MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA (news.mongabay.com) - One of the last remaining refuge of the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is in peril. A two-year investigation by Greenpeace East Asia has revealed that illegal logging has wiped out around 3,200 acres of natural forests — equivalent to 1,814 football fields — within Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries located in Sichuan province of China.
The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, a series of seven nature reserves and nine scenic parks, is home to one-third of the world’s Giant Pandas, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“It is shocking to find such large scale illegal logging in an area where natural forest should be protected strictly; especially since it is in a core area of giant pandas’ habitat, as well as a world natural heritage site,” Pan Wenjing, Deputy Head of Forest & Ocean Unit, Greenpeace East Asia, told Mongabay.
The furry black and white giant pandas are one of the rarest bears in the world. Fewer than 2,000 individuals remain in China’s mountainous wilderness, and widespread deforestation is threatening their last remaining habitats.
According to Greenpeace’s report, loopholes in China’s weak forestry regulations — particularly how forests are defined — are a major cause of this rampant deforestation.
Since 1998, China’s Natural Forest Protection Program has prohibited logging of natural forests in Sichuan province. But forestry companies seem to be leaning on a loophole in the regulations that allows “forest reconstruction”.
As part of “forest reconstruction”, forests that are considered to be “low-functioning” (or low-yielding) can be replaced with plantations. But this provision is “commonly abused by local business entities and authorities to engage in deforestation,” the authors write in the report summary.
This is because the definition of a “low-function forest” is loose and vague, Wenjing said. “It is easy to define good quality natural forest as “low-function” based on current definition in the regulation, and then clear-cut it and convert it to plantations.”
The Greenpeace team found that by taking advantage of such ambiguous definitions, forestry companies have cut down 3,200 acres of natural forests in the area surrounding Fengtongzhai National Nature Reserve in Ya’an, located in the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries.
“In terms of forest conservation, the most pressing and most serious problem facing China right now is deforestation of natural forest in the name of improving low-yield timber forest”, Zhou Lijiang, deputy chief engineer at the Sichuan Province Forestry Investigation and Planning Institute and key forestry regulations advisor, said in a statement.
Moreover, while reforesting Ya’an area, “a number of parties have carried out expansions of the project to maximize profits, in violation of regulations,” Greenpeace alleges.
The areas that have been logged contain critical giant panda habitats, Greenpeace reports. For instance, the Greenpeace team found evidence of giant panda activity — such as giant panda dung and signs of foraging — a few meters of the deforested sites.
Giant pandas need large tracts of forests to survive, and deforestation, despite regulations forbidding it, has put panda feeding and migration zones at risk, the authors write. “The ‘clear cutting’ deforesting practice used not only seriously damages the natural heritage of the giant panda reservation, leading to habitat fragmentation, it also impacts on a critical panda habitat migration corridor in the Qionglai Mountains in Ya’an,” the authors write.
The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries is also home to nationally protected rare plants like Chinese Yew (Taxus chinesis) and the Dove Tree (Davidia involucrate).
“These trees often grow in clusters, and the “clear cutting” method of natural forest clearance means that some of these rare trees are likely to have been felled, seriously violating Article 40 of the “People’s Republic of China Forest Law” and Article 16 of the “Regulations on the Protection of Wild Plants,” the authors add.
Overall, the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries appears to have suffered considerable deforestation. Between 2001 and 2012, the world heritage site lost nearly 5,000 hectares (~ 12,000 acres) of tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch.
Economic incentives are driving this extensive clearing of natural forests in Sichuan province, according to the report. While Chinese regulations permit forest reconstruction of low-functioning forests, “few farmers have access to the capital, skills and technology needed to conduct reconstruction of natural forest,” the report notes.
“Clear cutting is the easiest way to harvest forests and has become common practice,” the authors write. “In addition, following collective forestry reforms to allow for forestland circulation and transfer, big contractors have entered the scene and have gained the rights to conduct forest reconstruction over large areas of forest.”
Another cause of worry, according to Greenpeace, is that many parts of the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries have not received “adequate protection, supervision and management efforts.”
Moreover, China intends to extend the Natural Forest Protection Program across the country, which will impose logging bans nationwide, just like the 1998 ban in Sichuan province, the report notes. However, if definitions of low-function forests and forest reconstruction are not clarified, forestry companies will continue to exploit forests and convert primary, old-growth forests to low-value plantations, Greenpeace team alleges.
“If the loophole is not closed, up to a third of China’s natural forest will remain at risk of deforestation even after the extension of the Natural Forest Protection Program,” the report warns.
“Greenpeace calls on the Chinese government to stop this illegal deforestation and strengthen the protection of this valuable UNESCO World Heritage site,” Greenpeace team said in a statement. “Crucially, the loophole that allows ‘low yield’ natural forest to be felled and turned into commercial plantations must be closed.”
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Updated 445 days ago Article ID# 3540397