While the campaign for the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey is a watershed moment in China’s environmental history—not only saving a forest and a species, but inspiring at least two generations of Chinese activists—assessing the actual progress of biodiversity conservation can be challenging. China adopted wildlife protection laws in 1988 which outlined the state’s responsibility to protect endangered species and their habitats. The number of national-level nature reserves, protected areas with important conservation targets, has also grown from nineteen in 1980 to 407 by the end of 2012 (MEP 2013). 

This may be indicative of a growing awareness of conservation. However, it should be noted that national-level nature reserves are provided with state funding to support reserve administration, staffing and developing infrastructure, creating a financial incentive in impoverished regions in southwestern China. Moreover, in spite of the protected status of the nature reserve’s biodiversity and a nationwide moratorium on logging, it was widely acknowledged to me during filming that extractive activities—including logging, grazing, poaching and mining—continue to to take place within the boundaries of even national-level nature reserves. In some instances, according to scholarly articles, the establishment of the nature reserve has accelerated habitat loss through an increase in extractive activities that are either state-run or run by those with close ties to state officials (Yeh 2013). While economic development may be seen to take precedence over conservation, it is not the reserve that necessarily benefits: a 2011 study found that less than 10% of reserve managers in their sample group had sufficient resources to conduct monitoring of major conservation targets (Quan et al. 2011).

The Baima Snow Mountain Nature Reserve, where Xi Zhinong first photographed the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey, is one of the largest protected areas in China. Yet it measures at approximately 480 acres, a fraction of Yosemite’s 747,956 acres. Like many of the protected biodiverse forests in Yunnan, it is fragmented, and acts like an isolated unit. As I later learned, its boundaries had been modified in 2010 by UNESCO to accommodate a copper mine on its northeastern border. Moreover, the Baima Snow Mountain Nature reserve is also hemmed in by highways, agricultural expansion by indigenous communities who lived within the reserve boundaries and large hydropower projects. This may compromise the reserve’s ability to support biodiversity targets, by failing to provide sufficient habitat to maintain viable populations (Harkness 1996). The Yunnan-snub nosed monkey, for example, was such a species that required large tracts of forest to sustain itself without destroying the forest. 

During the filming, I encountered tourists from around the country, traveling from Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tibet. Many were staying at one of the few, newly established “eco-lodges” operating on the edge of the reserve. They had travelled specifically for a rare glimpse of the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey and “pristine” nature, absent in smoggy overcrowded coastal cities. Whether and how much the revenue from tourism supported conservation management or simply provided income to the local government in unknown to me. However, the tourists represented the positive potential of economic development; their disposable income and growing awareness of the value of wilderness—through exposure to international concepts of conservation—may provide a unique opportunity for creating the financial sustainability that would allow nature reserves to prioritize conservation over resource extraction.