Sunday, September 13, 2009

Speaking for the Environment

Last night I went to hear a Chinese wildlife biologist and her fight to protect the environment.
Lu Zhi is a giant panda expert and professor of conservation biology at Peking University. She gave a slide show recounting her experiences of studying pandas in the wild. The first picture she showed were two clumps of panda feces. She explained that it can be hard to find pandas in the wild, so the next best thing is to track their feces, and in this case one clump was from a mother, the other from a baby.
However, later on she did show pictures of a baby panda 36 hours old until it was several weeks old and of her cuddling the panda cub.
When Lu started working in the field in 1985, the word conservation was an alien one in Chinese. She admitted being an innocent naive young student at the time, who wanted to do something different without realizing the problems she would encounter. For seven years she spent time observing pandas in the wild and she remarked that China still has few people who study animals like this partly because of the hard work involved. As a result, there isn't much systematic data about wild animals, not enough to prove to the government and the public in the importance of conserving wildlife and the environment they live in. There is comparatively more data on pandas, but more needs to be done on it as well as other animals.
There were many misconceptions about pandas when Lu started her work. There was a preconception that pandas were stupid, partly because they ate bamboo, which at the time they thought had not much nutritional value and it was so coarse; that pandas are slow and walk slowly; and that they didn't have many babies.
That led to the belief that human intervention was needed, and so some pandas were captured and sent to live in zoos. Lu showed a Washington Post cartoon where a panda talks to someone on the payphone from the zoo complaining that they were forcing him to have sex, making fun of man trying to force an animal to mate.
There was also the problem that once a baby panda was born, the mother was so negligent that she would step on her baby, thus killing it, so the baby had to be taken away from her to be kept safe. However, Lu explains that the pandas that were captured and taken to zoos were young -- they did not have enough life experiences to understand how to mate and look after their young.
Through Lu's research, they also realized that bamboo was a good food source for pandas -- it was available in all four seasons, and while they spent a lot of time eating it, it was enough nutrition and no one else was competing with them for this very coarse food. She did point out that males do have a problem breeding, with less than 20 males in zoos that are able to successfully breed. In the wild, inbreeding will become a problem as populations become more scattered.
Up until the late 80s, pandas were hunted; but now with severe punishments imposed by the government hardly anyone does this one. However, logging soon became a problem for Lu and her colleagues. She showed a photo of a hilly area that was covered in tree stumps that were affecting the panda's habitat. She wrote a letter to Jiang Zemin in the early 1990s, but there was no immediate response.
She would see 60 trucks hauling out raw logs everyday. The area, Pingwu, was dependent on the sale of this timber to fund health care and education programs.
But finally then deputy premier Zhu Rongji put out a national ban on logging. He did this not because of the pandas, but because of serious flooding. However, this ban ends next year and one wonders what will be done, if anything, to stop the logging companies again.
The action taught Lu a lesson -- what she had been working for five years to achieve, the government did overnight.

But despite the logging ban, other things are threatening wildlife -- hydropower stations, more roads and tourism development. Of invertebrates, 35 percent are threatened; 36 percent of vertebrates; and 87 percent of flower plants. Development is moving at a much more rapid pace than conservation.

Lu explains that most people are benefit driven -- and it's usually money that motivates them.

Therefore, she and her group, Shanshui are trying to come up with creative ways for communities to protect their environment but also make a living. For example, in Pingwu, they started growing oak trees, where mushrooms grow and are exported to the Japanese. Carbon trading is another way to make a financial benefit from planting trees.

Post-Kyoto Protocol, Lu says China needs to think about forest management. The country needs to improve carbon sequestration and the quality of forest management. While tourism is good, how much is too much?

In the end, Lu believes conservation is the government's responsibility. NGOs like hers can help guide policy, but in the end it is the government that must educate and have laws in place to protect the environment.

After her presentation, a young Chinese woman came up to me and remarked that environmental protection was such a long-term thing that you could only see the benefits after several years.

I said that her generation had to worry about these problems now because they were going to affect her generation and the generation after. Right now there is not enough clean water to drink and the air is polluted. For example, I said, the government talks about recycling, but does not explain how ordinary people can get involved in doing that. I said it was the government's responsibility to educate people and also give them the means to practice recycling and other environmental efforts.

Whether she really understood what I said, I don't know. But really, China needs to take a long-term view on everything, including the environment. The reality of situation is that the country's natural resources are quickly depleting -- a few more years and they will be gone. Then what?

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