High-tech methods play crucial role in biodiversity protection

A herder tends to yaks on grassland in the Yushu Tibetan autonomous prefecture, Qinghai province. ZHANG LONG/XINHUA

Her early days working at the Mengda National Nature Reserve in Qinghai province, left 41-year-old Peng Yu with more unpleasant memories than happy ones.

The reserve in Xunhua Salar autonomous county covers 17,290 hectares of rugged terrain at an average altitude of over 2,800 meters. Peng's job of monitoring and protecting various plant species would take her through thick vegetation and it wasn't unusual for her to wear out three pairs of work shoes each year.

With a reserve as big as Mengda, Peng and her colleagues would sometimes lose their way and be unable to return to their office in the reserve. In May 2008, for example, her team did not make it back to the office until 9 pm. One of her male colleagues nearly walked off the edge of a cliff, his view restricted by the dim light and dense greenery.

The team also had to deal with pest infestations. On one occasion Peng's colleagues had to walk backward through difficult terrain carrying 20 kilogram pesticide canisters and spraying infested plants.

Her office was humble, with scant equipment and facilities. "I was almost equipped with nothing but a table," she said.

Peng Yu, an expert in species protection, shows a plant unique to China in the Mengda National Nature Reserve in Qinghai province. [Photo by Hou Liqiang/chinadaily.com.cn] 

Dramatic improvement

However, her work situation has improved dramatically in recent years as China bolsters its efforts to enhance biodiversity conservation.

Peng and her team still have to patrol the reserve for observation and survey work, but she no longer needs to do so as frequently thanks to access to high-tech equipment.

In addition to three unmanned aerial vehicles for monitoring, the protected area of the reserve now has 46 infrared cameras, according to the reserve's managing authority.

Manually spraying pesticides is also unnecessary, as unmanned aerial vehicles take care of the task.

Peng has seen the number of employees working in species protection at the reserve grow from five in 2006 to 18 today.

However, Mengda is not alone in improving its facilities, equipment and technology as ecosystem monitoring capabilities are boosted in other areas of Qinghai and across the country.

Ren Yong, head of ecosystem protection at Qinghai's Department of Ecology and Environment, said the province has set up a monitoring system that covers all areas under its jurisdiction.

While the province resorts to remote sensing to monitor different types of ecosystems, such as high-altitude marshland and prairies, authorities responsible for protected areas also carry out separate monitoring of specific species, he said. "Generally speaking, the province has established a system that consists of both micro and niche monitoring," he said. Ren said field monitoring is often used in the province to verify problems detected by remote sensing.

Eighteen percent of China's land territory is protected, according to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment.

These protected areas have brought 90 percent of ecosystems and 85 percent of key wild animal populations under effective protection, said the ministry, which has been promoting the construction of a national monitoring network for biodiversity conservation.

A Przewalski's gazelle is seen on the grassland in Ha'ergai township of Gangcha county, Northwest China's Qinghai province, Dec 17, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Financial support

In January, Cui Shuhong, director-general of nature and eco-conservation at the ministry, said from 2015 to 2020 the country invested 400 million yuan ($61.9 million) in biodiversity surveys and assessments and the construction of a national biodiversity observation network.

The work, involving more than 2,000 researchers, has provided a clear picture of the country's biodiversity situation.

Thanks to those efforts, China now has a preliminary biodiversity monitoring network. With 749 observation areas across the country, the network is capable of providing more than 700,000 pieces of data every year, he said.

In January, Huang Runqiu, minister of ecology and environment, said at the annual national environmental protection conference that the ministry will have the full network ready this year.

The ministry will also launch demonstration programs in key areas for biodiversity protection as it strives to promote biodiversity legislation, he added.

At an event to celebrate World Environment Day on June 5, Huang said China will speed up the construction of a national protected land system with national parks playing an important role. The nation will also accelerate efforts to roll out protection and restoration projects for key ecosystems as well as major biodiversity conservation projects, he said.

The ongoing efforts on biodiversity conversation are starting to pay off.

In Qinghai, the number of Przewalski gazelles, a rare antelope species listed as endangered, has increased from about 300 at the end of the last century to over 2,700, said Governor Xin Changxing at an event in the province's capital, Xining, to mark World Environment Day.

The population of Tibetan antelopes has seen even greater growth, "With a record low population of fewer than 20,000 across the country, its number has now reached over 70,000 in Qinghai alone," Xin said.