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Animals and Animal Issues in China

This is the first in what I hope will be several columns concerning the issue of animals in China.

China is a highly unique country with a very diverse group of people and perhaps an even more diverse number of truly unique animals. Many of these animals are famous and embody China both in popular culture (the great panda) and traditional culture and mythology (the tiger). Yet China is also a country of more than a billion people, struggling to keep national development and natural beauty in balance.

Now it would be easy for a westerner visiting China to see the nation’s attitude towards conservation as not as caring. After all, our western culture has taught us that it is good and correct to save the world’s wildlife. Yet, at the same time, any westerner who has this idea has not taken the time to consider the difference in values between our culture and the Chinese one. 

The answer to this problem is very complex. There are many facets including culture, politics and simple geography. Let’s start with the last. Naturally China, due to its size, encompasses a vast array of habitats ranging from steamy tropical forests and mountain in the South to deserts and steppes in the North. This wide diversity in habitat brings with it an equally wide diversity in wildlife. China simply has more animals and therefore statistically there will probably be more endangered animals here. Europe, on the contrary, has a limited range of habitats and therefore a limited number of diverse animals. Indeed, animals that are endangered elsewhere are already extinct in Europe (wolves, bears, etc.) – and have been for hundreds of years. This means that the issue of conservation in China arouses more controversy than it does in Europe and the U.S., where we simply don’t have enough exotic wildlife left to provide such controversies.

Politically, the reader must understand that China, unlike the west, is a developing economy. When we realize this, it is not that hard to understand why wildlife conservation is not a big issue in China. After all, the government is much too preoccupied with setting up a competitive economic system while trying provide for its citizens. Wildlife conservation takes second (if not tenth) place in the country’s political agenda. In Europe, we have already established our economy. Our populations are generally smaller and decreasing. Our living standard is quite high, thus we can afford to spend more time on issues such as saving the world’s rainforests and animals whereas, in China, these are more often considered as resources.

The third facet I see is that of culture. This is perhaps the hardest to understand of the three because it is so alien to us westerners. In China there is a belief that everything in the world should be used by people. This includes animals both domestic and wild. The former are seen as a source of food and the latter are often used in traditional medicine, which is still an important feature of Chinese culture. Many animals that, in the West, are considered as endangered species are seen in China as a source of food or as a cure. This makes it hard to get conservation programs off the ground, as there are not many people who are willing to take up the cause.  Harsh anti-poaching laws may mean that families lose their income or livelihood (in the case of large predators preying on cattle for example, or fishermen not being able to fish certain species).

When one understands these three facets, it is easy to understand the problems facing many conservationist societies and wildlife protection initiatives.



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