China
Enhanced technology and public awareness give more momentum to biodiversity protection in China
China's scientists and the general public are engaging in biodiversity protection
By Lu Yan  ·  2020-06-15  ·   Source: NO.25 JUNE 18, 2020
Tibetan goas and yaks graze on the Jiatang Grassland in Qinghai Province in northwest China on August 14, 2019 (XINHUA)

This year has been rewarding for Yang Xiaojun, a researcher at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). The green peafowls Yang and his team bred laid over 20 eggs. They worked hard for these purebred green peafowl eggs for more than six years.

The green peafowl is China's only native peafowl and was once common in Yunnan Province, where the Kunming Institute of Zoology is based. However, in recent decades a decline in their number led the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to list the species as endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species. Habitat loss is one of the main reasons for the species' dwindling population, with fewer than 500 purebred green peafowls now left in the wild in China, fewer than the number of pandas.

Yang and his team searched many conservation areas for the purebred green peafowl, finally finding six. He took them to a laboratory that reproduces their wild habitat, where scientists use genome sequencing technology to breed more.

"This serves as a beam of light for our protection and research endeavor. However, there is still a long way to go before we reach the goal of achieving enough population to ensure proper gene exchange for healthy diversity," Yang said.

Harnessing technology

Global biodiversity is now facing wide-ranging and often unprecedented challenges, according to Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Acting Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a part of the UN Environment Program.

According to Mrema, China has taken practical measures to promote ecological protection and has established many effective mechanisms for green development. The country has also given priority to protecting biodiversity, and is a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity since the 1990s.

Yunnan boasts impressive biodiversity. In May, the provincial government released a white paper on its biological diversity, the first of its kind in China. According to the document, while Yunnan accounts for only 4.1 percent of China's territorial area, it is home to more than 50 percent of the country's flora and fauna species. The white paper says 90 percent of the ecosystems and 85 percent of the important species in the province have been effectively protected

The province has adopted a variety of measures to protect biodiversity, including improving its research capabilities, according to Gao Zhengwen, a senior official with the Yunnan Environmental Protection Bureau. It also promotes scientific and technological breakthroughs in the utilization of biological resources in industries with important economic value, he said.

A Capricornis rubidus, a new variety of antelope discovered in China, strolls in a forest in Yunnan Province on December 1, 2017 (XINHUA)

Germplasm bank

Biological scientists in the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species at the Kunming Institute of Botany of CAS in Yunnan are protecting biodiversity with science and technology. The facility is the largest seed bank in Asia and the second of its kind globally, with seeds stored at the facility accounting for one third of all wild plant species in China.

Li Dezhu, a lead researcher at the germplasm bank, told Beijing-based Science and Technology Daily that the germplasm bank comprises a seed vault, an in-vitro micropropagation unit, a microorganism bank, an animal germplasm bank, and a DNA bank. Each part plays a unique role in conserving rare and endangered plant and animal germplasms collected nationwide.

At its plant germplasm preservation center and molecular experiment platform, nearly 100 scientists work on seed preservation every day. After careful classification, cleaning and processing, the germplasms are stored in the seed bank at minus 20 degrees Celsius or in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees Celsius.

By the end of 2019, the bank had collected and stored the genetic materials of over 10,000 kinds of plants. "A small container can store up to 20,000 seeds for 100 or even more than 1,000 years," Li said.

Regarding animal germplasms, there have been successful cases of short-term preservation of sperms and eggs, as well as some embryonic cells. In general, however, the preservation of animal germplasm resources remains comparatively difficult.

The institute's DNA bank currently stores more than 6,000 DNA samples of wild animals. "With the progress of science, this DNA bank will provide an important reserve for future biological protection," Li said.

For some species, it is not only necessary to protect extant populations and bring about steady population recovery, but also to explore their potential economic and aesthetic value. Sun Weibang, a researcher of at the Kunming Institute of Botany, gave the example of the Firmiana major, a flowering plant that can be found only in Yunnan. The species has become endangered due to human disturbance and habitat loss.

Sun said that the seeds of the plant are of high nutritional value and the plant itself can be used for high-quality gardening and landscaping. "After artificial propagation and proper commercial utilization, it may no longer be an endangered species," he said.

Snub-nosed monkeys, a rare animal, in a forest in Foping County, Shaanxi Province in northwest China, on August 3, 2018 (XINHUA)

Enhanced public awareness

Not only are scientists making efforts to protect biodiversity, the general public is also engaged in it. In a directive for International Day for Biological Diversity, May 22, Premier Li Keqiang called for more efforts to raise public awareness in protecting wildlife resources.

Chinese provinces have heeded the premier's call. Jiangsu Province in east China hosted an exhibition of endangered aquatic animals in May. Held in Zhenjiang, the exhibition provided information about China's endangered aquatic species, such as the Chinese sturgeon and Yangtze finless porpoise. It mainly featured information on rare aquatic animals from the Yangtze River, as well as how to protect them. A highlight was the use of holographic technology to recreate the image and sounds of Yangtze finless porpoises.

"Many aquatic animals like the Yangtze river dolphin were once common but are no longer seen," said exhibition volunteer Zuo Maorong. "We should raise public awareness of protecting the environment and these animals, and maintain diversity of species."

Public awareness initiatives have been launched also on a national scale. One initiative encourages participants to protect the environment in Qinghai Province in the northwest by adopting a low-carbon lifestyle. The Jiatang Grassland in Qinghai is an important water conservation region and home to over 100 wildlife species, such as the Chinese mountain cat, snow leopard and black-necked crane, as well as plants that grow specifically in alpine areas.

Those wishing to support the protection of the Jiatang Grassland could record and share their carbon-conscious activities, such as taking public transport, or paying utility bills online through the Ant Forest platform, a green initiative launched by Alibaba affiliate, Ant Financial Services. The bonuses gained through their low-carbon activities can be exchanged into slots of the grassland to be put under protection.

"As an ordinary white-collar worker, I feel proud that I can help with the protection of the grassland and endangered wildlife species there. Even a little bit of help can make a difference," said Zhang Jie, a financial consultant in Beijing who has put 1 square meter of the grassland under protection via the Ant Forest initiative.

By June, over 60 million square meters of the land had been put under protection by Ant Forest users like Zhang, according to statistics from Ant Financial Services.

(Print Edition Title: Biodiversity Gets Science Shield)

Copyedited by Garth Wilson

Comments to luyan@bjreview.com

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