Featured Expert – John MacKinnon – Pulitzer Center #9

John MacKinnon, of the EU-China Biodiversity Programme


John MacKinnon, of the EU-China Biodiversity Program, is one the world’s leading experts on biodiversity and the environment in China. He began his career in 1965 working with Jane Goodall in the famed study of the chimpanzees of Gombe. In 1968, he moved to Southeast Asia to study orangutans under the supervision of Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen.

MacKinnon first went to China in 1987 to work on the World Wildlife Fund’s Giant Panda project. He is an expert and author of 17 books on birds and mammals in China and has served for 14 years as co-chair for the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development. He was awarded the prestigious Order of Golden Ark, with highest rank of Commander by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands for his lifetime services to conservation.

I caught up with him last month in the Beijing headquarters of the EU-China Biodiversity Program where we discussed some of the issues currently facing China’s wetlands.

This is an abridged version of the interview.

What are your thoughts with regard to biodiversity affected by wetland disappearance?

Probably of all ecosystems, wetlands are the most endangered because water is just used by people everywhere. So there is hardly a stream in China that doesn’t have somebody putting [something] into it or taking water out of it.

Everything is messed up with pollution–pipes taking off water for agriculture, for industry, for household use, building weirs across rivers to divert the water into little gullies. And then it gets bigger and bigger, up to these huge dams that the government has been putting in all over the place. China has thousands of these dams now which are having a profound impact on the water system. It means that fish and frogs can no longer move up and down river systems. Some are seasonal and need to go up into the head stream in the summer and lay eggs where the young can breed. And then in the winter these are frozen up, so they have to move down to the lower waters. Can’t do it anymore. So a lot of the species, a lot of the fish are endangered. Some are extinct.

Are there any general trends you have noticed in China over the past 50-60 years?

I’ve been working in China on biodiversity conservation since the late ’80’s, 25 years almost, and of course there has been a huge increase in the number of nature reserves, the number of staff, budgets devoted to wildlife conservation and also things like CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) controlling trade in wildlife species, but despite all that you have to come to the conclusion that wildlife is deteriorating rapidly in China.

About a third of all species are endangered according to the Red List. Often habitats seem to be in reasonable condition, but you can walk through them for hours and hours and hours and almost see no large animals. The pressures of hunting, economic exploitation for medicine, for sale of animals has just put too much pressure [on the environment]. Plus, the fragmentation of habitats due to road developments, agriculture encroachment, industrial sprawl; it’s too much pollution, dust, etcetera. Everything is against wildlife. And now we have climate change, just to add more problems.

What are your thoughts on issues such as eco-tourism and other ways to ‘save’ wetlands and water in China?

Eco-tourism is often rolled out as the great savior that’s going to justify saving all these areas and bring money to the local communities. The way it develops is that the local communities usually get excluded and investors are usually outsiders coming in, trying to monopolize and take over the whole industry. The industry is unregulated, so it ends up damaging the very resource it came to protect. So, there are a lot of places in China where you can definitely say there are far too many people, even in very beautiful places. So, I think nature tourism inside really important wildlife biodiversity areas in China has to be really regulated.

What is your one biggest fear with regard to China and its water issues?

My fear for biodiversity is great but my fear for China is greater. I think China has the natural resources, it has the space, it has the minerals, it has the manpower to continue to grow as it has for the last 20 years—i.e. ten percent, ten percent, ten percent. What is going to stop it in its tracks is water. That’s the limiting factor. They may not be able to have as much water as they are able to enjoy now in the future. So this may cause a big dip in the development of China. And then what does China do? Then it has to turn on the resources of the rest of the world. Then it will find that there are too many people and already too much demand for so many resources that it can no longer cope.

So, I think that’s the driver behind policy [of] buying up big tracts of land in the Congo [and] around the world, accessing resources way beyond its boundaries. But water is going to be top of the list of shortages.

If someone in the U.S. or U.K. said to you, “Why should I care about what’s happening in China? Why should I care about wetlands disappearing in China?” What would be your response?

There are many angles to the concern for China’s wetlands. First of all, they’re not just China’s wetlands; these are international wetlands that are part of huge bird flyways between Russia, Indonesia and Australia. There are other species that fly from east to west, flying from East Asia across into Central Asia and Europe.

There’s a global concern about wildlife generally. This is a big chunk of our natural heritage at the global level. But also, we are concerned about China because it is such a big player in the world.

Wetlands are indicators of environmental health. If China is uninhabitable–as evidenced by its birds and fish dying–you have to worry. What’s that going to do China? What’s that going to do to the rest of the world? China’s potentially the biggest importer of food. If China suddenly isn’t food self-sufficient and starts needing food from the rest of the world, that’s going to shoot prices up. The world is all connected now. We have to worry about China, just as anywhere else.

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One Comment

  1. Dear Sean,

    I just read your book, “Meltdown.” It was very well done, beautiful and disturbing. If you have not already encountered his work, I thought you might be interested in this TED talk by Dr.
    Allan Savory of the Savory Institute. Savory’s work focuses on large-scale restoration of grasslands to halt desertification and global warming in a controversial way. The principle driving desertification, backed by his three decades of results, it that degraded grasslands are overgrazed AND they are understocked. His holistic grazing management plan mimics nature and may offer a way out of the conundrum of dislocated nomadic herders on the Tibetan plateau– planned rotational grazing:

    Savory Institute TED Talk 2013:

    The Savory program has also restored grasslands ruined by mining activity.

    Godspeed with your valuable work.

    Kathryn Devereaux

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