It would be easy to write a post about the difference between Malaysia and China and point to the joys of multiculturalism and democracy. However it wasn’t these things that jumped out most at me during my travels, instead it was the simple joy of being reminded of the abundance of life outside of the human race.
Even though Malaysian Borneo is home to orangutans, sea turtles, and hosts of other intriguing creatures, it was the little birds that could be heard in every city that made me saddest to leave. China’s urban areas have stray cats and dogs, rats, and surprisingly large cockroaches, but very few birds (outside of the ones old men bring to the parks in cages).
Even though my apartment exits onto a small wooded lot, I am more frequently awoken by the warbling of aspiring opera singers and fireworks than by our feathered friends. In Nanjing birds are so rare, that the sighting of a magpie is considered a sign of good luck. I learned of this last Spring when one landed near my office window and immediately drew a crowd.
The year before that, when I was living in Chengdu, I started noticing just how precious little wildlife survived China’s move toward modernization (in rural Guangxi we did have a few more birds, but still so few that you noticed each one). This was on my mind as I began a three-day cruise through the Three Gorges. In that whole time, I counted no more than 10 birds along one of China’s most important rivers.
This memory came back to me as I stood on a street at dusk in Malaysia and saw that the telephone wires were sagging under the weight of all the tiny birds (my wife was more reminded of a certain Hitchcock film). For the rest of the trip I bothered my traveling companions with comments about how great it was to hear birds singing and how much I preferred that to the perpetual honking of car horns in China.
It was a solemn reminder of the fact that China’s ecological devastation effects far more than just the health of its people and goes beyond polluting factories.
The sparrows I had seen throughout Malaysia had been virtually exterminated in China as the result of one of the Party’s misguided campaigns. The aptly named “Kill a Sparrow Campaign” (消灭麻雀运动 xiaomie maque yundong) encouraged peasants to beat pots and pans until the sparrows died of exhaustion. This was part of a larger effort to rid China of traditional pests.
The sparrows were targeted because it was thought that they were eating the crops, but in fact they were eating the insects, this further exacerbated the great famine that killed nearly 45 million Chinese. The famine also lead to a desperate search for food of any kind which effected many other species.
These campaigns also targeted the South China tiger, which had a population of over 4,000 in the 1950’s. By the 1982 there were fewer than 200 left, and at present they are thought to be extinct in the wild, with about 50 surviving in captivity (which are already showing effects of inbreeding). The arguments made for the tiger being extinct in the wild highlight the fact that its traditional range has been shrunk by urbanization and that little prey inhabits that area.
There are starting to be conservation efforts in China to reintroduce tigers, pandas, and even dolphins (assuming they can catch a pair and successfully mate them, this creature is likely already extinct due to increased traffic along the Yangtze and the Three Gorges Dam), but it may already be too little too late for the wild populations.
However, as China moves to protect threatened creatures at home, as long as it doesn’t interfere too much with development, Chinese tastes for the exotic are threatening wildlife abroad. Just today the People’s Daily reported a raid on ivory traders in Guangxi that resulted in the confiscation of over 700 elephant tusks (meaning at the very least 350 were killed).
Wealthy Chinese around the world are also responsible for the slaughter of over 73 million sharks per year with their consumption of shark fin soup. This nutritionally lacking “delicacy” is not procured solely by Chinese fishermen (although customers are overwhelmingly Chinese), and international hotel chains have taken advantage of this deplorable money maker. The Howard Johnson in Shanghai reportedly denied one man’s request to have it taken off the menu at his wedding reception, insisting that it’s what the guests would expect.
Between past misguided policies, an industrial boom that has soiled fragile habitats, and the search for dishes made from exotic creatures, China has devastated its animal populations. Hopefully dramatic actions will be taken to improve the protection of what is left, and educate China’s youth on the values of conservation and stewardship.
Take action: You can contact Wyndham Worldwide to call for them to stop serving shark fin soup, I have and am still waiting for a reply. When/if I receive one I will post it on the site.
Lesson Ideas: For all you English teachers, I wanted to link to a pdf of The Lorax (with pics / without pics) as well as a few lesson plans for various ages/levels (here and here). It would also be interesting to use The Truax, which was created by a wood flooring company, to discuss how our values can be effected by corporate interests. If you try any of these in class, please share your experiences below.