Report from NY Times – in English and Chinese


December 5, 2007

China’s Turtles, Emblems of a Crisis

And its Chinese translation in pdf format by NY times

CHANGSHA, China — Unnoticed
and unappreciated for five decades, a large female turtle with a
stained, leathery shell is now a precious commodity in this city’s
decaying zoo. She is fed a special diet of raw meat. Her small pool has
been encased with bulletproof glass. A surveillance camera monitors her
movements. A guard is posted at night.

The agenda is simple: The turtle must not die.

Earlier this year, scientists concluded that she was the planet’s
last known female Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle. She is about 80
years old and weighs almost 90 pounds.

As it happens, the planet also has only one undisputed, known male.
He lives at a zoo in the city of Suzhou. He is 100 years old and weighs
about 200 pounds. They are the last hope of saving a species believed
to be the largest freshwater turtles in the world.

“It’s a very dire situation,” said Peter Pritchard, a prominent
turtle expert in the United States who has helped in trying to save the
species. “This one is so big and it has such an aura of mystery.”

For many Chinese, turtles symbolize health and longevity, but the
saga of the last two Yangtze giant soft-shells is more symbolic of the
threatened state of wildlife and biodiversity in China. Pollution,
hunting and rampant development are destroying natural habitats, and
also endangering plant and animal populations.

China contains some of the world’s richest troves of biodiversity,
yet the latest major survey of plants and animals reveals a bleak
picture that has grown bleaker during the past decade. Nearly 40
percent of all mammal species in China are now endangered, scientists
say. For plants, the situation is worse; 70 percent of all nonflowering
plant species and 86 percent of flowering species are considered
threatened.

An overriding problem is the fierce competition for land and water.
China’s goal of quadrupling its economy by 2020 means that industry,
growing cities and farmers are jostling for a limited supply of usable
land.

Cities or factories often claim farmland for expansion; farmers, in
turn, reclaim marginal land that could be habitat. Already, China has
lost half of its wetlands, according to one survey.

For the Chinese scientists and conservationists trying to reverse
these trends, the challenge begins with trying to convince the
government that protecting wildlife is an important priority. For
centuries, Chinese leaders emphasized dominance over nature rather than
coexistence with it. Animals and plants are still often regarded as
commodities valued for use as medicine or food, rather than as
essential pieces of a natural order.

“The whole idea of ecology and ecosystems is a new thing in the
culture,” said Lu Zhi, a professor of conservation biology at Peking
University.

Scientists say China’s status as a leading center of biodiversity
makes the threatened state of wildlife a global concern. Many of
China’s species are concentrated in the mountainous southwestern region
— sometimes popularized in the West as Shangri-La — as well as in
Tibet, Hainan Island and along the North Korean border. Endangered
indigenous animals include the giant panda, several varieties of
pheasants and monkeys, and a range of small mammals including shrews
and rodents.

“China is one of a small handful of countries, maybe a dozen, that
has remarkably high numbers of species, and a remarkably high number of
species that are not found anywhere else,” said Jeffrey A. McNeely,
chief scientist for the World Conservation Union.

Nearly every major international conservation group has established
a China office to promote different wildlife protection initiatives.
The group WildAid has sponsored a public education campaign featuring
billboards with the Chinese basketball star Yao Ming. “Endangered species are our friends,” Mr. Yao said at a news conference last year in Beijing.

China has a large system of nature reserves, mostly in the country’s
more remote western regions, though financing levels are far below
those even in other developing countries. No Chinese protection program
is considered more successful than the robust effort to save the panda.
Roughly 2,000 pandas now live in panda reserves. Other captive breeding
programs have helped pull the Chinese alligator and the Tibetan
antelope away from the brink of extinction.

But these successes, which involve animals of symbolic national
importance, are modest compared with the number of species that are
neglected and edging closer to extinction. Last year, the Yangtze River
dolphin, a freshwater mammal known as the baiji, was declared extinct.

“So many species are neglected,” said Dr. Lu, who also heads the
China affiliate of Conservation International. “Look at the baiji. The
extinction was announced and what has been done? Nothing. People felt
pity.”

Then, alluding to the Yangtze giant soft-shell, also known as the Rafetus swinhoei, she added:

“This turtle will be next.”

Surviving History’s Tides

Fifty-one years ago, a traveling circus performed at the new zoo in
Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in southern China. For a cash
payment, the circus left behind a large female turtle. Zookeepers
slipped the turtle into a large pond, where for a half-century it
hibernated in winters and poked its pig-like snout above the water’s
surface every spring. The walls of the zoo became the equivalent of a
time capsule.

Outside, the convulsions of modern Chinese history were scarring an
already damaged landscape. Under Mao, national campaigns were waged to
kill birds and other animals perceived as pests. Widespread famines in
the late 1950s and early 1960s drove desperate people to hunt or gather
anything deemed edible, even tree bark.

Since the 1980s, the pressure has come from the rapid push for
economic development. In recent years, turtle experts identified the
Yangtze giant soft-shell as dangerously close to extinction. Inside the
Changsha Zoo, zookeepers had no idea that experts were scouring China
for the species. In fact, they knew very little about their female
turtle. “We just treated it like a normal animal,” said Yan Xiahui,
deputy director of the zoo.

The species was first identified as distinct in the 1870s. A British diplomat in Shanghai sent a specimen to the British Museum,
where it was beheaded and pickled in a jar. Some experts debated
whether it was part of another species, and for years it received
little attention.

“It proceeded to be ignored by the world as if it didn’t exist for
roughly 100 years,” said Dr. Pritchard, the American expert, who has
seen the specimen in the British Museum.

With its wide, flat shape and leathery dorsal shell, the giant
Yangtze males can weigh more than 220 pounds; females are usually
smaller. By the 1990s, a prominent Chinese herpetologist, Zhao Kentang,
had realized the significance of the turtle and tried in vain to
persuade different zoos to bring the turtles together for breeding.

By 2004, after conducting field surveys in China and Vietnam,
herpetologists concluded that six of the turtles were still alive.
Three were in Chinese zoos in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou; two others
lived in a Buddhist temple in Suzhou; and a sixth lived in a famous
Vietnamese lake in the center of Hanoi.

Negotiations began toward a breeding agreement. By 2005, the turtle
in the Beijing zoo had died. Questions also emerged about whether the
Hanoi turtle was actually the same species. A leading Vietnamese expert
argued it was not. Monks at the Buddhist temple considered their
turtles religious icons and did not want to move them. Last year, a
deal was finally reached between the Suzhou and Shanghai zoos.

“Then in October, the one in Shanghai died,” said Xie Yan, the China program director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which has been instrumental in guiding the discussions. “It was horrible news.”

In January, herpetologists gathered in Suzhou for a conference about
the turtle. Every zoo in China had been issued an urgent circular
asking for any information about their large turtles. Officials at the
Changsha Zoo responded. The Wildlife Conservation Society sent two
experts to Changsha.

“We were very happy because it was a female and had just laid eggs
last year,” said Lu Shunqing, one of the experts, noting that the eggs
were unfertilized.

The discovery of the Changsha turtle was critical. In August, one of
the turtles in the Buddhist temple died. Experts visited the temple and
found no proof that the second turtle existed. That left two undisputed
Yangtze giant soft-shells: the female in Changsha; the male in Suzhou.
Neither had commingled with the opposite sex in decades, if ever. And,
more problematic, neither zoo was willing to let its turtle go.

Restoring Diversity

Biodiversity, a linguistic marriage of biology and diversity,
describes the variations of life within a particular setting, or
ecosystem. That ecosystem could be a single pond or the entire earth.
Implicit is the idea that the ecosystem is sustained by the coexistence
and interaction between plants, animals and other life forms.

Few, if any, of the world’s modern economic powers, including the
United States, have industrialized without taking a dire toll on plants
and animals. In China, the Communist Party’s top-down, authoritarian
system has presided over a destruction of nature. Now, with
environmental problems threatening the economy, the party is trying to
engineer a top-down reconstruction.

Environmental construction, a government term, is now a high
priority. Yet the results are not always synonymous with biodiversity.
Since 1998, China has banned the domestic timber trade and started a
nationwide reforestation program. China is now one of the few countries
in the world where forest cover is expanding. Yet many scientists say
these new forests are more like plantations than habitat.

Often, the new forests include only one or two different tree
species and are far inferior to natural forests as incubators for other
species. Unintended results can occur. In Beijing, officials planted
millions of “female” poplar trees without realizing that the females
produced higher amounts of pollen. Workers have had to dig up thousands
of the trees, as floating springtime pollen often seems as thick as
snow.

Restoring animal populations is also complicated. Turtles, which are
both revered and consumed in China, were decimated in the wild by
pollution and hunting. Traders quickly pushed into Southeast Asia,
India and even the United States to meet demand.

“In conservation terms, it became a crisis,” said Dr. Pritchard, the
American expert. “It was first noticed six or seven years ago. The
China market had become packed with turtles not from China.”

In fact, Chinese markets teemed with animals, or animal parts, from
around the world. Today, conservationists express particular concern
about the illegal trade in tiger parts. China has signed an
international treaty banning domestic trade of tiger parts, but tiger
conservation groups say the illegal demand in China is a major reason
for the decline of tigers around the world.

Meanwhile, conservationists worry that officials may one day reopen
the tiger trade to appease Chinese businessmen who had run tiger
breeding farms to produce parts for Chinese traditional medicine.

Turtles, meanwhile, have made a comeback with the emergence of
breeding farms. Captive breeding also is now a popular government
response for certain endangered species. But many conservationists
worry that too little emphasis is placed on restoring habitat so that
animals can be returned to the wild. More than 10,000 Chinese
alligators have been bred, but reintroducing them to the wild has
largely failed.

Conservationists say environmental policies need to better take
biodiversity into account. Reforestation, for example, was largely an
effort to stop soil erosion, which contributed to floods, and to stall
desertification, the conversion of the land into a desert. The idea of
creating a true forest was not a priority.

Meanwhile, economic development still dominates. China’s richest
source of biodiversity is a “hot spot” in southwestern China along the
Nu River designated by Unesco
as a World Heritage Site. Even so, provincial officials are trying to
build a system of dams through the region. Local officials also have
tried to redraw the boundaries for the World Heritage Site in order to
create room for mining.

Conservationists are trying to speak the language of economics to
build political support for protecting habitat. Rice demand is growing
rapidly, even as farmland is dwindling. For decades, Chinese scientists
have used wild rice species to develop hybrids that increase
production. Now, development and farming are encroaching on wild rice
habitat areas in coastal southern China.

“If we let it go unchecked,” Dr. Lu, the Peking University
professor, wrote in a report about biodiversity, “Chinese wild rice
will become extinct in fifteen years.”

Success Far From Certain

Extinction remains a far more immediate possibility for the Yangtze
giant soft-shell. Next year, scientists will make a search in
southwestern China in hopes of finding another Yangtze giant soft-shell
in the wild.

In September, the Changsha and Suzhou zoos finally reached a deal.
Neither wanted to move its turtle. But each agreed that scientists
could attempt artificial insemination next spring. Each also signed a
contract entitling a certain number of offspring for each zoo —
potential stud turtles for future captive breeding programs.

Gerald Kuchling, a herpetologist overseeing the procedure, said
success was far from guaranteed. Several years ago, a tortoise in
Hawaii died after a similar procedure. In May, Dr. Kuchling conducted
an ultrasound examination of the ovaries of the female turtle in
Changsha. For years, she has laid unfertilized eggs in springtime,
though zookeepers say the number has steadily diminished, to about 20.

“The main problem is really to get a viable sperm sample from the
old male without harming him in any way,” said Dr.. Kuchling, who added
that using small electric shocks is one common method for eliciting a
sample. Manual massage is another.

In Changsha, zoo officials moved the turtle into a private pool for
better security and monitoring. But experts are concerned that
zookeepers are now warming the water inside the pool during winter,
even though it spent decades in the colder pond outside. They also are
concerned that the pool has no mud to allow the turtle to hibernate.

Under China’s system, the Ministry of Agriculture has oversight of
the turtle. So far, the ministry has agreed to provide 200,000 yuan, or
about $27,000, though none of the money has arrived. Asked for an
interview in October, the ministry declined. But ministry officials
later contacted the zoos and persuaded them to sign a new deal.

It was decided that the Changsha turtle will be transported to
Suzhou next year. A special breeding pool is supposed to be built.
First, scientists will try artificial insemination. If that fails, the
two elderly turtles will give it a go the old-fashioned way.

The fate of a species hangs in the balance.

Ma Yi contributed research.

Ma Yi contributed research.

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