Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Poaching in Chinese nature reserves has harmed populations of the flowerback box turtle and other indigenous species. 

Joe Blossom/NHPA/Photoshot/Newscom

Plight of Chinese turtles shows lax protection in nation’s nature reserves

BEIJING—China’s nature reserves are woefully inadequate at protecting biodiversity, a 12-year study of turtle poaching in dozens of conservation areas has found.

The research results, published 6 March in Current Biology, focus on turtles but draw larger conclusions about the state of wildlife conservation in China. The authors note that China has 2700 nature reserves covering 1.46 million square kilometers, or about 15% of the country’s total territory, a higher percentage than many other countries. And though China ranks first in flora and fauna richness in the Northern Hemisphere, 43% of those species are threatened.

“We discovered that poaching occurred in all of the 56 reserves surveyed, resulting in dramatically reduced turtle populations,” the authors wrote. “In a majority of the reserves, the reserve staff themselves were generally involved in poaching.”

“Although nature reserves were created to protect plants and animals, they have become part of the problem due to weak enforcement of rules,” the authors wrote.

The scientists relied on field studies, surveys of exotic animal markets, and interviews to document the declining turtle population trends in protected areas across three provinces.

“Hunting is strictly forbidden in all nature reserves in China,” they wrote. “From field surveys, however, we found over 1400 poaching devices (i.e. cage traps, hooks, pitfall traps) and encountered 69 hunters in 11 nature reserves. This unexpected finding reflected the managers’ inaction. Although historical records identified 15 species present in these areas, we just found nine species in the field.”

The study asserts that this lack of protection for turtles almost certainly extends to all species in China’s wildlife conservation areas.

“This situation is not unique to turtles, as we saw signs of poaching for all species valuable for food and trade. Currently in China, endangered species are facing a serious threat of extirpation due to poaching, and we identify nature reserves as contributing to the problem due to poor management practices and lack of effective supervision,” they wrote. “In order to improve the conservation of China’s rich biodiversity, it is imperative for China’s nature reserve system to make meaningful changes to its policies and procedures.”

The authors recommend that China’s natural reserves cease all commercial activities and focus on species and habitat conservation.

Recognizing the problem, China’s central government is rolling out plans for a series of national parks around the country that will focus on protecting critically endangered species. A massive national park in northeastern China will preserve habitat for Siberian tigers and leopards, and other parks will focus on endangered antelopes, pandas, elephants, and other large animals. 

The national park plan will take control of protected areas away from local and provincial officials, who face funding shortfalls and often engage in profitmaking schemes—like turtle poaching—that harm habitat and wildlife, environmental groups contend. The central government will provide the funding and direct the management of the national parks.