this year’s NPC legislative agenda. The proposed amendment urges a halting of interventions for commercial and bureaucratic interests so as to truly achieve the objective of protecting wild fauna and their habitats and to prohibit the commercial use of wildlife.

In addition to amending China's wildlife protection act so that it corresponds to our times, it is also imperative that the Chinese public be more actively involved with this issue and that they safeguard certain basic values and principles. For instance, Chinese people ought to eradicate the obsolete idea of regarding wildlife as a "resource" up for grabs. We have to consider the respect for nature and the preservation of biodiversity as an unchallengable value.

The protection of wild animals and their habitats is an important responsibility of mankind. In China, the scale of this mission is particularly urgent and daunting.

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