A little thought goes a long way in tackling China's extinction challenge

By Terry Townshend Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-4 20:48:01

I recently returned to Beijing after a week in Northeast China surveying the population of a small brown bird on the brink of extinction - the Jankowski's Bunting (Emberiza jankowskii).

It's a bird that is found only in Jilin Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Today, the known population is fewer than 100 birds. The good news is that, with a little effort, a small amount of money, and the cooperation of local people, this bird can be saved from extinction.

With members of the Beijing Birdwatching Society, we visited nature reserves, spoke to local people, and explained what a unique and incredible bird they have in their community. 

This bird was an asset and, if protected and allowed to thrive, there was potential for Jankowski's Bunting to attract many birders, wildlife photographers and ecotourists - both Chinese and foreign, all of whom would stay in local hotels, eat local food and use local transport.

Last year, in partnership with BirdLife International, I launched a campaign to raise money to help save this bird. The funds raised so far went toward supporting Chinese participation in the May 2013 survey.

The decline of species and the degradation of wild areas are not unique to China. The same thing happened in Western countries. In the UK, less than 5 percent of the original forest survives today and, ironically, a lot of money is spent to restore vast areas of habitat to its original state and help species recover from the devastating losses experienced during industrialization and the intensification of agriculture. 

This money is being spent because, increasingly, people are understanding that wild areas and the species that inhabit them provide valuable services. For example, forests help prevent flooding, and soil erosion and bees provide vital pollination of crops.

And, as people become wealthier, leisure time becomes more important. People want to spend more time in natural places and hobbies such as bird and wildlife watching, and ecotourism become more popular, making a significant and increasing contribution to the economy.

This is a lesson for any fast-developing country. China has incredible, world-class biodiversity. The number of species in Sichuan Province alone is greater than all of North America, and there are many species - of animals, birds and plants - that are found nowhere else on the planet.

This natural wealth is a huge asset. But it is under threat from a short-term focus on economic growth. Once it is gone, that's it - there is no way to bring back a species from extinction.

By taking into consideration the needs of birds and other wildlife, and implementing a few simple measures - such as protecting areas of original habitat, conserving areas important to migrating birds, and developing in ways that take into account the needs of wildlife, China can maintain strong development while protecting its biodiversity.

This is an investment in the future - a future where people and wildlife coexist in harmony and people from all over the world come to see the incredible biodiversity for themselves, spending money in local hotels and restaurants, hiring local guides, and contributing to the local economy.

The future of Jankowski's Bunting rests with a handful of local government officials, reserve managers and farmers. 

A few simple and inexpensive measures can save this bird. What happens in Inner Mongolia and Jilin will be a useful guide to China's likely response to the growing threats to its world-class biodiversity.  Let's hope for a little thought.

The author is a Beijing-based environmental lawyer, also an avid bird watcher. terry.townshend@googlemail.com

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