China’s Delicate Ecological Balancing Act

The government is committed to turning over 2 percent of its land to wildlife—and to helping people adjust to its brand-new national parks system.
An Amur tiger in China
Credit: iStockPhoto

The government is committed to turning over 2 percent of its land to wildlife—and to helping people adjust to its brand-new national parks system.

America’s National Park Service, now more than a century old, has long been the envy of nations around the world—especially those countries struggling to balance their conservation efforts with the unique pressures that come with a developing economy. Under the Trump administration, however, America's park system would appear to be undergoing a kind of identity crisis. While Americans clearly value their national parks and monuments more than ever before, administration officials are taking measures that put these lands in real jeopardy: reducing their size, opening them up to oil and gas drilling, and limiting protections for the wildlife that helps make them so special.

It’s interesting to compare the situation that the United States finds itself in with the situation in my country, China, where the whole concept of a national park system is still quite new. Now, as part of its “Green Is Gold” approach to environmental policy, China has committed itself to dedicating 2 percent of its land to pandas, tigers, Tibetan antelopes, and other wildlife for generations to come. In China, as in the United States, officials recognize that these lands must be several things at the same time: wild, serene spaces meant for public appreciation; centers of economic activity; and crucial habitat for flora and fauna, including endangered species. But missing from the Chinese equation is that roiling antagonism that seems to mark so much of the discussion around public lands in the United States under the Trump administration. Instead of pitting environmentalists against industrial interests such as oil and gas companies (and their supporters in Congress), China is seeking ways to bring everyone together toward a shared conservation goal.

Nowhere is this more evident than inside a new, 3.6 million–acre national park nestled in northeastern China near the country’s borders with Russia and North Korea. It’s here that officials are embarking on an ambitious project to preserve and grow the highly vulnerable populations of leopards and Amur tigers (also known as Siberian tigers) that have long inhabited this rugged, remote territory. When it formally opens sometime in the next three years, Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park will provide critical habitat for these majestic and endangered big cats, whose populations have declined sharply over the years due to habitat loss, the illegal wildlife trade, and other factors. Experts believe that there are only about two dozen members of each population remaining within China’s borders. Hopefully, the suitable habitat created by the park—coupled with the easier genetic exchange it will allow with cats living across the Sino-Russian line―will help these species recover.

But the park will serve another important purpose, too, acting as a proving ground for new ideas about how best to integrate people into places like this. The new national park isn’t just home to tigers, leopards, black bears, otters, golden eagles, and three species of deer. It’s also currently home to more than 70,000 villagers who have lived there for generations and whose cultures and livelihoods are tied inextricably to the land. It will be incumbent on the Chinese government to make sure that these individuals are well taken care of and that they have a voice in decisions about stewardship, conservation, and tourism. Toward this end, the Chinese government is already working to create jobs and generate other economic opportunities for the park’s human residents, giving them a stake in its wise management and ecological health.

The government’s actions speak to the larger goal of launching a new national park system that successfully balances the needs of people and wildlife while preserving some of China’s most beautifully pristine natural spaces. In some cases—such as the sprawling Giant Panda National Park, so large that it will spread out over three provinces—relocation of residents may also prove necessary. But as my NRDC China program colleagues and I have been traveling around the country speaking with officials, administrators, and managers as well as villagers who currently live within the boundaries of the newly drawn-up parks, the mood has largely been one of hope—and pride. The general feeling seems to be: China both needs and deserves a world-class national park system, one that not only operates under the organizing principle of “ecological protection first” but one that also recognizes the continuing responsibility of the government to its people.

That positive feeling stems from trust—both in the larger goal at hand and in the government’s ability to achieve it through sensible, humane policy. Because it’s true: China does need and deserve this. A national park program is long overdue in my country. Now that we’re getting one, we’re one step closer to achieving the vision so well articulated by President Xi Jinping: a beautiful China where people respect nature, conform to nature, protect nature, and live in harmony with nature for generations to come.

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