It produced beautiful images that flew across the internet, but it was essentially a sad story: the migration of a group of elephants from a nature reserve in Xishuangbanna in southwestern China’s Yunnan province to the provincial capital of Kunming, a distance of 500 kilometers.
This summer’s trip was prompted by an increasing number of elephants having to live in increasingly smaller, more threatened and fragmented habitats. “It has to do with the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the Mekong River,” Zhou Jinfeng, secretary general of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), a non-governmental environmental group, said over the phone. He is one of the few critical voices on biodiversity and climate change in China who still dares to speak to Western media.
“As a result, the elephants can no longer cross the river there, because there is now a dam with a reservoir there,” he says. “In addition, more and more land in their habitat is being used for rubber plantations.”
In Kunming, where the elephants eventually landed, the first part of a global conference on biodiversity will be held this week – largely virtual, by the way. At the end of April 2022, world leaders will actually come to Kunming to set new global goals for nature conservation during the UN Biodiversity Conference. This makes it the first major UN conference in China in more than twenty years. The previous one was the International Women’s Conference of 1995.
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For China’s President Xi Jinping, it is an important opportunity to show that China can not only offer the world a new political development model, but that it can also set an example in other areas, such as preserving biodiversity. When it comes to biodiversity, ‘Kunming’ must have the same sound as ‘Paris’ has for the climate since the 2015 climate agreement.
The conference therefore receives much more attention in the Chinese media than outside it, and the perspective is also much more positive. For example, the English-language Chinese state newspaper de China Daily an animation to underline China’s biodiversity efforts. There too, the elephants are reappearing, with the message that the wild population of Xishuangbanna has almost doubled to about three hundred since the early 1990s.
Biodiversity in China is still shrinking very fast
Zhou Jinfeng Secretary CBCGDF
China likes to boast that it is one of the 17 countries in the world with a so-called mega-biodiversity. Nearly 10 percent of all plant species and 14 percent of all animals in the world live in China. The country does a lot of reforestation, has a large number of nature reserves.
This official picture cannot hide the fact that biodiversity and ecosystems in China are also under severe pressure due to industrialisation, the construction of infrastructure and pollution. 22 percent of vertebrates and 11 percent of higher plant species in China are endangered species, as reported science magazine science last year. That is, incidentally, less than the 28 percent of animal species that are threatened with extinction worldwide, according to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Also read: Biodiversity summit struggles with vague goals and promises
“About ten percent of our territory currently consists of nature parks, but that’s not going to get you there,” explains Zhou. “Because biodiversity in China is still shrinking very fast. I don’t have any hard numbers on it, because the list of endangered species has been updated this year for the first time in thirty years. But it is going very fast.”
The redevelopment of nature also leaves much to be desired. One example is reforestation, something that China has been investing heavily in for years, such as with the Green Great Wall, the planting of millions of trees to stop the encroaching Gobi desert. The resulting monoculture is far from being a valuable ecosystem.
According to Zhou, the solution lies not only in nature parks or tree planting, but rather in creating an “ecological civilization.” He thereby refers to a concept, shentai wenming, which has appeared in Chinese scientific literature since the 1980s, and which roughly corresponds to what is known in the rest of the world as sustainable development.
Especially in recent years, Xi has also been fond of using the term a lot – in 2018 it was included in the Chinese constitution. It encompasses the pursuit of a society in which people live in harmony with nature. Zhou: “Take plastic. In an ecological civilization it is appropriate that you use less plastic. Not only to prevent animals from eating it, but also to use up resources and nature less. We have to make that kind of change.”
Does he have the current president on his side? Zhou sighs deeply. “Xi understands the importance of this, but it is difficult to put into practice because companies have different interests. So it will remain a difficult battle for the time being.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 12, 2021