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Despite major progress in protecting China’s plant species over the past decades, lack of biodiversity mapping and rapid habitat deterioration call for urgent action

By Du Wei Updated Dec.1

Since the development of modern botany, beginning in the mid-19th century, China has been recognized as having one of the richest plant diversities in the world.  

China is home to at least 31,000 higher plant species, about the total for Europe and North America combined. More than half of China’s plant species are endemic. Accounting for about one-eighth of the world’s total higher plant species, China has the richest plant diversity in the northern hemisphere, second only to Brazil worldwide.  

Within China, the southwestern province of Yunnan, bordering Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Tibet Autonomous Region, has the most plant diversity. With its diverse geographic terrain, the province hosts almost every kind of ecosystem, from tropical rainforest to alpine periglacial desert. Accounting for just 4.1 percent of China’s land mass, Yunnan harbors more than half of China’s plant species.  

Yunnan’s rich biodiversity is also why China chose its capital of Kunming to host the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity from October 11-24.  

Despite efforts in cataloging and preserving the region’s rich plant species, experts warn that flora surveys lag behind what is needed to preserve biodiversity, which has increasingly come under threat from climate change, loss of habitats and rapid economic development.  

Taking Root 
Modern plant taxonomy in Yunnan started some 300 years ago, mostly conducted by Western explorers and researchers during colonial periods. It was not until the 1910s that Chinese scholars started studying native plants using non-traditional methods.  

But as the country fell victim to civil war and foreign invasions in the first half of the 20th century, systemic surveys of native vegetation were only possible after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  

In 1959, China launched a major scientific project to catalogue its plant species. After decades of efforts, China produced two catalogues: Flora Reipublicae Popularis Sinicae (FRPS), a Chinese-language version completed in 2004, and Flora of China, an English language version developed between 1994 to 2013, which recorded 31,362 vascular plant species.  

Given the significance of Yunnan’s plant diversity, the central government launched a separate project to catalogue the province’s native plants in 1973. After more than three decades, Flora Yunnanica was published in 2006.  

Both projects are considered milestones in the history of China’s botanical research and biodiversity preservation. In 2007, China established its first wildlife seed bank in Yunnan, the Germplasm Bank of Wild Species. Affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) Kunming Institute of Botany, it is Asia’s largest seed bank, storing 85,046 seeds of 10,601 species by the end of 2020, 36 percent of the flowering plant species in China.  

Seed bank at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences

New Species 
Despite these achievements, experts say that China’s botanical research, especially in Yunnan Province, is far from complete as many places remain unexplored.  

Chinese scientists discovered thousands of new species of animals and plants in the province in the past decades. According to the “Checklist of New and Newly Recorded Species in Yunnan (1992- 2020)” released in May by the Department of Ecology and Environment of Yunnan Province and the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, 2,519 new species were discovered in the province over the past three decades, more than one-third of all new species found in China during the same period.  

In addition to new discoveries, 1,199 known species were found in the province for the first time. In total, 3,718 species were recorded for the first time in the province over the past three decades, including 1,901 higher plant species.  

In the seven-year period between 2013 and 2019 following the publication of Flora Yunnanica, at least 163 new vascular plant species were discovered in Yunnan.  

But according to Li Dezhu, a botanist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) Kunming Institute of Botany and former editor of Floral Yunnanica, the many discoveries of new species in the province, albeit good news, also stirred a strong sense of urgency among botanists.  

“They tell us that if we don’t hurry up, many species not yet discovered will be lost forever,” Li told NewsChina. “We’re racing against time, and often when we find a new species, it’s already endangered.”  

One of the most well-known examples is the discovery of Pinus squamat, popularly known as the Qiaojia pine or southern lacebark pine. When it was first discovered in 1990 in a single locality in Qiaojia County, Yunnan, there were only 34 trees left. Following decades of preservation and artificial nurturing, there are now over 3,000.  

According to a study from the Institute of Botany, CAS, which evaluated the endangered status of China’s 30,068 species of flowering plants, 30 were found to have become extinct or extinct in the wild, while 3,363 are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Over half (1,710) of the species under threat are found in Yunnan Province. ��

The combined effects of habitat degradation, environmental contamination and excessive exploitation are major threats to plant biodiversity, concluded the study, which was released in 2017.  

Li said that the province’s rapid development of real estate, tourism and infrastructure poses a major threat to biodiversity. As some regions in the province remain unsurveyed, “deforestation of a single hill could have wiped out an undiscovered plant species,” Li said.  

Franch (Rhododendron delavayi)

Camellia azalea

The Hengduan Mountains boast a variety of lichens

Biodiversity Mapping 
According to Peng Hua, a botany professor and herbarium curator at the Kunming Institute of Botany, China needs to conduct plant biodiversity mapping at the local level. “Projects like Flora of China and Flora Yunnanica can give us an overall idea what plant species we have in China, but we still need plant diversity mapping to know the distribution of these plants to effectively plan for conservation,” Peng said.  

Last year, Peng wrapped up a three-year survey in Xinping County that recorded more than 3,700 plant species. It is the first published among Yunnan’s 129 counties. There are only a few counties in China with a similar level of plant diversity mapping.  

Peng said this is in stark contrast with many developed countries. For example, in Japan, plant biodiversity mapping at the county level began in the 1940s.  

In some European countries such as Italy, plant diversity mapping is conducted by gridding the country into 100-square-kilometer areas.  

According to Peng, the lack of proper diversity mapping at the local level could seriously mislead conservation efforts. For example, Peng said that botanists long assumed that tropical areas in southern Yunnan and the alpine regions of Yunnan’s northeast are richer in plant biodiversity than the plateau regions of central Yunnan. But his survey of Xinping County revealed the region’s plant diversity is as rich as tropical and alpine regions.  

Peng said this bias may stem from researchers’ desire to discover new species, which is more likely in tropical and alpine regions.  

“If we don’t have a clear and detailed understanding about the distribution of plant species, it could mislead future preservation policies,” Peng said. 

Spotty dotty (Dysosma versipellis)

Indian pokeweed (Phytolacca acinosa)

Anise tree flowers (Illicium majus)

Short of Hands 
According to Professor Li, all these problems can be attributed to the severe shortage of researchers specialized in plant taxonomy. Li estimated that China has only about 100 researchers with a doctorate in plant taxonomy. “It’s far from enough,” Li said.  

The reason is twofold: not only does the discipline require extensive knowledge and training, it also is less prestigious.  

Li told NewsChina that plant taxonomy is particularly difficult for researchers focusing on Yunnan. As the province shares many plant species with Southeast Asian countries, researchers must cross-reference the massive amounts of literature complied in these countries, often conducted by Westerners during colonial periods in different languages such as French, Dutch and German.  

As scientific evaluation in universities and research institutes relies mostly on citation performance which heavily disfavor pure taxonomy papers, plant taxonomists do not receive enough credits for their hard work, said Li. “It’s obvious that students and researchers in my lab have fewer chances for career advances and funding compared to researchers in other subjects like plant genetics,” Li added.  

Li said the given the richness of the country’s plant biodiversity, China needs to substantially increase its resources devoted to botanical studies. “The foundation of the subject of botany in China remains weak and fragmented, and we need to establish a strong and large pool of plant taxonomists,” Li said.  

On October 12, President Xi Jinping announced China would commit 1.5 billion yuan (US$232m) to supporting biodiversity protection in developing countries. But experts say China also needs to substantially increase its funding of domestic preservation efforts.  

“China should make long-term goals and commitments regarding the preservation of its biodiversity, which means strong and continued financial and human resource support for the long run,” Peng said.