~ Yunnan Province ~
Yunnan Province is in southwest China and borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as the provinces of Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi. It is China's most diverse province, biologically and culturally. The province contains snow-capped mountains, some of the tallest in the world, and true tropical environments, thus supporting an unusually full spectrum of vegetation types. During summer, the Great Plateau of Tibet acts as a barrier to monsoon winds, trapping moisture in the province. This gives the alpine flora in particular what one source has called a "lushness found nowhere else."
This topographic range combined with a tropical moisture along the southern border sustains extremely high biodiversity and high degrees of endemism, "likely the richest botanically in the world's temperate regions." Over 15,000 species of higher plants, of which perhaps 2,500 are endemic, can be found in the province. The fauna is nearly as diverse. Yunnan Province, an area the size of Germany, has less than 4% of the land of China, yet contains almost half of China's plants, birds and mammals.
The word "unique" is greatly overused, but Yunnan Province has a legitimate claim that its combination of great natural biodiversity with great cultural diversity is unique in the world. Yunnan has 26 of China's 56 ethnic minority groups, including the Dai, Zhuang, Buyi, Yi, Bai, Hani, Lisu, Lahu, Naxi, Jingpo, Pumi, Nu, Miao, Yao, Wa, and Tibetan peoples. It is difficult not to feel that this great ethnic diversity springs in some way from the great biological diversity. It, too, is imperiled by the province's rapid development.
Yunnan has been designated::
1) "Center of Plant Diversity" (IUCN/WWF: Davis et al. 1995);
2) "Global 200 List Priority Ecoregion" for biodiversity conservation (WWF: Olsen and Dinerstein 1998);
3) "Endemic Bird Area" (Birdlife International: Bibby, C. et al. 1992);
4) "Global Biodiversity Hotspot,"as a part of the Hengdu Mountain Ecosystem (Conservation International: Mittermeier and Mittermeier 1997).
The overall diversity of the province is so great that it is difficult to describe comprehensively, but these are some of the specific regions within the province.
* River valleys -- provide dispersal corridors northeast from the Indo-Malayan lowlands and northwest from the East Asian lowlands. These valleys have some of the highest overall levels of species endemism and richness in the world's temperate zone.
* Mountain ranges -- with glaciated peaks of in excess of 6,500 m and deep gorges create a remarkable diversity of broad vegetation zones, subtropical to alpine. These provide dispersal corridors for upland flora and fauna southeast from the Tibetan Plateau and southwest from the Sichuan Highlands.
* Northwest Yunnan -- contains some of the last remaining primary forests in all of Asia. These forests were listed as "Priority A" for conservation by China's Ministry of Forestry.
* Tropical Yunnan -- bordering Vietnam, Laos and Burma, Yunnan's southernmost reaches are true tropical areas, much altered unfortunately to grow rubber trees, though substantial preserves exist. Elephants once, millenia past, roamed much of China, but the few that remain today are in Yunnan's Xischuangbanna prefecture. Many plants are shared with the three neighboring countries.
Yunnan's history is no less variegated and fascinating, some of that history, unfortunately, involving environmental catastrophes. Long at the fringe of the empires ruled from China's northeast, peopled by non-Han cultures, linked to SE Asia and, through Tibet, to Central Asia, the area resisted rule from afar. When the Manchus conquered China in 1644, they sent to Yunnan the general who had opened the northern gates to them, an act which led to the fall of the last Chinese dynasty, the Ming. He asserted control, but ended up years later leading his own revolt against Beijing. The saying here is that "The mountains are high, and Beijing is far away." In more recent times, during WW2, Yunnan was the home of the famous Flying Tigers and its successor the 14th Air Force, life line to Chinese armies in supplies flown from India over the Himalayas ("the Hump"). In still more recent times came the destruction of the marshes surrounding Kunming's famous lake, the eighth largest in China, in an attempt to greatly increase rice production. The effort failed miserably and also resulted in elimination of the natural filters ensuring water quality. Further south in the province came an effort to increase rubber production at the expense of rainforest.
Now we are building the Yunnan Natural Heritage Conservation Data/Decision Center, YN-NHCDC, in an attempt to help save the biodiversity that is left in this important province.
Uzbekistan, and its predecessors occupying the same territory, has since ancient times been linked with China by the Silk Road. Journeys along that road were long and difficult, through endless deserts and over world champion mountains. People (and camels) made the journey successfully, however, and so did a number of elements of biodiversity. Uzbekistan is a much smaller country than China, not even as large as many of the Chinese provinces, and biologically its diversity is not nearly so great. But the two countries share perhaps a thousand species.
Except in the narrow eastern extension of the country, Uzbekistan is basically a desert ecosystem, indeed increasingly so as its once great water source, the Aral Sea (in fact a freshwater lake), has almost vanished due to the irrigation of cotton fields. This desert, the Kyrzl Kum, is broken only by mountains, one of which, the Khazret Sultan, is somewhat taller than the tallest mountains in the Rocky Mountains chain of the US and Canada.
Desert ecoystems, of course, lack the biodiversity of wetter ecosystems, but the plants and animals that are able to adapt to such a harsh environment are of great interest, particularly the rarer ones. Uzbekistan has produced a modern flora, a series of volumes describing the country's plants in the detail required by botanists.
A report prepared under the direction of the country's president in 1997, "Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century" contains a chapter on "Ecological Challenges" that is difficult for anyone interested in conservation to read, so great is its listing of devastations. The chapter begins by noting that when the country was part of the Soviet Union (for most of the 20th century), no serious consideration was given to ecological issues:
Ecology was relegated to a subject for study by self-motivated researchers, or it was a 'cry fron the heart' of individuals worried about their country's future and the preservation of its natural wealth.
But all these people "encountered a cold, even cynical indifference" and "predatory exploitation," with the result that forests were cut, no attention was paid to industrial pollution, and construction projects took no note of ecological consequences. The drying up of the Aral Sea is only one of many catastrophes outlined in the book.
The chapter ends with the statement that
A task of paramount importance is to attract international financial resources to help us meet our ecological needs.
It is clear that if these financial resources ever do materialize, the first thing that will be needed is a conservation assessment of what remains, what is most imperiled, and where exactly these elements of biodiversity occur on the landscape. BDC has created a data system, in Russian, that can and will be used for this purpose once those international financial resources appear.