Billionaires Team Up to Save China’s Natural Heritage

Some of China’s wealthiest business leaders are coming together in an attempt to rescue part of their country’s natural heritage from extinction.  By pooling donations totaling millions of dollars from wealthy philanthropists, the billionaires hope to establish China’s first privately run nature reserve.  If successful, the effort could help ensure a future for endangered species like the giant panda.

Though China already has more than 2,500 nature reserves, the existing protected areas are managed by the government.  Additionally, more than half of the funding for maintaining protected areas comes from revenue generated by commercial activity within parks, such as expensive tourist resorts.  This has created an incentive for over-developing natural areas, often at the expense of wildlife and nearby communities.

By establishing a privately-run nature reserve with guaranteed funding, business leaders in China hope to be able to focus solely on conservation.  As part of this goal, they will seek ways that protecting nature can benefit nearby human populations and generate revenue for communities in a way that doesn’t harm endangered species.

The idea was hatched last year by sixteen of the riches people in China, mostly wealthy business entrepreneurs.  It is the brainchild of Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese Internet corporation Alibaba.  Now the project has grown to include twenty-three billionaires, all of whom are expected to donate a minimum of $762,000 (five million Chinese yuan) to the cause of protecting one of their country’s most imperiled and valuable natural areas.

The billionaires have chosen to focus their conservation effort on Pingwu County in the province of Sichuan.  Once graced by vast swaths of ancient forest, the natural environment of Pingwu County has been severely degraded by logging and development of hydroelectric dams.  However the area still boasts some of the richest biodiversity in China.

To take an example, Pingwu County’s Xuebao Peak is listed as one of the twenty-five most biologically diverse sites in the world.  The area also provides habitat for severely endangered creatures like the golden monkey, and a unique East Asian antelope called the takin.  In addition it is home to an estimated 20% of the world’s giant panda population.

Conserving the natural wealth of Pingwu County for present and future generations will not be easy.  Even with large amounts of money readily available, conservationists will need to ensure efforts proceed in a way that is good for endangered species and local communities.  To figure out how to do this, the Chinese billionaires have entered into a partnership with the Nature Conservancy—an international environmental organization based in the United States.  But the Conservancy’s own history of working successfully with local communities is not exactly spotless.

In recent years advocates of environmental justice and community-base conservation, in the US and elsewhere, have charged the Nature Conservancy with using a failed model for land conservation and with not working effectively with human communities.  Nature reserves that exclude local people and prohibit small-scale, traditional uses of the environment can do more harm than good.  They fuel resentment towards conservation work, and alienate the people who may be best qualified to serve as local stewards of the land.

If the reserve in Pingwu County is to be a success, it will have to take into account the needs of nearby villages.  The project’s billionaire managers hope to do this in part by attracting responsible tourism.  Large areas of the reserve will be kept off-limits to tourists.  This will help protect wildlife habitat, and will encourage outsiders who visit in hopes of getting close to wild animals to spend their money in the villages.

Because it already has a secure source of funding, the nature reserve itself will not rely on tourist dollars or commercial activity to keep running.  That’s the advantage of having some of China’s wealthiest people committed to local conservation work.

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