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Tibet 2003: State of the Environment

[Environment and Development Desk; Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, India. White Paper, July, 2003]

Biodiversity Conservation: Policies versus Implementation

Beijing's March 2003 white paper on Tibet's ecology and environmental protection boasts that 386 million yuan (US $48.2 million) was spent between 1996 and 2003 on the ecological "improvement" of the "Tibet Autonomous Region" - a sum that even accounts for every cash crop tree plantation and commercial poplar plantation surrounding irrigation projects.

What is omitted, however, is that between 1996 and 2000 according to the official 2001 TAR Statistical Yearbook Beijing's domestic budget allocated 9.5 billion yuan (US $1.19 billion) to the "TAR" for construction of environmentally destructive mines, highways, pipelines, factories and power grids. Therefore, for every yuan China expends on ecological "improvement," 30 yuan arrives from Beijing to construct mega infrastructure projects which directly contribute to the destruction of Tibet's environment.

Between 1996 and 2000, China at best has spent 41 yuan per year per km of the "TAR" on environmental remediation and 9.51 billion yuan (US $ 1.19 billion) on financing the PRC's ongoing war against nature.

The 2020 Project report by China's State Development Planning Commission and the ADB explores the inadequacy of environmental funding and the confusion between rigid, mutually-exclusive bureaucracies in control of the task. The report concludes:

"Ecological improvement requires a high level of collaboration and co-ordination with other agenciesŠ Environmental agencies cannot determine whether industries are complying with pollution standards and therefore cannot make informed decisions on whether to close down any industrial plant. The community cannot be reliably informed about environmental conditionsŠ In the PRC there is a high overall rate of non-compliance with the full set of environmental regulatory requirementsŠ

"The Western Region's industrial structure is such that in proportion to its total industrial output, it comprises more polluting industries than in the Eastern Region. In the Western Region, air emissions of pollutants per unit value of industrial output are above the national averageŠNature reserve management: Urgent action is needed in the Western Region in three areas: Comprehensive coverage, integrated administration, and adequate funding.

"The reserves of the Western Region are incomplete; not all species, habitats or ecosystems are adequately represented. Many of the reserves have areas that are smaller than required to sustain an adequate habitat for the flora and fauna within themŠ The remoteness of many reserves, which initially served to protect those areas, leads to their neglect and mismanagement, and inevitably to their degradationŠ

"Virtually all reserves are seriously under-funded. Their staffs are few in number, usually under- trained and often underpaid and under-motivated, and vehicles and equipment are poorly managed and run. In pursuit of meagre funds, reserve managers exploit limited commercial opportunities, often with adverse effects."

On the ground in Tibet there are dedicated staff, both Tibetan and Chinese, who try to conserve the surviving biodiversity. Their task is made much harder by compartmentalised bureaucracies that restrict activities only to their defined responsibilities and fail to cooperate with each other. Additionally, a rigid personnel allocation system sends unsuitable people to work unwillingly in remote locations.

In Tibet, it would be far more productive to train and employ more Tibetans as park rangers as they are motivated to protect their own land and do not mind being stationed in harsh, remote locations.

A quote from Dr. George Schaller, the noted wildlife conservationist who carried out pioneering studies on Tibet's wildlife in the mid-1990s, dispels China's parochial view of Tibet's "passive adaptation to nature". In Tibet's Hidden Wilderness: Wildlife and Nomads of the Chang Thang Reserve, he writes:

"Tibetans have from time immemorial maintained wildlife sanctuaries around temples and in special preserves of mountain gods. The Chang T[h]ang Reserve is a natural temple on a grand scale, a monument to Tibet's past, a sanctuary where the faithful can find inspiration..."

Before China's occupation, hunting of wildlife was decried in Tibet and only indulged in by the poor for survival. Few Tibetans hunted animals for use of their body parts in traditional medicine. Even then, culling was sustainable and carried out on very small scale since there were laws against hunting. In the tenth month of every year, a Decree (Tsatsig) for the Protection of Animals and the Environment was issued in the name of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The accounts of European adventurers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries write of the abundance of wildlife on the Tibetan Plateau. It was only after the massive influx of Chinese migrants and settlers in the wake of development activities in hitherto undisturbed wildernesses that an alarming decline in the populations of wildlife occurred.

The white paper's assertion that no single species has become extinct in Tibet appears to be true. But this vaunted claim doesn't tell us about the present state of Tibet's biodiversity. The escalation in human population and development projects over recent decades has been a major factor in the swift decline of the plateau's rich wildlife. The Tibetan antelope is on the verge of extinction; it was only after a huge international outcry against the trade in shahtoosh shawl wool that hunting of Tibetan antelope is now being curbed. Wild yak also face a similar if not worse fate.

Today at least 81 species of Tibet's mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are endangered and 125 animal species are officially listed as Protected Species by the PRC due to their dwindling numbers.

Today, China has declared the "TAR's" Chang Thang region a nature reserve. China's greatest rivers, the Yangtze (Tib: Drichu) and Yellow (Tib: Ma Chu) are also officially protected areas at their headwaters in Tibet. By the end of 2000 there were 17 national and provincial level nature reserves in the "TAR" accounting for around 40 percent of the total area of nature reserves within the PRC, according to reports of the State Environment Protection Agency of China (SEPA).

All this sounds impressive on paper, but the same 2000 SEPA report gives its total staff for "TAR" as 163 - the lowest among all China's provinces. It is evident that, in spite of designating large areas of the Tibetan Plateau as nature reserves, there exists a troubling gap between official policy and implementation capabilities.

The 2020 Project report notes that in 1993 China ratified the Global Convention on Biological Diversity, but "progress in implementing it has been disappointing". The report notes that in the north-eastern Tibetan province of Amdo only 50,000 sq. kms of nature reserves exist, and in Sichuan Province - 42 percent of which by area is designated as Tibetan - there are only 28,300 sq. kms of nature reserves. This amounts to only five percent of the area of these two provinces.

The nature reserves designated by China, and mostly located in the coldest and most arid portions of the Tibetan Plateau, certainly exist on paper. Thus they form part of what China's 2003 white paper calls "a relatively systematic local legal regime concerning environmental protection". What China remains silent on is whether the laws and regulations are being implemented. In reality - as many international conservationists such as Dr. Schaller have pointed out - these reserves lack rangers, trained staff, vehicles and enforcement powers to bring poachers to book.

The 2020 Project report states:

"Conserving the residual native vegetation and repairing the damage from previous times should be a priority in the Western Region. However the program has several weaknesses. Various agencies with diverse interests administer reserves, often giving attention to a single aspect and without the knowledge or experience needed for integrated reserve management. Of 926 reserves established by 1997, 360 had no assigned administrative agencies, and of these 308 had no effective managementŠ There are clear indications of deficiencies in nature reserve coverage. Significant ecosystems and species are inadequately represented, especially in the Western Region."

Some scenic areas of the plateau, like Zitsa Degu in eastern Tibet (Ch: Jiuzhaigou incorporated into today's Sichuan Province) not only enjoy legal protection from Beijing but also merit UNESCO World Heritage Listing. Zitsa Degu's inclusion was supposed to protect one of the last remaining Giant Panda habitats. Yet none of the endangered bears have been seen there for years. This is hardly surprising as one and a half million domestic tourists descend on Zitsa Degu annually, enabling entrepreneurs to turn the capital of Tibetan scenic beauty and pandas - plus the social capital of UNESCO listing - into huge financial profit. None of this eco-commercialisation is admitted in China's white paper.

Exotic, Non-native Species: A Threat to Tibet's Endemic Wealth

UNDP's China Human Development Report 2002 states:

"China's flora and fauna are among the richest in the world; yet biodiversity is under severe pressure from population growth and economic development. Biodiversity is seriously threatened by human activities including deforestation, over-exploitation of animal and plant resources, pollution and the introduction of invasive species. Logging and land reclamation are two of the most serious causes of biotope destruction in China."

The deliberate introduction of exotic species is recognised globally as a threat to endemic indigenous species. Yet China's white paper reports the practice as an environmental achievement, and promotes it as increasing biodiversity.

"As Tibet opens wider to the outside world, non-native creatures such as carp, crucian carp, eel and loach, high productivity and quality cattle, sheep, pigs, chicken, ducks, as well as corn, watermelons and vegetables have been introduced from the inland areas to Tibet, where they are thriving today."

These exotic species thrive at the longterm expense of indigenous species now threatened by such invasive exotics. This is especially true of the many species of Tibetan fish, which were never harvested commercially prior to 1950, but are currently over-harvested by commercial fishing fleets on the plateau's larger lakes. Chinese migrants eat fish; Tibetans traditionally do not.

China's environmental white paper goes on to describe the establishment of nature reserves to protect the plateau's unique wilderness from exotic invasion. In the 21st century it seems Beijing is still unable or unwilling to distinguish biodiversity conservation from economic production.

The fact that Tibet's nature reserves are vast, remote, and have an inhospitable terrain and harsh climate, doesn't deter gangs of poachers with sophisticated weapons and 4WD transport from criss-crossing the vast uninhabited lands and slaughtering valuable wildlife. Now the new railway to Lhasa bisects the species-rich Chang Thang and its 23 stations provide easy access for hunters and smugglers of animal parts. This advent of the railway linking Tibet to Mainland China will increase the urgent need for better and more logistic support at the region's nature reserves, and more effective enforcement mechanisms to prevent wildlife poaching.

Making the nature reserves a real safe heaven for wildlife should be complemented by appropriate legal and regulatory systems - clearly lacking at present. There is an acute need for employment and training of rangers, with the power to enforce legislation against poaching endangered Tibetan antelope and other rare wildlife. The employment and training of local Tibetans to manage existing nature reserves is to be encouraged since Tibetans are compatible with the difficult terrain and also because their religion and culture preaches respect and care for wildlife and all nature.

Wildlife Protection and Hunting Tours: A Policy Contradiction

A news report - "Highland Hunting - New Tourist Attraction" - in the 20 February 2002 edition of People's Daily reveals a disturbing hiatus between official policy and the ground reality of wildlife protection.

"The Dulan International Hunting Ground on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, known as the roof of the world, has become a popular attraction with foreign tourists in recent years.

"More than 600 hunters from a dozen of countries including United States, Germany, France, Russia and Norway had visited it by the end of last year.

"The hunting ground covers some 30,000 square kilometres in central Qinghai Province in northwest China. It is home to many hoofed animals including cliff goats, Tibetan antelopes, red deer and white-lip deer. The majority of Tibetan antelopes in the area are aged between 13 and 14 years, and are approaching the average life expectancy of 15.

"Wildlife protection is important in the region. Hunters are encouraged to shoot at the old and weak animals, said Yang Hongwei, deputy secretary-general of the Qinghai Provincial Wildlife Protection Association.

"Income received from admission fees has been used for wildlife publicity and protection, he added."

Until the mid-1990s, trophy hunting and hunting tours were a popular high value lure for tourists to "exotic" Tibet. In spite of the State's new awareness of biodiversity conservation, it is clear that hunting tourism still thrives. Apart from the above hunting tour advertised in the People's Daily online, there are a few Tibet-oriented websites that offer trophy hunting in Amdo and the neighbouring eastern and north-eastern provinces of Gansu, Xinjiang and Sichuan.

An Internet search reveals travel agencies and groups currently offering tours of the Tibetan rangelands to hunt endangered Tibetan species including blue sheep, argali, takin, ibex, and white-lipped deer.

Interestingly, the birthing grounds of Tibetan antelopes have only recently been discovered and reported. Dr. Schaller, the leading expert on Tibet's fauna, states that conserving this wildlife nursery is critical to the survival of the Tibetan antelope.

China claims an increase in wildlife numbers, especially Tibetan antelope. But two points need to be raised about the credibility of wildlife statistics. Firstly, researchers only started to study wildlife population trends in 2000. Secondly, since herds traverse a vast and open range spanning Xinjiang, Tibet and Gansu, the wildlife population must be studied over time and space before statistics can be taken as valid and accurate.

We welcome China's moves towards protecting biodiversity through the enforcement of new wildlife legislation and the State's ratification of international laws on biodiversity. But present reality falls far short of genuine species protection. It is our hope that Beijing will step-up efforts towards implementing official policy through enhancement of regulatory and enforcement mechanisms over biodiversity conservation.


[Source: Used with permission from Environment and Development Desk. Department of Information and International Relations; Central Tibetan Administration; Dharamsala, India.]

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