China is the most biodiverse country outside of the tropics and has been classified by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre as one of 17 “megadiverse” countries in the world. There are an estimated 7,516 vertebrate species in China and the country ranks third in the world in mammal biodiversity. Many of these animals are endemic to China, including one-sixth of mammal species and as much as two-thirds of amphibian species. Sadly, 840 species are threatened or endangered in China due to a combination of factors including deforestation, pollution and poaching for Chinese medicine.
Much of the megadiversity of China comes from the huge variety of habitats within the vast country, which range from coastal to desert and rainforest to mountains and wetlands. Precisely because China represents such difference and diversity, conservation efforts often focus on particular species and require specialised plans and approaches tailored to each.
Giant Panda – Habitat: Mountainous regions, bamboo fields, Central China
The most iconic animal in China, the giant panda represents a fantastic success story for wildlife conservation. Whilst still classified as vulnerable and with fewer than 2000 giant pandas left in the wild, conservation efforts over recent years have brought the giant panda back from the brink of extinction. Only last year the IUNC changed the giant pandas’ conservation status from endangered to vulnerable, citing a 17% rise in populations since 2004. Marco Lambertini, Director General of the World Wildlife Fund commented: “The recovery of the panda shows that when science, political will and engagement of local communities come together, we can save wildlife and also improve biodiversity,”
Chinese Tiger – Habitat: Forests and Rainforests, Southern China
In dramatic contrast to the success story of giant pandas, the tragic elimination of the Chinese tigers shows what can happen when human populations have a serious impact on endemic species. Hunted as pests by locals, the population of these tigers plummeted and in 1996, despite a ban on hunting the tigers, it was estimated that fewer than 100 individuals still existed in the wild. Scientists now consider the South China tiger to be “functionally extinct” meaning that although a very small number may still exist, the numbers are likely too small to maintain the species into the future.
Hainan Black Crested Gibbon – Habitat: Forest, Island of Hainan
Endemic to the island of Hainan, and found only there, the Hainan black crested gibbon is considered the world’s most critically endangered ape. The appearance of rubber plantations on the island in the 1960s had a massive impact on gibbon populations, by 1999 only 4% of the population remained. The breeding cycles of these apes compound the problem – adult females generally only have one offspring every two years, making it very difficult for populations to recover. In 2005, the Chinese government funded a survey to examine the current status of gibbon populations on Hainan, with the aim of better understanding the situation and to make recommendations to improve conservation efforts.
Siberian Tiger – Habitat: Birch forest, Northeast China
Living in the northern-most reaches of China, into the border with Russia, where vast forested areas offer large territories where tigers can roam with minimal contact with human populations, Siberian tigers are the largest wild cat on earth. Unfortunately, this makes them prime targets for poachers and for trophy hunters. Incredibly, they are also illegally smuggled alive and sold as pets to wealthy individuals who see the huge carnivores as status symbols. In 2011 a live Siberian tiger belonging to a recently killed Mafia leader was discovered in Italy. There is a lot of work still to be done to protect this beautiful subspecies of tiger, but populations are on the rise. Considered functionally extinct in the 1930s with only 30 individuals predicted in the wild, a survey in 2005 out the population at closer to 350 individuals.
Pere David’s Deer – Habitat: Seasonal coasts and marshland, Eastern China
Pere David’s deer is famed in China for its bizarre mismatched appearance. The species is sometimes informally called sibuxiang in Chinese, meaning “the four unlikes”. This name refers to the way the animal has distinguishing features, such as hooves, nose shape and neck, more commonly found on cows and camels, but also has huge antlers like a deer. The story of the conservation of the Pere’s David deer is almost as strange as the animal itself. Hunted very close to extinction in the 1890s, a missionary (Pere David) encountered the animal by chance. Realising that naturalists in Europe would be fascinated by the creature’s odd appearance, he secured a specimen. He was right to think that Europeans would be interested in the deer. In 1894, a whole herd of the deer was transported to the Duke of Bedford’s spacious deer park, where they bred successfully and populations soared. You can still see the deer there today. Though far from extinction in captivity, it wasn’t until 2016 that deer were released into the wild again in China. The Pere David deer is now, tentatively, back in the wild in China. A story of how one person can save a species.
So how can you help?
Nature reserves all over China rely on visitors and donations to stay open and continue to educate the world about the plight of endemic species in China. If travelling in China, take the opportunity to visit one of these beautiful reserves. There are over 2,500 to choose from. Read more about endangered tigers or view some Tiger Prints.
Written by Alex Jones The Wildlife Studio