You may have missed some big changes happening in conservation in China. While the international media focuses on China’s difficulties with pollution, the government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in improving and expanding its system of national parks and other protected areas. This is a huge and welcome change for one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse countries.
Chinese authorities are investing in their protected areas in a characteristically Chinese manner—with big infrastructure investments, strong top-down control, and an emphasis on economic development. Will this approach be good for the conservation of biodiversity?
To answer that question, in a recent article in Biological Conservation, we compare the development of protected areas in China to their development in the United States, where the concept of national parks originated. We take a particularly close look at Wudalianchi National Nature Reserve in northeastern China and Acadia National Park in the northeastern United States.
Despite the huge investments, a suite of obstacles make it difficult for protected areas to truly protect the natural resources within their boundaries in China. The situation is better, although not without problems, in the United States, which has a much longer history of creating and managing protected areas. Of most consequence, financial investments are insufficient to meet the needs for protected area science, management, and education in both China and in the United States.
Both countries are, however, experimenting with techniques that could improve things. For example, in places the Chinese government is working to improve relationships with local communities through formal agreements with displaced people or cooperation among local, provincial, and national governments. The US government is using citizen science and volunteerism to engage new audiences.
In the end, we conclude that each country's approach to protected areas has strengths and weaknesses, but that the Chinese and US protected areas programs have structural deficiencies, particularly related to the allocation of funding, that undermine their ability to achieve their stated missions over the long term. We hope that both countries continue to work to improve their conservation programs and protect their rich natural resources.