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UPDATED: September 6, 2010 NO. 34 AUGUST 24, 2006
A Growing Heritage
Two more places in China have been added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites

In July, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to place China's giant panda sanctuaries in Sichuan Province and the Yin Xu (ruins of the capital city of the Shang Dynasty, about 1600-1100 B.C.) archaeological site in Henan Province on its list of World Heritage sites, bringing the total number in China to 33, ranking third after Spain and Italy.

Sichuan giant panda sanctuaries

The sanctuaries, home to more than 30 percent of the world's giant pandas, covers an area of 924,500 hectares with seven nature reserves and nine scenic parks in the Qionglaishan and Jiajinshan mountains. They constitute the largest remaining contiguous habitat of the giant panda, a relict from the paleo-tropical forests of the Tertiary Era. It is also the highly endangered species' most important site for breeding in captivity.

The sanctuaries are home to other globally endangered animals such as the red panda, the snow leopard and clouded leopard. They are among the richest sites botan-ically of any region in the world outside the tropical rain forests, with between 5,000 and 6,000 species of flora, according to UNESCO.

The Wolong Nature Reserve, a major part of the region, is one of the last strongholds of the giant panda in the lush mountains of Sichuan Province. The reserve currently has 150 pandas, making up about 10 percent of the total in China.

Xiangxiang, a four-year-old male panda that was born at the reserve, was released into the wild in April, the first time a panda bred in captivity has been reintroduced into the wild. Experiments will be carried out on mating pandas and returning them to the wild this year, so the number of pandas is expected to increase.

Ya'an, also in Sichuan, is famous as the original home of the giant panda because it is the place where the animal was first discovered in 1869 by Father Jean Pierre Armand David, a French missionary and naturalist, who named it and introduced it to the world.

Pandas in Sichuan have been under increasing protection. Panda sanctuaries have been expanded in size by 30 percent and 37 nature reserves have been created one after another. The number of pandas in the province has increased by about 300 since the 1980s. The Chinese Government is determined to create more favorable conditions for the reproduction of wild pandas by continuing to enlarge the sanctuaries and connect isolated sanctuaries.

The fact that the Sichuan panda sanctuaries have been placed on the World Heritage list indicates that protection of the species is included in the global animal protection framework. Wang Huaicheng, Vice Governor of Sichuan, commented that China central and Sichuan provincial governments will spare no efforts to provide a better environment for pandas, adding that they will be well protected under both national and international laws.

The field of ecological protection has entered a new phase by helping endangered species reproduce in captivity, often through artificial insemination, and then returning them to the wild, and the case of pandas illustrates the point, said Zhao Xuemin, Deputy Director of the State Forestry Administration.

China began artificial breeding experiments on pandas in the 1960s and so far there are four panda reproduction research bases. Researchers have made breakthroughs on various breeding problems, and at present the number of stably breeding pandas has reached 183, of which 90 are artificially bred.

The panda is not only a treasure to China but also to the world as it is one of the few prehistoric species left on earth. However, natural habitats for many wild animals have been destroyed by economic development and human activity. Pandas used to live in many regions in China but their habitat was greatly reduced in the 20th century and they are now found only in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces.

According to Zhao, the fundamental basis of the survival of an endangered species is its habitat. After years of effort, China has established 55 nature reserves for pandas in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. These nature reserves cover over 50 percent of the panda habitats and shelter 70 percent of the wild pandas. Statistics from the forestry sector show that the number of pandas in the wild, excluding those below 1.5 years of age, has risen to around 1,600 since the early 1990s, when the project of protecting panda habitats was started.

Yin Xu

The archaeological site of Yin Xu, close to Anyang City, some 500 km south of Beijing, is an ancient capital city of the late Shang Dynasty (about 1300-1046 B.C.). It testifies to the golden age of early Chinese culture, crafts and sciences, a time of great prosperity of the Chinese Bronze Age.

A number of royal tombs and palaces, prototypes of later Chinese architecture, have been unearthed on the site. The site includes the Palace and Royal Ancestral Shrines Area, with more than 50 house foundations, and the only tomb of a member of the royal family of the Shang Dynasty to have remained intact, the Tomb of Fu Hao (wife of king Wu Ding of the Shang Dynasty and noted strategist). The large number and superb craftsmanship of the burial accessories found there bear testimony to the advanced level of Shang handicraft industry, and now form one of the national treasures of China. Numerous pits containing bovine shoulder blades and turtle plastrons have been found in Yin Xu. Inscriptions on these oracle bones bear invaluable testimony to the development of one of the world's oldest writing systems, ancient beliefs and social systems, according to UNESCO.

Yin Xu's inclusion in the World Heritage list means that the archaeological site, and its protection, have won worldwide recognition and it also sets an example for other relics of this kind in China, said Tong Mingkang, Deputy Director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage.

Large-scale excavation has been going on at this site since 1928. Experts estimate that the city of Yin had some 300,000 residents 3,000 years ago, making it the largest city in the world at that time.

Relics excavated from this site also showed that science and technology had reached a high level during the Shang Dynasty, notably in the fields of calendars, mathematics and medicine. Manufacturing was significant at that time as well, with copper smelters and the textile industry in evidence.

An important discovery was a rectangular bronze pot, 1.33 meter's high and weighing 875 kg, with beautiful stylized dragon and legendary animal patterns inscribed on its four sides, a rare item of its kind in the world.

Yin Xu is considered to be the cradle of archeology in China, since this was the first site to be excavated independently by Chinese academic institutions and scholars. Many of these scholars later became eminent archaeologists in the country.

However, "Ever since Yin Xu was found in the early 20th century, relics excavated here have been drained away to overseas countries," said Tang Jigen, Director of Excavations at Anyang for the Institute of Archeology of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Early in the last century, foreign missionaries and explorers bought Yin Xu relics from local residents at very low prices and shipped them to their own countries. It must also be noted, however, that relics were destroyed on a large scale in ensuing wars.

"At least 50,000 relics from the Yin Xu ruins have been carried away overseas during the past 100 years," Tang said, adding that the number might be underestimated.

According to Tang, the relics are scattered in at least 80 museums, auction houses and personal collections in countries including Japan, Canada, the United States, France and Russia.

It is a serious problem that China's Yin Xu relics have gone overseas and the situation is complicated, noted Shan Jixiang, Director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. China has joined some relevant international conventions and signed agreements with Italy and other countries to reclaim its lost treasures, but it will not be easy.

The World Heritage Convention

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (the World Heritage Convention) was adopted by the UNESCO General Conference at its 17th session in Paris on November 16, 1972. The convention came into force in 1975. A total of 182 countries and regions have joined the convention, and so far 812 properties from 137 countries and regions have been included on the World Heritage list. The list includes 628 cultural properties, 160 natural properties and 24 properties that meet both cultural and natural criteria.

China ratified the convention in 1985, becoming a contracting party. On October 29, 1999, China became a member state of the World Heritage Committee. In 1986, China began to identify and nominate sites on its national territory to be considered for inclusion on the World Heritage list. So far, the number of its sites on the list has reached 33.

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