As I crossed the vast Pacific Ocean headed west on an interminable flight, I wondered what I would see in China.
I hoped for a chance to really look at some unique ecosystems, perhaps do a little birding or catch a glimpse of some unique reptiles or mammals. This was a cultural trip though, one designed to visit places like the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Warriors, not the wilds of China. Wildlife was going to be hard to find.
I was encouraged as we toured around Hong Kong. I saw some old friends; egrets, and black-billed magpies, and also found half a dozen new species as we hurried about the city. It became quickly apparent though that I was seeing the same half dozen species. That seemed to be a harbinger for the next two weeks.
I didn’t expect to find much wildlife on the cultural jaunts, but on excursions up the Li River and five days on the Yangtze River, including side trips up narrow jungle canyons, I expected to at least hear birds and other wildlife even if I couldn’t identify them. For the most part, though, the forests were silent and still.
I am not a top-notch birder or wildlife spotter, but I was still convinced that there was something wrong. There just didn’t seem to be much wildlife to see. Local guides explained that the Three Gorges Dam had blocked migration for a native dolphin and a sturgeon, sealing the fate of both. That explained some of it. Taming this vast land has been occurring for thousands of years and wildlife was bound to suffer.
As if to make that point, guides pointed out that at one time the woods did teem with wildlife, but when animals competed with local farmers for crops, they were systematically eliminated. Several guides also explained that in China, obtaining quality protein is a challenge for the people and any wild animal helped to fill that need.
There seemed to be something more, though, at least from the bird perspective. Throughout our trip, we rarely encountered insects, although there were plenty of untidy corners for insects to multiply. On many occasions, we could see farmers fogging their fields and we’d occasionally catch a faint vapor of pesticide. For the most part, no bugs equals no birds.
From the Great Wall, we saw where entire forests had been removed as far as we could see in an intentional effort to eliminate birds that consumed rice meant for humans. China paid for this arrogance when crop-devouring insects thrived after birds disappeared. The trees have been replanted in tidy rows, but insecticides may now be replacing the birds.
I realize that my sample size of China is relatively narrow, but I am not the first one to notice a “silent spring” in China. I can’t help but think that, at some point, the law of unintended consequences is going to demand an accounting for this industrial approach to nature.
Terry Thomas is a wildlife biologist with 27 years of experience. Opinions expressed are his own. “The Best of Nature,” a collection of more than 100 of Thomas’ best nature essays, is now available. Pick up your copy at the Post Register or order one through his website, www .nature-track.com.