A Celebrity Monkey and a Conservation Movement

“It was the first time in the history of Chinese natural conservation that the…power of the grassroots influenced the Chinese Central government and in the end the forest was protected.” (password: monkey)

Environmental degradation is the inevitable byproduct of any activity associated with economic development. A degraded environment is one that is irreversibly depleted of nutrients, impeding the eco-system’s ability to regenerate itself. With an economy worth $9 trillion in 2013, growing at a rate of 7.7% (World Bank 2014), China’s biodiverse forests are under pressure from development. My literature review follows the evolution of China’s forestry policy in response to national priorities from 1949 to today: from a focus on resource exploitation to forest management to conservation. 

During this time period, China has undergone rapid development from an agrarian society to one of the world’s most industrialized nations. But modernization has extracted a toll on the environment, with polluted skies, poisoned rivers, toxic soil and severely degraded natural forests. While the intensive agriculture undertaken over the past sixty five years has had a localized environmental impact, the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases due to industrialization and deforestation has global implications. Why China has garnered so much attention is because of scale: the magnitude of its environmental degradation and the resulting social, political and economic costs incurred. 

In December 2013, I spent two weeks on the Baima Xue Shan Nature Reserve in Yunnan, China. This southwestern province comprises only 4% of China’s land mass, and yet is home to half of the country’s birds and mammals (Yang et al. 2004). There, I filmed a team of young wildlife filmmakers and scientists whose work centered around the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey: a first-priority protection species in China, as revered as the panda. 

Two decades ago, when its photographs first appeared in the press, the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey galvanized China’s nascent environmental movement, and inspired these environmentalists, who were children at the time, to advocate for conservation today. Their intervention, which consists of advocacy and research for conservation policy, may be local in its outreach, but is far-reaching in its potential impact. Like the environmental price of China’s economic rise, the benefits of the country’s conservation programs, such as a protection-focused forestry policy, will also be shared globally.