Adam Minter

China Has the Right Idea About Protecting Species

The world's most trafficked endangered species by monetary value isn't an elephant or a rhino. It's rosewood, a group of slow-growing tropical hardwoods prized for their use in traditional Chinese arts and crafts and furniture. Beds made from rosewood have sold for over $1 million; the overall Chinese market is worth as much as $26 billion.

As valuations spiral upward, tropical forests are felled. Traditional conservation measures, such as protected areas and trade restrictions , have failed to quell the demand or the logging. In her provocative new book, Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China, Annah Lake Zhu, assistant professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, argues that a Chinese approach that prioritizes reforestation and using nature sustainably is more effective. It's not a new idea: Endangered pandas, tigers and bears have been cultivated in China for years (though not without controversy). More recently, farmers have developed sustainable rosewood plantations that co-exist with other, faster growing crops like tea and honey in southern China. The model is now being exported to Southeast Asia and tropical regions of Africa.

Zhu, has spent more than a decade studying and writing about the rosewood trade, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar, and later expanding her studies into the multibillion-dollar rosewood markets scattered across China. Our phone conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Adam Minter: In Rosewood you describe two trails leading into a park in Madagascar.

Annah Lake Zhu: My friend who doubles as both a logger and ecotourist guide described it to me. There are two trails, he said, the tourists go on one trail and the loggers stay on the other. He put it quite literally, but I thought of it more metaphorically: Madagascar is subject to these different global forces that are carving themselves into the same space. It’s the predicament of the Malagasy people. They see money coming in for conservation, they see money coming in for logging. And they are stuck in the middle.

AM: In the book you describe the range of factors that are spurring demand for rosewood. What is the Madagascar Phenomenon?

AZ: It's a term Chinese traders coined to refer to the effect that trade restrictions can have on boosting the price of a traded species. So in this case it’s environmental trade restrictions imposed in 2013 by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. These restrictions caused a boom in the price of rosewood, especially from Madagascar.

AM: Preserving land specifically for species conservation — and only species conservation — is another measure that seems to have unintended consequences.

AZ: The models that we have for biodiversity conservation at this point emphasize protected areas. That means excluding people from certain areas so they don’t cut down the trees or plant crops. And based on the people I’ve talked to around these protected areas, those efforts are largely received as a restriction that’s imposed rather than being desired by the people living around the areas. It impacts perceptions that local people have of Westerners, and Western efforts in their country.

AM: It's also the case that conservation in these areas is often highly militarized in the interest of deterring poachers.

AZ: It certainly can be. One Kenyan conservationist, Mordecai Ogada, put it well. He said in the US the environmentalists wear Birkenstocks. But in Kenya it’s military boots. That’s what’s associated with conservation.

AM: Does that provide an opening for China and alternative ideas about conservation?

AZ: Absolutely. I think most people in the West don’t realize how powerful China’s diplomatic policy of non-intervention is. How appealing it is to people in Africa, this idea of providing for local needs without instilling conditions. In the West, we typically portray it negatively like it empowers dictators and things like that, which it can. But generally, for African policymakers at least, it’s seen very positively.

AM: So what does a Chinese approach to endangered species conservation look like? Is it captive breeding, such as what China does with tiger and pandas?

AZ: China focuses much more on captive breeding, and it’s definitely hit or miss. Sometimes it can be very successful — with the pandas for example. It depends on various features of the species and the demand for them, so it’s very difficult to predict. With rosewood, captive breeding is not really the right term. You’d say plantations or a type of plantation agriculture, which can actually be very successful. It’s more diverse than simply just rosewood trees. It’s a whole forest economy — teas, honey, herbs. China is doing that now on a large scale at home and they're beginning to export the model abroad.

AM: In this model, China develops a sustainable, legal source of a culturally important product, develops an industry, and even manages to capture tax revenues being missed in the underground trade. Many of those benefits, in turn, also accrue to countries with wild rosewood reserves. That's preferable to traditional conservation measures for many emerging market countries in Africa.

AZ: I’d say it's preferable compared to simply cordoning off areas of land and spending a lot on military presence to prevent logging. China can provide this environmental alternative. They already have extensive rosewood plantations domestically. But it’s only at the very beginning in terms of exporting the model abroad, something I see more for the future.

AM: This feels like a good compromise between rosewood markets and the desire to preserve the species.

AZ: A rosewood plantation is a long-term thing. It’s a much better use of the land than short-term logging and can be managed such that not all the trees are logged and so there are other shorter-term species cultivated. But there’s still logging. It's still about using the land. Which is what Malagasy people, generally speaking, want to do.

AM: Over the last decade or so, Chinese leaders have introduced the idea of an "ecological civilization" as a kind of overarching framework for building a specifically Chinese approach to the environment. It doesn’t do a lot of what Western environmentalism does. It’s not seeking to divide humans from nature in an effort to protect it.

AZ: The concept is, in fact, a way for China to brand its environmental efforts as distinct from the West. Because it’s coming from Chinese thought and Chinese thinking. In Chinese thinking, there isn't this philosophical dichotomy between the human and the non-human. There is not the same philosophical tradition of separating “nature” out as something to be privileged in and of itself. In the Chinese lexicon, in fact, the term “nature” is an import from the West. And so in China it’s not considered preferable to have completely untouched nature.

AM: So is a compromise possible?

AZ: I think it’s much easier once we in the West realize that our approach to conservation is not a universally desirable approach. It has its limitations, and many people frankly aren’t interested in pursuing that type of conservation at all. Once we realize that, it’s much easier to compromise.

AM: Are you optimistic about the future of endangered species?

AZ: I would be more optimistic if we could get to a place where there can be more dialogue in terms of different approaches to the environment and endangered species conservation. But I’m not really optimistic about getting to that place, especially when it comes to China. We seem so far from being able to genuinely consider people in China or the Chinese government’s perspective in its own right, without bringing all the stigma, all the negative feelings we might have to that consideration. I think that’s a big problem.