BOOKS: China’s Threatened Wildlife

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, August/September 1996:

China’s Threatened Wildlife
by Liz and Keith Laidler
Blandford, distributed by Sterling
Publishing (387 Park Avenue South,
New York, NY 10016-8810),
192 pages, 50 color illustrations, $24.95.

Most of us are semi-familiar with the
giant panda, perhaps the red panda, the
Yangtse dolphin, Chinese alligator, and Pere
David’s deer, but these are just a handful of
the unique, little-known, fast-vanishing wild
inhabitants of the most populous and longest
settled nation on earth, which nonetheless has
surprisingly many corners seldom explored or
exploited––until now, when increasing affulence
has in turn stimulated demand for costly
folk medicines whose ingredients are valued to
the degree that they are scarce, and are scarce
to the degree that the species from which they
come are endangered.

Television producers Liz and Keith
Laidler spent more than a decade in China
researching China’s Threatened Wildlife, a
compendium of more-or-less everything
known about every rare species known to still
exist within China. It’s fascinating reading for
anyone interested in either wildlife or Asia,
and not entirely gloomy, hinting here and
there that much as North Americans began to
take a less mercenary and mercantile view of
our wildlife just as the bison, wolf, and grizzly
were extirpated, so China is awakening to
more positive attitudes.
One open question is whether thousands
of years of indifference toward wildlife
can be changed as quickly as a mere few generations
of ignorance were at least amended
here, where even the greediest poachers now
mouth platitudes about conservation.
A second question of concern is
whether Chinese wildlife can afford to go
through the same transition as North American
wildlife, with the initial rise of affluence and
education being accompanied by a perhaps
well-intentioned but nonetheless often cruel
and ecologicaly devastating several decades of
“bringing ‘em back alive” for exhibition in
appallingly badly designed zoos.
John Wedderburn of WSPCA has
lately documented Chinese zoos whose standards
are more-or-less those of U.S. zoos circa
50 years ago. Many are awkward first-generation
attempts to provide wildlife education,
run by people whose own ignorance is shocking
to discover and difficult to cope with,
given the longtime systematic discouragement
of innovation by dynasties and dictatorships:
few zoo directors are eager to risk making
changes that might prove controversial. Yet
these zoos are going to be in the vanguard of
persuading Chinese citizens to share affluence
with wildlife, through setting aside and protecting
habitat, and means must be found to
help them learn to grow into the job.
One way to make a great start would
be to translate China’s Threatened Wildlife
into Chinese and republish it for extensive distribution
in China––for as little as we know
about Chinese animals, most Chinese know
less, and this volume would be an excellent
means of making up the gap. The photos
alone would sell it, and growing numbers of
parents in the mandatory one-child Chinese
society might find the book essential,

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