Online Database Maps China’s Last Undisturbed Forests
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2017-03-21 11:42:31

China’s old-growth forests are vital to biodiversity but also under threat, say the organizations behind a new database aimed at protecting them.

Wuhan University and Greenpeace East Asia (GPEA) launched Nature Guardian, a website that maps and monitors forests, nature reserves, and more, on Tuesday, the International Day of Forests.

According to the database, old-growth forests — those that have not been disturbed by logging or other human activity — constitute just 7.6 percent of all China’s forests and cover an area of nearly 158,000 square kilometers, or roughly twice the size of the Czech Republic. The bulk of these forests are found in sparsely populated regions of Tibet, Yunnan, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang, and Sichuan, and they provide habitats for some of China’s most endangered animals, including giant pandas, clouded leopards, Asian elephants, and snub-nosed monkeys.

Trees with green and yellow leaves grow along the Jiliu River in Mordaga National Forest Park, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Sept. 23, 2016. Xiao Shibai/Greenpeace

Trees with green and yellow leaves grow along the Jiliu River in Mordaga National Forest Park, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Sept. 23, 2016. Xiao Shibai/Greenpeace

“They are the most valuable forests in China, in terms of their great biodiversity,” said Yi Lan, deputy head of GPEA’s forests and oceans campaign. “Mapping old-growth forests and monitoring them continuously would help us identify future threats.” The government, however, has made little information about these forests publicly available. The data behind Nature Guardian was gathered through GPS and remote-sensing technologies.

Yi said that investigations by her organization show that the greatest threat posed to old-growth forests is the risk of being turned into planted forests for timber harvest and the building of illegal constructions. A study published in July 2016 by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection came to a similar conclusion, saying that human activity such as mining also threatens forest ecosystems.

The Eighth National Forest Inventory in 2014 showed that China’s forests cover about 2 million square kilometers, roughly one-fifth of the country’s land. But most of these forests have their timber harvested for commercial purposes. In the annual reports that the Chinese government submits to the United Nations, the size of the country’s old-growth forests has remained stable at roughly 150,000 square kilometers since 1990.

China introduced two big restoration programs in the late 1970s and 1990s, respectively, after decades of deforestation had led to ecosystem degradation and soil erosion. A study published last year, however, said that the trend of deforestation has been turned around, and that natural forests are slowly recovering.

Nevertheless, Zhao Jie, an associate researcher at the Chinese Academy of Forestry, told Sixth Tone that the country’s forests are in a dire state. “After decades of mass deforestation, a forest needs rest to build up its strength, much like a sick man,” he said.

Last week, China announced a ban on timber harvesting in all non-commercial forests. “This is just a stopgap measure for the forests,” said Zhao. “In the long run, China needs to start using them more sustainably.”

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: Horses roam free in Potatso National Park in Shangri-La County, Yunnan province, Oct. 25, 2016. Xiao Shibai/Greenpeace)