Hainan Island, the biologically diverse tropical province off China’s southern coast, in 1999 announced its bid to become the country’s first ecological province. After almost a decade, I went to see what had been achieved, and found many risks to the island’s environment still remain. In particular, one of the most important aspects of this effort – protecting the island’s biodiversity – still faces numerous threats.
Gibbon on the brink
The felling of tropical forests, the trade in endangered animals and commercial hunting are all factors responsible for the 29% of all species of apes, monkeys, lemurs and other primates that are now facing extinction, according to a report published by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), International Primatological Society and Conservation International and launched at the International Primate Conference on October 25. Entitled “Primates in Peril: The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates-2006-2008”, the report was compiled by 60 experts from 21 countries, and warns that if measures are not taken to slow climate change, primate extinctions may soon occur.
One of the listed species is the Hainan gibbon, which is found only on Hainan Island. In the 1950s, there were an estimated 2,000 of the species living across 866,000 acres (3,505 square kilometres) of tropical forest. By 1989, there were only 21, surviving only in the Bawangling Reserve. A report in 1998 found only 17 surviving gibbons. After a programme to protect the gibbon was put into place in 2003, a survey found two separate populations and two independent males, 13 animals in total. Another survey, in 2001-2002, found four populations and estimated there were between 12 and 19 gibbons remaining. Three newborns and an independent male were recently identified, and the estimate has again risen to 17 gibbons.
The Hainan gibbon was at one time threatened by extensive hunting, as its flesh was believed to cure illness. Today, the main danger is from the destruction of the gibbon’s habitat to plant “commercial forests”. Since the 1950s, efforts to increase agricultural land have seen natural forests increasingly felled in favour of rubber plantations. Rubber plantations currently cover 6 million mu (4,000 square kilometres) of Hainan Island. A deal was reached with Indonesian company Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) in 1994 to plant 3.5 million mu (2,333 square kilometres) of eucalyptus trees for paper manufacturing. To date, compulsory orders have seen 2.6 million mu (1,733 square kilometres) planted. The vast majority of these commercial plantations require the felling of natural forests, bringing huge threats to the animals that inhabit them.
Model ecological zone
One area in the prefecture of Sanya, in the southeast of Hainan Island, was named a “model ecological zone” by China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA). The whole of Sanya is now competing to win this same honour. But a road between Sanya and Nanshan, a popular destination for eco-tourists, is lined with locals selling birds they have caught. The skill with which they handle the birds as they call out the prices suggests they are old hands at the trade.
The city authorities have been trying to stamp out this trade for some time. Restaurants in the city even sell a dish known as the “bird castle”, made of the meat of a number of different birds. “The people selling birds are mostly women and children from local villages,” said Wang Chundong, head of the provincial forestry bureau’s animal and plant protection centre, “as soon as we close in on them they disappear back home. We have come up with ways to deal with the problem over the years, but we have yet to eradicate it. The next step might be to work with the local Party committees. The wild animal protection centre can’t do much. We don’t have enough staff or money.”
Although the trapping of wild animals is less of a problem than it used to be, it is still a major threat. A great number still end up on restaurant tables in Guangdong province, which is known for its “exotic” tastes in food. During my visit, a shipment of snakes was seized at the harbour.
The felling of natural forests on Hainan Island continues to raise concerns. The rate is now increasing again after a brief drop caused by a crackdown. The provincial government in May carried out an aerial survey of coastal forests, which the island relies on to prevent flooding. Forty percent remains intact, the survey said, but the rest has been damaged or even destroyed entirely.
Hainan is not a large island, and its economy is expanding rapidly. Industry, agriculture, cities and roads all look to the forests for room to expand. They sometimes even clash over who gets this land. In one case several years ago, the provincial poverty alleviation bureau provided rubber tree seedlings to poor households. Since there was nowhere to plant them, the recipients cleared bushes and grass from the natural forests to plant them between the trees. Now the rubber trees are mature, and the old-growth trees have been felled to make room for the rubber trees.
Fiercer conflicts arise in the case of commercial plantations. Staple food crops will no longer bring a large income for Hainan’s farmers, who are switching to fruit trees for the sake of a reliable cash flow. The tropical fruit industry is booming on the island, mangos, lychees, longans, bananas, pineapples, oranges and betel nut are all exported to mainland provinces. As a result, natural forests are not only being felled for rubber and paper manufacture, but also increasingly to plant commercial fruit trees. “It appears to be a very low-level change,” said one local expert, “and it doesn’t really attract much attention. But if you look on an island-wide scale, all of Hainan’s farmers are [planting fruit trees], and the damage to the ecology is worse than that caused by the industrial planting.”
With today’s environmental situation worsening all the time, Hainan’s path will affect us all. Becoming an “ecological province” should be more than a mere slogan. Balancing the environment and the economy is a challenge for all of China’s provinces – and for all of us.
Yongfeng Feng is a Beijing-based environmental journalist