Lingnan University biologist and research partners unveil poaching activities within China’s nature reserves

With increasing habitat destruction and harvesting, one may think that nature reserves are the final refugia for threatened species. Research studies done by Lingnan University’s biologist Prof Jonathan Fong and his research partners, including principal investigators Dr Gong Shiping from Guangdong Key Laboratory of Animal Conservation and Resource Utilization as well as Dr Shi Haitao from Guangdong Institute of Applied Biological Resources, showed that this is not the case within Mainland China’s nature reserves.


Mainland China has established about 2,700 nature reserves covering 1.46 million km², but many are poorly managed, leaving them vulnerable to poaching and human encroachment. In a 12-year research project conducted by Prof Fong and researchers from Hainan Normal University, Guangxi University, Peking University and various laboratories in Guangdong, it was discovered that poaching of turtles occurred in all of the 56 nature reserves surveyed in Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan Provinces.


Data were collected through field surveys, trade surveys and interviews. From field surveys, the team frequently encountered hunters and found many hunting devices in nature reserves. Species in their study showed more than 89% reduction in population density when compared to historical data or nearby sites with minimal hunting pressure. During surveys of 64 markets in Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan Provinces, over 4,100 wild-caught turtles of 15 local turtle species were found, including some Endangered and Critically Endangered species on the IUCN Red List.


According to the interviews, poaching was common in 61% of reserves. In 89% of reserves, staff were involved in poaching to either consume themselves or to sell to supplement their income. A majority of reserve managers (62%) were more interested in commercial projects than nature conservation, as seen by the 84% of reserves having hotels and restaurants for ecotourism as well as hydroelectric power plants.


The alarming impact of poaching in nature reserves is not unique to turtles, as there are signs of poaching for all species valuable for food and trade. This is largely due to poor management practices and lack of effective supervision by nature reserve managers. The team makes the following recommendations: (1) commercial activities in reserves should be strictly restricted by national policy; (2) an effective evaluation system should be established to assess reserve effectiveness; (3) strict supervision of nature reserve management should include participation from academic institutes, NGOs and social media.


“We hope the team’s research efforts can help improve the conservation of Mainland China’s rich biodiversity,” said Prof Fong. Their research results were published in Current Biology 27.