(W.E. Talk) Terry Townshend: How to understand China's protection of biodiversity?

2022-03-27 Editor : Hao Yunhui ECNS App Download

(ECNS)-- As one of the world’s mega-biodiverse countries, since signing the "Convention on Biological Diversity" in 1992, China has been developing conservation, advancing exploration, and has started on a biodiversity conservation approach using its unique wisdom.

Terry Townshend, a British environmentalist, accepted an exclusive interview with China News Service, "W.E Talk"column, saying that China's efforts to protect biodiversity over the past few decades is not only reflected in the protection of certain species, but also in the protection of whole ecosystems. China is moving towards the symbiosis of economic development and natural environment protection.

CNS: What was your original intention when you started BirdingBeijing in China 12 years ago? As an environmentalist, in your opinion, what is biodiversity?

Terry Townshend: I have always been devoted to environmental protection issues. At first, "BirdingBeijing" was just a personal diary for myself. I kept a record of my travels around Beijing and what I was seeing. But very soon I started to get a lot of people contacting me to asking me about birds in Beijing because of this website. And I found myself replying to these questions in the same way many times.So I decided to develop the website as an online resource to celebrate the wildlife of Beijing.

A few months ago, I asked my friends internationally, what's the first word that comes into your head when you hear Beijing? And the most popular response was pollution. So that’s the image of Beijing internationally. And so what I try to do is show that there's another side of Beijing. Actually, Beijing is a really good place for birds and other wildlife. More than 500 species of bird have been recorded in this city. I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that Beijing is one of the best birding capital cities in the world, ranking second among G20 capital cities, after only Brasilia, in terms of the number of species recorded. There are more butterflies and dragonflies in Beijing than the whole of the UK and Beijing also wild cats- the Leopard Cat - which is like a jewel in the crown. I try to use the website to raise awareness about how much there is in Beijing, because the first step in conservation is knowing and understanding what we have around us.

Biodiversity is all about the wealth of species that we have. We evolved in nature and we’re part of it. Each species plays a role and if we lose them, it will weaken the resilience of the ecosystem and can lead to ecological imbalance. Globally, vertebrate populations have declined by an average of 68 percent over the past 50 years. If we continue to follow this path, by the middle of the 21st century, we could lose 30% to 50% of all species on Earth. And this loss isn’t only sad- it presents economic risks and public health risks. As one species in nature, human beings must respect and protect nature while shaping the world with powerful capabilities.

CNS: In the 12 years of experience in China, which places left a deep impression on you? In terms of biodiversity, what specific changes are there now?

Terry Townshend: When I came to china,I started to travel around and I was amazed at how much wildlife there is here compared to my home back in the UK. I went to Northeast forests in Dongbei and it was full of birds singing - numbers that I'd never experienced in the UK and in Europe. These forests are a bird watching paradise. Qinghai is a very special place, incredibly beautiful mountains, incredible wildlife. There are top predators such as snow leopards, wolves, bears, etc.I was impressed by the number of birds in Inner Mongolia, lots of different species singing like an orchestra in the morning. In Sichuan I saw the fire throat, black throat and pandas. These are birds that are found nowhere else. I have also been to Xinjiang, which has spectacular biological resources. With a relatively sparse human population, there are big wild spaces and quite different wildlife flora and fauna compared with the rest of china.So I've been here 11 years now and I've still just scratched the surface. There's still so much more to see.

Over the past ten years, I have seen many changes. The east coast of China is the only stopover for many migratory water birds. The yellow sea coast is a vital ‘refueling station’ for millions of birds. So during china's period of incredible economic growth, a lot of these coastal wetlands were taken over. However, in 2019 the Chinese government issued a ban on any further reclamation of coastal wetlands and committed to protect the remaining sites. They became world heritage sites which means they're protected and they're recognized for their special value, their natural heritage. So that's a big change that's happened just in the last few years. And I think one of a number of positive changes that are happening in china over the last few years. So we know that president Xi has this policy called Eco civilization and it's essentially recognizing that you cannot have a healthy economy without a healthy environment. Those two things go hand in hand. I think underneath that, we've seen quite a lot of progress, for example, with laws. We've seen the strengthening of environment protection laws in the last few years, we've seen strengthening of the wild life protection law.There are a number of these things that are moving in the right direction for china. And I see that as being very positive.There's still a long way to go. We've still got a very long way to go to secure the future of the most important landscapes, and wild life not only in china, but globally.

CNS: China has rare kind of birds and abundant wildlife resources. China is one of the countries with the richest biodiversity in the world. What role do you think China has played in protecting biodiversity?

Terry Townshend: In that last 20 years my sense is that there's been a huge growth in environmental awareness in china. The only way to slow and stop global biodiversity loss is to build more awareness and understanding of the value of nature.

Today, there are so many NGOs starting up around the country focused on protecting specific species in china, or specific habitats. For example, there is a NGO in Yunnan that focuseson protecting gibbons, and there are organizations in Jiangsu that specialize in wetland protection for "one of the eight major bird migration routes in the world", as well as ShanShui Conservation Center that focuses on conservation of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, with whom I have been fortunate to personally work.

Last year, part one of the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity was held in Kunming, China, and part two is scheduled to be held in 2022. This is arguably the most important environmental meeting the world has seen as it is the point at which 190 countries are due to agree on a new Global Biodiversity Framework for the next ten years and beyond with the aim of slowing and halting biodiversity loss. The fact that China is hosting this major international conference is a sign of the importance China places on biodiversity conservation.

CNS: The "The Valley of the Cats" project jointly initiated by you and the NGO, ShanShui Conservation Centre has successfully contributed to the development of Zaduo County in Qinghai Province. How is your core point of view on biodiversity conservation "Financing Gap and government policy coordination" reflected in this project?

Terry Townshend: Many people think the local herders in Qinghai are poor. However,when I first went to Qinghai, from my perspective,I think the local people are not poor at all. They're very rich in life and they're also some of the happiest people I've ever met. And when they get up in the morning and step outside, there have the most amazing back garden, the cleanest air you can breathe, the cleanest water you can drink. The people living in Qinghai are themselves custodians of a special environment on behalf of us all, and it’s important to find a way to reward them for their role in looking after these special places.

Community-based conservation and tourism are ways to do this. The Valley of the Cats project means that tourists can come from all over the country to Qinghai, where the food and lodging are in the homes of the local residents, and the local residents lead the tourists to watch the environment, wild animals and plants.This way the local people can get some more income and visitors have a chance to see some of the special wildlife and enjoy an authentic experience. At the same time, the local communities participate in conservation projects, for example setting up and maintaining infrared cameras on behalf of researchers at universities in Beijing. The pictures and videos taken by the local residents are sent back to the researchers in Beijing, reducing the need for the researchers to travel so frequently and reducing the associated cost. By demonstrating the value of these places and the wildlife that lives there, the local people have become proud of where they live and there is a strong collective will to protect their environment. I think this model can be replicated elsewhere in China and maybe even overseas in order to help bring more income to local communities to reward them for protecting these special places on behalf of us all.

At this stage, there is a large funding gap for biodiversity. We calculated that the global funding gap for supporting and protecting biodiversity is more than US$700 billion per year. Closing the gap will largely depend on government policies. It is crazy that today, globally, we for every dollar we spend on protecting nature, we spend four dollars incentivizing actions to harm nature through subsidies in agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. Reform of these subsidies is critical and could help to reduce the gap by half. In addition, steering the trillions of dollars that are due to be spent on infrastructure around the world into projects that enhance and that don’t damage nature, is vital. At the same time, enterprises can play a key role in exploring the potential of natural infrastructure and green financial products. Give the huge risks associated with biodiversity loss, protecting nature is like an "insurance policy", just like in people's daily life. When human beings face significant risks, such as health risks or car accidents, we take out insurance policies so that if the worst happens, we are financially covered. Financial support for nature protection our insurance policy against the risks of biodiversity loss.

CNS:What is the root cause of the poor implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity since it was adopted in 1992 until 2010? In 2021, China hosted COP15. As the presidency and the largest developing country, what inspiration and experience can China bring to the international community?

Terry Townshend: Initially there was not enough awareness of biodiversity risks, among both governments and ordinary people. Successful protection of biodiversity requires the attention of leaders of various countries and strong legal abd policy support.

It is very important for China to host COP15. I think there's a real opportunity now to share China’s experience with other countries and to learn from best practice elsewhere. No country can save nature on its own. Every country must work together. Biodiversity conservation is such an important issue for every country that it's really important that success stories - wherever they are in the world - are shared because if we can learn from what's worked and what doesn't work that benefits everyone as we all try to work harder to protect nature. The Chinese government has issued policy documents to support biodiversity conservation mechanisms, strengthened supervision and financial support, and encouraged enterprises to invest in and protect biodiversity, and this is something that should be shared with the world.

As the host of the conference and the largest developing country, China has brought together many countries, coordinating ministers and heads of international organizations to reach an agreement for everyone in the world. We have seen that in recent years, China has elevated ecological civilization to a national strategy, and its investment in legislation and scientific research projects has continuously improved and increased.

CNS: You are an ecological advisor to the Beijing and Yushu governments. In your opinion, China has incorporated ecological management into its national legal policy system and key development plans in recent years. Can these measures play an exemplary role?

Terry Townshend: Chinese leaders put forward the idea of ecological civilization, and underneath that, the Chinese government has strengthened its scientific and legislative foundations in this area. I think China is striving for a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. In China and other countries, such as Costa Rica, there are many good examples and experiences. I think it is very important for other countries to learn from positive experiences and replicate them as much as possible.

CNS: Your article points out"Biodiversity loss presents risks to human prosperity & well-being. There must be a comprehensive, worldwide effort to value, protect, & restore nature.", how do you understand this sentence? What is the importance of protecting biodiversity?

Terry Townshend: Humans are part of nature, and if we destroy other species and ecosystems, we are essentially destroying the foundation of human life. The public health and economic and social risks arising from biodiversity loss are immeasurable but we know they are substantial. On the positive side, due to more media coverage and more government action, I think people are more and more aware of the importance of the environment and nature.

CNS: How to encourage and inspire the younger generation around the world to have a deeper understanding of biodiversity conservation?How to pass on the concept of "protecting biodiversity" from generation to generation?

Terry Townshend: When I was four years old, I saw a particularly beautiful bird in my family garden. I asked my parents what it was and they didn’t know, so they bought me a book about birds and I taught myself. That connection with nature has stayed with me for my whole life. However, in the modern world, where most people live and work in cities, it is easy to become detached from nature and to be unaware of not only its beauty and its incredible stories but also of its importance to us as a species.

A British professor suggested that education on biodiversity conservation should be central in our education systems from a very young age. I believe that children are innately curious about nature when they have the chance. We have a responsibility to let the younger generation connect with nature from an early age, and to discover some of the incredible stories about individual creatures, such as the unbelievable journeys made by migratory birds. Nature is the best theatre and the best source of beauty, innovation, inspiration and everything good about life. Inevitably, there are so many more interesting stories still to be discovered presenting so much opportunity for discovery. I look forward to more young people participating in new scientific discoveries that will inspire generations of people, leading to more and more people falling in love with nature. If that happens, we have a chance to protect the wonderful creatures with which we share this beautiful planet.

Terry Townshend, British environmentalist, Master of Environmental Economics, University of Essex, UK. He has worked for Globe International and the UK government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). He is currently a senior consultant of the Paulson Institute's Ecological Protection Program, a member of BirdLife International's global advisory group, and the founder of the "Birding Beijing" website. He has been based in Beijing since 2010.

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