By Phil Chapman
China is a country that in some peoples’ minds has become synonymous with industrial pollution, rigid political control and spectacular economic expansion.
But behind this image lies another world which is the real, essential China – a place of vast shifting deserts, tropical coral reefs, steaming jungles, snow-capped peaks, evergreen forests and smoking volcanoes.
And surviving, tucked away within this incredibly diverse landscape, is a wealth of animal and plant life.
China is home to 534 species of mammals – one eighth of the world’s total, of which more than a hundred, including iconic creatures such as the giant panda, are endemic.
The country’s birdlife is also extremely rich, with more than 1,300 species, whilst there are more than 2,200 species of fishes.
China’s plant life is equally spectacular, with an amazing 32,800 species of higher plants, making China the third richest country in these terms after Malaysia and Brazil.
Many of the most beautiful cultivated plants in temperate gardens worldwide are native to China, including azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons and clematis.
It is also a centre of diversity for important food and medicinal plants such as peaches, oranges, walnuts, rice and liquorice.
As China’s economy grows at breakneck pace, this is a time of massive change in the countryside as much as in the cities.
Experts are forecasting that in the next couple of decades, more than 300 million rural people will migrate to China’s Eastern seaboard in search of better-paid jobs.
Already rural communities have lost many of their young adults who are away working in the cities, leaving children in the care of grandparents.
Traditional farming systems, like the terraced rice paddies which cover the hillsides of southern China, require a huge amount of manual labour for planting, upkeep and harvesting.
As wage levels rise, such work is bound to become uneconomic, and without intensive management, the paddies will not survive the annual onslaught of monsoon rains for long.
At the same time, pressures to increase food production to meet increasing demands from a growing urban population, and to cope with the effluent produced by massive industrialisation and vast urban conurbations, will inevitably pose serious environmental challenges.
As a largely rural society, the art, literature and traditions of China have long celebrated the beauty of its landscapes, plants and wild creatures.
The Chinese are proud of their natural riches, and many notable plants and animals are officially protected in national parks and wildlife reserves.
But official protection is no guarantee of safety.
In recent decades conservation has been poorly funded and protection has been weak.
Many reserves, especially locally designated ones, have been under-staffed.
And many workers have had little specialist training, and are ill-equipped to deal with well-organised groups of outsiders who come to hunt animals, mine minerals or collect plants in nominally protected areas.
Illicit hunting is a particular problem, given China’s long tradition of exploiting its wild animals and plants for food and medicine.
When compared to countries such as the UK, which have already lost most of their mega-fauna as a result of human activity centuries ago, China has done pretty well in conserving its wildlife.
The world’s most populous country still has iconic large mammals such as elephants, giant pandas, snow leopards, and even a few Amur tigers.
The country was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity, in 1993.
Since then, it has catalogued national species, created an endangered list, shown real determination to enforce the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and designated many species and habitats as “protected”.
There are now 2,194 nature reserves in China covering some 15% of its territory – an area six times that of Great Britain. The world average is 11.5%.
The rapidly growing environmental consciousness among Chinese young people, expressed as growing support for budding grass-roots conservation organisations, provides real hope for the future.
The media in China increasingly carries environmental or conservation-related stories, raising interest and awareness.
If the political will is there to protect its wildlife though the current phase of economic expansion, there seems a real chance that China’s natural wonders may remain as a source of pride and wonder for many generations to come.
Wild China will be broadcast on 11 May 2008 at 2005 on BBC 2.