Wildlife Conservation in China: Preserving the Habitat of China's Wild West

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Wildlife Conservation in China: Preserving the Habitat of China's Wild West, by Richard B. Harris. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2008. xxiv + 341 pp. US$74.95 (hardcover).

The book is based on 4 years of fieldwork in western China by a western wildlife biologist over a period of 20 years. The title is self-explanatory, and the matters discussed range from biological and geographical topics to politico-economic issues of wildlife conservation. The Preface and Chapter 1 argue that Chinese wildlife management suffers from an inability to value wildlife for its own sake, more than from habitat destruction. The failure to value wildlife presumably leads to the failure to manage the relationship between consumption and production/harvest and protection of wildlife resources.

In Chapter 2, Harris examines geographical factors such as aridity, remoteness and the sparseness of human population of China's west. He examines ethnicity and culture, then jumps to the question of whether western China is getting drier. He follows with a section on the land tenure system of grasslands, and highlights the Chinese penchant for "scientific" fixes such as the privatization of pastoral lands. Chapter 3 presents the argument that Chinese views on wildlife are utilitarian: the Chinese value wildlife only to the extent that it is of use to humankind, rather than valuing wildlife for its own sake. When conservation initiatives are finally taken, they are couched in terms that deny any conflict between the interests of nature and the requirements of civilized humanity. Such "Confucian optimism", he argues, is paradoxically counterproductive to the aims of conservation. Chapter 4 shows that most demands for wildlife resources in China are fulfilled by captive breeding, and asks whether such breeding has any discernible negative effects on wildlife populations. The conclusion is that there is insufficient data either way.

Chapter 5 is the best argued and most coherent section of the book, and looks at the legal institutions behind the protection of wildlife, in particular the 1988 Wildlife Protection Law. Here Harris highlights a tendency in Chinese legislation to issue draconian and overly-simplistic laws which are too difficult to implement. Quoting Peter Ho, William Alford and Shen Yuanyuan, he states that, because the law is so strict, it only expresses an ideal, rather than reflecting the realities of enforcement. Chapter 6 also looks at one institutional arrangement for the protection of wildlife habitat: nature reserves. As with the 1998 Wildlife Protection Law, the gap between the stated ideal of nature reserves and their reality is evident. Once again, he sees the Chinese government's penchant for simplistic solutions, such as equating the designation of nature reserves with conservation (p. 119), as counterproductive. He argues, correctly, that quick legislative fixes and the bare designation of reserves do nothing for real conservation. …