BEIJING — A century ago, some 500 tigers roamed the vast plains of northeast China, on its border with Russia and Korea. By 1998, decades of economic expansion, poaching and human encroachment had reduced the population to just seven known individuals, leaving them functionally extinct in a country that has long revered the big cats.
What has happened since, however, is a rare achievement in the conservation world. Over the past two decades, as tigers have been wiped out in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and southern China, the numbers in northeast China, the last corner of the country where wild cats still roam, rose to 55. This is a “dramatic recovery,” according to a recent study by Chinese scientists, the World Wildlife Fund and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Credit the growing awareness of environmental protection among the Chinese public and the new efforts of government authorities, which, after decades in which economic growth took precedence over all other considerations, have turned a corner of their attention to air pollution, carbon emissions and environmental degradation. The Amur tiger, known colloquially as the Siberian tiger, has benefited from increased efforts to combat poaching, the removal of thousands of tiger traps, and greater protection of its habitat.
This week, China will host its first major United Nations environmental conference, which will include a speech by leader Xi Jinping, who urged to protect China’s “clear waters and green mountains”, one of his signature slogans. Although the first half of the United Nations Biodiversity Conference has been moved online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, delegates will meet in person in April for the second half in the southern city of Kunming. -Where is.
China on Friday said in a guidance document that it would prioritize nature protection and had set aside 1 million square kilometers of land as “priority areas for the protection of biodiversity.”
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China continues to be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, an issue that will be the center of attention as world leaders meet in Glasgow this month to discuss climate change.
Other concerns of environmentalists include China’s voracious demand for commodities such as palm oil, soybeans and timber, which has indirectly contributed to the devastation of forests in countries like Indonesia and Brasil. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has helped finance coal-fired power plants and other infrastructure projects in other countries, which some say are damaging the environment. And demand in China is one of the main drivers of the illicit global wildlife trade.
As China becomes more prosperous and focuses on improving its quality of life, authorities have in recent years dramatically reduced air pollution in several of the largest cities and increased its once threatened populations of antelope. Tibetan and Asian elephant besides the best. known efforts regarding the giant panda.
The country has also taken steps to protect its coastal wetlands and mangroves, efforts that have helped restore the diversity of migratory bird populations, said Rose Niu, conservation officer at the Paulson Institute, a think tank. based in Chicago and focused on building the United States and China. connections.
China’s emphasis on conservation can be seen in the fortunes of the tiger, an animal that has historically had significant cultural resonance in the country, but has also been heavily poached for its parts and purported medicinal properties.
Globally, it is estimated that around 4,000 tigers live in the wild, up from 100,000 a century ago. More than half are found in India, while some subspecies, like the South Chinese tiger, only exist in captivity.
When American ecologist Dale Miquelle first studied the Amur tiger population in northeast China in 1998, he and his colleagues came to the conclusion that “the tigers were essentially already lost in China ”.
More recently, said Miquelle, the change in attitude in Beijing towards conservation triggered a series of measures, including reducing the timber harvest and intensifying anti-poaching efforts, which have hopes that the increase in the tiger population will prove to be sustainable.
“This is an example where economics and politics have aligned with conservation priorities in a very positive way,” said Mr Miquelle, who runs the Wildlife Conservation Society’s tiger program from his base in the Russian village of Terney, not far from the border. with China. The creation of a park for tigers and leopards along the border with Russia in 2017 – the world’s largest protected area for tigers – allowed big cats to roam more freely, he said. declared.
Miquelle and others have said that reaching a target of at least 300 Amur tigers needed to ensure their continued survival in China will depend on a number of factors. A priority will be to set aside enough habitat – and enough prey, in the form of red deer and wild boar – to support an increasing number of predators, while protecting human and tiger populations from each other.
In China, the public is increasingly aware of the environment. This year, a herd of wild elephants captivated Chinese audiences with a month-long trip from their long-time home not far from Kunming, and raised concerns about a long march that scientists and media alike Chinese state attributed to the destruction of elephant habitat.
Another key element will be stopping poaching and reducing consumer demand for tiger parts, as part of an annual global wildlife trade that the UN has estimated at as much as 10 billion dollars. dollars. China is the world’s largest market for tiger bones and other parts such as teeth, eyes, and whiskers, which are believed to cure a range of physical ailments and are increasingly sought after for their rarity and their value.
Beijing is partly interested in targeting poaching because of its links to organized crime, with many of the same drug traffickers and smugglers and humans linked to the wildlife trade, said Jennifer Turner, director of the Forum. Chinese on the Environment at the Wilson Center in Washington DC
The Covid-19 epidemic and the spotlight it has put on China’s wildlife trade has prompted Beijing to tighten its restrictions on breeding wildlife, she said, although Geopolitical tensions over the origins of the pandemic have hampered these efforts.
Despite the recent increase in the tiger population in China, “These animals are at the limit,” said Sharon Guynup, author of a book, “Tigers Forever: Saving the World’s Most Endangered Big Cat”.
“It wouldn’t take much… A disaster, an epidemic, a cyclone, a massive fire,” she said. “Whether it’s seven or 55, they could be gone in the blink of an eye.”
—Zhao Yueling contributed to this article.
Write to Jonathan Cheng at [email protected]
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