In the latest study to report rapid loss of wildlife, researchers estimate that 106 bird species have disappeared from an area of forest in Mengsong, in China’s Yunnan province.
The air there should be full of bird song: Yunnan lies in the zone where the tropics and subtropics meet and is one of the most biologically diverse areas of the planet.
There’s plenty of high quality habitat too. Amid Mengsong’s villages and paddy fields and plantations of tea and rubber, about 50,000 hectares of natural forest stand tall. Nearly three-quarters of this is protected in a nature reserve, created in 2009. The amount of forest cover has been stable since 1988. If anything, it has increased.
But when biologist Rhett Harrison* and colleagues spent two years looking for the birds in and around the nature reserve, they failed to find more than 40 percent of the species that should be there.
Their study, published this month in the journal PLoS One, rules out disease, habitat loss, predation and climate change as likely culprits. Instead it blames hunting for most of the losses.
Hunting pressure in Mengsong is extremely high, despite the fact that gun ownership has been illegal in China since 1996. In fact, the researchers spotted 59 hunters in just 107.5 hours of looking out for them. They write:
“In addition to people with guns, we frequently encountered hunters employing nets and snares. The use of nets, in particular, indicates that hunters are actively harvesting even the smallest birds, which they barbeque on skewers.”
In 2012, Harrison recorded a similarly rapid loss of wildlife from a forest in Malaysia. He told me he thinks the situation in Mengsong is typical of that “over all of South China and large parts of tropical South-East Asia.”
This raises questions about the value of creating more protected areas if they are not in fact protected at all. In 2010, China, along with nearly every other country, agreed a global conservation target, which said protected areas should be expanded to cover 17% of the planet’s terrestrial area by 2020, and that these areas should be effectively and equitably managed.
“Everyone is focusing on the former part but very few on the latter,” says Harrison. “People need to recognise that there may be a compromise in countries that are already struggling to deliver management of their existing reserves.”
Harrison and colleagues are keen to point out that they do not blame the authorities responsible for Mengsong’s nature reserve, as most of the local bird extinctions happened before it was created.
Nonetheless, what they show is that yet another protected forest is falling quiet with the silence of extinction. When the birds go, it is more than just their songs and calls we lose. The challenge is for us to decide how much loss is acceptable and what we want the word forest to mean.
Photo credits: Wikipedia/Creative Commons (From top left to right: Black-naped Oriole – J.M. Garg; White-crested laughingthrush – Dibyendu Ash; Rufous-necked hornbill – Ujjal Ghosh; Great hornbill – Kalyanvarma). Each of these species is among those the researchers believe to be locally extinct in their study area.
* Disclosure: Rhett Harrison is a friend and former colleague. He is based at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the World Agroforestry Centre, East Asia Node.
Reference: Rachakonda Sreekar, R., Zhang, K., Xu, J. & Harrison, R.D. 2015. Yet Another Empty Forest: Considering the conservation value of a recently established tropical nature reserve. PLoS One. Published: February 10, 2015. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117920