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Feature Story

Safeguarding iconic threatened species and their habitats

March 31, 2021

Giant panda walking through the snow
A new GEF-financed project will focus on landscape restoration and the creation of ecological corridors in Yunnan Province and Giant Panda National Park in Sichuan Province. Photo: National Grassland and Forestry Association

The Global Environment Facility’s latest work program, approved by the GEF Council in December 2020, includes a series of projects designed to help countries protect and restore nature amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is one of these projects. For details on the Council proceedings, please click here.

The universal appeal of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) may help protect thousands of other imperilled animals in China’s biologically rich Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces.

A new initiative funded by the Global Environment Facility and led by the United Nations Development Programme and the Chinese National Forestry and Grassland Administration (NFGA) aims to demonstrate integrated landscape management approaches and innovative tools to conserve critical habitat of five iconic wildlife species: the giant panda, the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus bieti), the Western black crested gibbon (Nomascus concolor furvogaster), the Indochinese gray langur (Trachypithecus crepusculus), and the stump-tailed macaque (Macaca arctoides).

China is one of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries. Within borders that encompass a huge range of landscapes – from mountain ranges and deserts, to grasslands, boreal forests, and marine areas with important coral reefs – live 6,445 vertebrate animal species (13.7 percent of the world’s total), and 34,984 higher plant species.

Yunnan snub-nosed monkey in a tree
A Yunnan snub-nosed monkey. Photo: National Grassland and Forestry Association

Yunnan and the mountains of Southwest China, where Sichuan lies, number among the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots.

While the Chinese government has taken steps toward a greener future, rapid economic growth has in the past resulted in degradation and fragmentation of habitats, leading to threatened ecosystems. Public understanding in China of the importance of wildlife conservation and the essential role ecosystem services play in human prosperity, although increasing, is not yet sufficient.

The new UNDP- and GEF-supported project was designed to contribute to the achievement of these goals through an ambitious and transformational perspective, building on China’s recent series of policies on wildlife conservation and designations of higher levels of protection for wild animals of national importance. At the upcoming 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-15), to be held in October 2021, governments from around the world are expected to reach a consensus on the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and China plans to reaffirm its commitment to achieve the goal of global species conservation with the world.

The new initiative aims to plan for wildlife habitat conservation with an integrated landscape approach, promote wildlife-friendly supportive policies and livelihoods, and develop guidelines and technical standards for inclusive wildlife conservation. It is expected that the project's results in the above areas will contribute to future innovative wildlife conservation and management, to be scaled up to the broader protected area system of China and contributing to the conservation of globally significant threatened wildlife in support of the 2030 milestone and 2050 goals.

The new GEF-financed project will target Yunnan Province and Giant Panda National Park in Sichuan Province – biologically rich areas that will provide excellent sites for the demonstration of effective ecosystem management.

Through landscape restoration and the creation of ecological corridors, the initiative will help preserve the habitats of the five targeted species and is also expected to benefit a host of other flora and fauna. Giant Panda National Park, home to more than 30 percent of the world’s population of the black-and-white animals, also boasts more botanical wealth than any temperate region in the world.

Wang Xu, the captain of the Giant Panda National Park ranger team, welcomed the project as a helpful step forward.

"I am a member of the ranger team for pandas. One of our main everyday tasks is patrolling. The team regularly goes to high and distant mountains, to monitor panda and other species and to carry out other work in the field. According to our estimations, our team members walk about 40,000 kilometers in the wild every year. Last year, experts came to our protection station to discuss about this project and consult about the team’s needs,” he said. “We look forward for the project to help us improve our patrolling techniques through modern technology, better patrolling gear, and training courses. This will not only increase our efficiency in patrolling and protecting wildlife and its habitats, but also improve our capacity."

The new initiative will also contribute to China’s efforts to build back better in the wake of COVID-19, through steps to forge lasting links between economic and environmental activities and to ensure that future multi-use landscape planning prioritizes the conservation of wildlife and habitats.

The first of the three project components will look to bolster wildlife conservation policies and technical standards at the national and provincial level. Project teams will also develop and deliver training and help draft ecologically friendly, nature-based construction guidelines at the national level.

The second portion includes the demonstration of the essentials of integrated landscape management and innovative tools in the target habitats and the establishment of ecological corridors between isolated panda and primate populations. For instance, according to the 4th national giant panda survey, China’s giant pandas have been splintered into 33 isolated populations by habitat fragmentation. Fragmented habitats and sub-optimal management regimes are expected to be improved during project implementation.

Under the third leg of the initiative, project teams will help deploy – and train staff to use – frontier technologies and innovative data management and monitoring tools, including automated systems for tracking biodiversity and threats. The overall effort will also include a push to improve knowledge-sharing at the national and provincial level to give the public a better understanding both of how to sustainably coexist with fellow species and why it is critical to do so.

In October, Yunnan Province will take center stage in the global effort to save the planet’s biological wealth, when the city of Kunming hosts COP-15. Member countries will use this meeting, rescheduled from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to agree on a post-2020 global framework for preserving species across the globe.

The gathering is seen as a needed reset given the world’s failure to meet any of the 10-year targets set out in 2010 by their 2020 deadline. According to a 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, more than one million species are now threatened with extinction – more than ever in the history of the planet.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a stark reminder that our own species is at risk from this catastrophic loss. Studies suggest that the risk of zoonotic disease spillover will increase if we fail to halt deforestation and habitat encroachment.