31 July 2008

Indicator Species

The classic indicator species is the clichéd canary in a coalmine, schlepped into the poorly ventilated mines of days past. If the miners noticed that the canary had stopped singing in its cage, they might have a chance to escape before being overcome by the same fate of the more environmentally sensitive creature, probably due to asphyxiation from carbon monoxide, methane, or simply low oxygen levels. So then what shall China’s indicator species be?

There’s not much good news coming out of China with regard to the environment. The two most important rivers in China, the ones that rank with the Nile and the Mississippi in terms of historical and cultural legacies, the Yellow River (黄河, Huáng Hé) and the Yangtze (, Cháng Jiāng) are better thought of today as movers of industrial and urban effluence. Fully one third of all fish species of the river considered the cradle of Chinese civilization has been declared extinct. http://en.chinagate.com.cn/english/environment/49803.htm

Meanwhile in Yunnan province the White-handed Gibbon aka the Lar Gibbon (subspecies Hylobates lar yunnanensis) has been declared extinct officially in the wild. http://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/586/goodbye_yunnan_whitehanded_gibbon

This loss of a primate species, however, has at best been treated as a footnote in most of the Chinese press, qualified as ‘presumed’ or ‘possibly’. This perhaps parallels the recently drawn out scandal about the South China Tiger photos. Was there too much ready willingness even amongst the skeptical members of the media to publish anything positive about the state of China’s endangered species and diminishing wildlife habitat? I would prefer to think that the gibbons have just gotten smarter and stopped serenading park visitors with their distinct calls. There was another bit of a glimmer of hope a few months back when a Baiji dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) was spotted in August 2007 after it had been officially declared extinct in the Yangtze river. Now it is qualified as functionally extinct. It’s still extinct for all intents and purposes; there is simply one last straggler that didn’t get the memo. What the chance discovery shows rather is not that the species is anymore viable, but that the Yangtze is so muddied and opaque that a bright, white sea mammal can be missed when being looked for by a trained team of naturalists. As recently as the 1950s there were an estimated 6,000 of them in the wild when during the Great Leap Forward, veneration of the animal (长江女神; Cháng Jiāng nǚshén, or Yangzte goddess) was deemed incompatible with socialist dogma. It was hunted down freely and electric fishing became an acceptable method, stunning the river fishes with high current.

If the Yunnan Gibbon species had been cuddlier and more marketable, would it have gotten more attention in time to have saved its existence within Yunnan’s Nangunhe Nature Reserve? The Fuwa, Beibei, is a sturgeon of sorts yet I doubt that graphic allusion will convince buyers of the Olympic tchotchke to consider more about the greater need for aquatic habitat restoration. It seems easier to talk all about the recent birth of four more giant pandas recently in the state breeding program. The panda, too, is an indicator species. It indicates that the Chinese government thinks that it’s more effective for its political agenda to insure the panda’s survival and to occasionally bestow a few to some countries’ national zoos as diplomatic gestures while it squanders and befouls the environmental legacy of the entire nation and the world.

And so I wonder about the economic development of a country and the middle class phenomenon and its accompanying socalled middle class values. There had been efforts made to protect the variously declared extinct species of China, but they were all part of the central government's agenda. NGOs and the like are not encouraged in the PRC, certainly not ones that might besmirch the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to protect the environment. Their efforts are mixed, to say the least.

Taihu, one of the largest freshwater lakes in China, forming a common border between Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces is essentially dead, so polluted that the bluegreen algae blooms now cover it as soon as the temperatures allow, rendering it unfit for human usage. In the meantime one of the most vocal defenders of the lake, Wu Lihong, now sits in prison after what most agree was an effort by the Jiangsu provincial government and polluting industries to punish his success in drawing attention to the worsening conditions. And in the meantime, the central government has allocated $14 billion US for the cleanup of Taihu to be administered by the Jiangsu provincial government. With that much money, they can build of a lot of new prison cells to make even more of the problems go away.


There was a recent propaganda coup regarding the nests of a few swans at the sight of the 2008 Olympic rowing events. In order to restore this formerly dry site, water was diverted from other sources. How much and from where exactly is a state secret. The green Olympics have been redacted with black. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/mar/01/olympicgames2008.china1

The operating truth is that appearance is always more important than substance in Chinese society. It follows to a degree from the concept of what motivates a shame society. The government uses this pretext to utmost effect with the general populace falling in line with its declarations, happily believing that the pollution in Taihu is due to natural cycles and a shortage of rain. Does it naturally follow that all middle classes demand more attention be paid to the environment? There is nothing equivalent to a naturalist movement that I can detect in Chinese history. Is there enough time, given the breakneck speed of China’s changes, for the nation to pause and reflect about what irrecoverable, shared biological assets are being sacrificed for private, material gain?

There are, however, the toads, a carpeting of them in the allotment gardens next to the city river/drainage ditch. I would like to believe that their numbers reveal the positive condition of the local waterways. Amphibians are, in fact, another good indicator of toxins and carcinogens in an environment since they readily absorb them through their skin. I don't know just how organic these horticulturalists are but they are big proponents of nightsoil dressing. I see an occasional butterfly in the city as well, which gives me hopeful pause in this urban jungle. More likely, though, the enormous knot of toads is better explained because the predator species, which might have consumed the tadpoles and egg clusters, have been eliminated to such an extent that the toads’ number have allowed them to become so dominant in the gardenscape. There are always winners and losers when habitats are modified by humans. Normally it's the rats and pigeons that come out as winners; this time the toads have the advantage.