02 July 2013

Simple Proposal for Reenhancing Biodiversity

Antlered Heritage
The Pere David's Deer, or mi2lu4, 鹿, owes its existence to imperial vanity and foreign usurpation.  While it is hard to verify biological diversity from centuries ago, by the time it was identified and described by Father David, the only herd was maintained for the Qing emperor's pleasure in the Nanyuang Royal Hunting Garden near Beijing. By 1900 perhaps symbolic of the Qing dynasty own loss of control of the country, the Milu was extinct in China due to the chaos from the Boxer rebellion and a very hungry peasant population. Depending one's political leanings, the last specimens were saved or stolen by European forces while they occupied the Qing capital, Beijing.  The remaining 18 specimens eventually found themselves at Woburn Abbey where they were tended to and bred under private stewardship. The species was reintroduced first in China in 1985 at the sight of the former hunting park. Today the milu are found in four separate locations in China, the largest being the Dafeng Milu National Nature Reserve where these photos were taken.
The survival of the milu can be explained through a combination of luck, altruism, and status seeking. The interest in animals with large horns that makes them desirable as hunting trophies and living lawn ornaments also generates a similar interest in protecting it for the sake of biodiversity, which is itself a very recent phenomenon in human civilization and in many ways represents a more advanced way of considering the responsibilities that we as the dominant have with regards to other species. At the same time, sadly, that the Chinese government was expending resources to reintroduce the milu, other less photogenic species and those that did not fit into a clear agenda were allowed to become extinct.
A bridled doe on display at Dafeng National Nature Reserve
The successful reintroduction of the milu to its native habitat is a credit to human endeavor even as it also speaks to the fickleness as to what we choose to focus our energies on. The milu can be regarded by some as an example of biodiversity even if the motives of the Chinese government are primarily nationalistic. (Beijing with its water scarcity is no longer, if it ever was, a suitable milu habitat.) For the sake of the milu, they all conveniently overlapped. Animal species need more than nationalist agendas to insure their survival and while historically China's poor environmental record has led to loss of biodiversity and habitat, its recent economic development has further placed pressures on other habitats and species outside its borders.
One can, on the other hand, argue that it is wealthy countries with an urban middle class that places increasing emphasis on abstractions like wildlife and ecology. It requires surplus wealth to set aside otherwise profitable agricultural and resource rich lands to maintain species habitat, and certainly more to recover and reintroduce lost or endangered species. Various estimates place the cost of releasing a North American Whooping Crane into the wild at about $12,000 per bird per year. 
I've not been able to find much about the Rhinoceroi that lived over regions of what is today's China. The Chinese obsession with Rhino horn and hides started with native species and only turned to Africa as a substitute source when the local population dwindled and eventually became extinct, holding out in Sichuan until the 17th century by one account. There are also indications that they were also featured in royal menageries. Scholars believe that the Rhinoceroi of China were similar to both the Sumatran and Javan species although I have not come across any DNA evidence to verify this. 
As cute as a baby panda?
It therefore is possible to suggest that China might once again be a host country for other species that are teetering on the edge of extinction. I was partially influenced in imaging this plan because of the recent efforts between China and Russian to cooperate in expanding the contiguous range of the Amur Tiger. Both nations hold the tiger in high esteem and the interest in protecting the tiger in nature coincides with another campaign in China to avoid serving shark's fin at formal banquets. It is primarily an enlightened middle class that are bringing these issues to the fore. (Well, after first eating a lot of shark's fin soup when they first started earning enough money to splurge on the tasteless delicacy after the 1980s.) The success of the Milu breeding program, I hope, can be a springboard from which to protect species that exist with China's borders and those that can also be better protected from abroad but with China's large expanse of territory, its new wealth, and new need to express its political maturity. This might be a soft power coup if the CCP chooses to make it one.  It is as simple as offering to sponsor another nation's Rhinoceros conservation efforts and then setting aside land as a reserve for it inside China, perhaps even coexisting with the milu areas. There are some wildlife activists in China who struggle with the bureaucratic challenges to counter habitat losses. They might consider the reintroduction of Rhinoceros as a means of waking up the Chinese population to what it has lost and how species diversity can enhance the national character and international prestige.  
It slipped my mind while writing that there has been an ongoing attempt coordinated between Vietnam and the mainland to save a nearly extinct soft shell turtle, Rafetus swinhoei. Several years have passed since the initial efforts were initiated and yet still no viable eggs have been produced. Successful or not, this example might also serve as a model for the rhinoceroi.