Important Wetland May Soon Disappear, Take Endangered Species With It

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Unless rainfall increases by at least 80 percent over last year, the remaining surface water in China’s 100,000 hectare Xianghai State Nature Reserve could dry up completely by the end of 2006. Loss of the massive wetland area would likely take the future of several of the world’s rare and endangered bird species with it.

Xianghai, in Jilin province, was named one of the world’s most important nature reserves by the World Wildlife Fund and is one of 30 Chinese sites listed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. When first designated in 1986, it contained 600 species of wild fauna and flora, 19,000 hectares of forests, vast grasslands, 22 lakes, more than 36,000 hectares of wetlands, and a small handful of herders and cultivators. It was an ideal breeding ground for over 250 species of migratory birds, including nine of the world’s 15 documented crane species, and was home to 53 rare and endangered species, among them the bustard, red-crowned crane, golden eagle, red-crested crane, and white stork.

But years of drought, farming, and livestock grazing are turning this once-dynamic ecosystem into a “sea of sand,” according to Zhao Jun, deputy head of China’s nature reserve administration. The three rivers that flow into the wetlands no longer carry enough water to flood the plains, and precipitation levels have fallen to just 20 percent of the rate of evaporation. Xinhua Net reports that less than 6,000 hectares of wetland—one-ninth the original coverage—remain. Only 7 of the reserve’s original 22 lakes are left, and the majority of the forest cover has been destroyed by grazing. The reserve’s grasslands, cattails, reeds, and other vegetation have been critically compromised, forcing migratory birds to search elsewhere for food. In just the past four years, the crane population has dropped by 50 percent.

People and livestock, meanwhile, are flourishing in Xianghai. China People’s Daily reports that there are now more than 20,000 residents in 12 villages within the reserve’s borders and the number of livestock has reached 300,000—a six-fold increase since 1986. In 2002 alone, nearly 1,000 hectares of the remaining wetland area was fenced up for agriculture. This trend is not unique to Xianghai: worldwide, an estimated half of all wetlands have been lost since 1900, mainly due to drainage and conversion to agricultural or urban land, writes author Howard Youth in the Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs 2005.

China has called Xianghai reserve a key part of the country’s “balance between man and nature,” and the government has taken serious measures to curb its demise, including launching a 34-million cubic meter river diversion project and building water-storage facilities and extensive fencing to encourage revegetation. In addition, the government plans to relocate 4,800 people in 500 households to “other places” by next year.

But for now, the drought and human pressures persist, and efforts have failed to address the root problem of water over-withdrawal by farmers upstream.