Wildlife conservation endeavors bring back city's oldest residents

Urbanization brings with it development and better life but it also comes with the destruction of nature.

Urbanization brings with it development and better life but it also comes with the destruction of nature.

Some of the city’s earliest residents like water deer, Chinese alligator and Eurasian badger were close to extinction when the city’s expansion took over their habitats. Many young locals aren’t aware of their past and present existence in the city.

As wildlife conservation is back on the agenda, the city has launched projects to restore the habitats and bring back some of the endangered species. After a decade of research and implementation, some of these creatures have started to breed in the wild.

Asian badger

The largest mammal in Shanghai, the Asian badger, is little known to the Shanghai people.

The species is native to China, and although its conservation status on IUCN is not endangered, its population in Shanghai was close to zero in the late 1990s.

The Asian badger is lighter than its European counterpart. In terms of color it has brown facial stripes, which is also smaller in size. They weigh between 3-10 kilograms, hibernate in winter, and breed once a year with two to five newborns.

Bo Shunqi / Ti Gong

The Asian badger is the largest mammal in Shanghai.

Xu Hongfa, a professor of East China Normal University, is leading the team to restore the Asian badger in Shanghai.

“When Shanghai conducted the first wildlife survey in 1997 or 1998, we found that the number of badgers was very small in districts like Fengxian, Songjiang, Jinshan, Qingpu and Jiading, but we didn’t have an exact number,” Xu said. “After we set up the Asian badger research project, we discovered that the number of caves had decreased significantly.”

In Fengxian’s Zhuanghang Town, a dozen-odd Asian badgers were found in a cave in 1997. But a development project destroyed their home and quite a few of them died. Later, Xu and his team went back to survey the area and found only three districts had a small population of Asian badgers.

“Only Fengxian, Songjiang and Jinshan had some wild population. The ones in Jinshan were almost extinct. So if we don’t conserve this species, it will be gone forever from Shanghai suburbs.”

Ti Gong

Xu Hongfa heads the team to help restore the Asian badgers in Shanghai.

In 2007, the Shanghai Forestry Bureau collaborated with Fengxian’s forestry bureau and East China Normal University to start a program to restore the Asian badger in the wild.

Xu said it was difficult to capture the wild Asian badgers in the suburbs for propagation and breeding because of the difficulty in tracking them down. So, they decided to introduce Asian badgers from other provinces in Fengxian where artificial caves were built and their habitats restored.

“It wasn’t an easy task because Asian badgers are omnivores, which is much more difficult than herbivores. Before this project there were few examples of omnivore restoration in China,” said Xu. “Shanghai’s high underground water level wasn’t friendly for the cave animals. They used to live in the bamboo forests that were gone, so we provided a living condition for the badgers.”

After 10 years, the Asian badgers in Shanghai are breeding every year. Around Shanghai, its number is still under 100 — among them 20 are wild, he said. Surveillance cameras allow the scientists to see their activities after nightfall.

Having the Asian badgers back in the city is very meaningful, said Xu. It is the largest member of Shanghai’s very limited mammal family.

“If an animal is almost extinct in a region, the species should be protected because the Asian badgers are also treasures of Shanghai.”

But the Asian badgers are still facing challenges. Some of them that left their habitat were killed by people or died in accidents.

Water deer

The small creatures of freedom have been living in the woods on this land for 36,000 years. They are sometimes called vampire deer because of the two sharp canine tusks.

The animals once resided in large numbers in the Liaodong Peninsula, the North China Plain and on the banks of the Yangtze River. Their teeth were found in 66 percent of the 133 tombs uncovered in the site of Dawenkou Culture — scholars believed these teeth were related to the ritual ceremonies of the Neolithic communities, that the aboriginals worshiped the water deer for their ability to run exceptionally fast.

The water deer reside in lands that have tall grass and close water sources. As a species that favor mudflats, they require habitats with enough grass as food sources and bushes to hide.

A native species in Shanghai since Neolithic Age, water deer have two subspecies — the Chinese water deer and the Korean water. The deer in China are all of the same species. Scientists sampled water deer’s DNA before reintroducing the species to Shanghai and found they didn’t divide.

But their population declined significantly in the 20th century. They were still found in Shanghai till the late 20th century, but they also disappeared. A nationwide research in early 1990s showed the number was already decreasing.

According to the 1999 survey of wild mammals in China, only 10,000 were left around that time. Then they disappeared.

There are multiple reasons behind the loss of water deer population in Shanghai. The water deer lost their habitat as many land were taken over to build factories and develop the economy.

Water deer are solitary and territorial animals. They are sensitive to their surroundings and can be alerted by any sudden movements around. But they are not aggressive. They don’t confront people, and when they spot a human being, they only stop for an eye-to-eye moment.

Bo Shunqi / Ti Gong

The water deer can be seen in forest parks including Huaxia Park. 

Chen Min, a professor at East China Normal University who has been studying water deer since 1999, heads the team that is supposed to restore the agile creature to the wild in Shanghai.

“Water deer are easy prey for hunters, they are sensitive but not intelligent. Their habit of looking at you in the eye gives poachers the opportunity,” Chen said. Poachers hunt water deer for their meat. In the past, a leg could sell for 30 to 40 yuan in restaurants. Even now there are still poachers hunting the deer that have been reintroduced in the wild.

“The illegal hunting of water deer is still small scale. Shanghai has strict management and we didn’t find the deer in the market, but we did find the collars being cut without seeing the body. People also set up electric wires to trip rabbits and water deer in the woods,” Chen said.

The foundation work of reintroducing water deer to the Shanghai ecological system started in 1999 and 2000. Scientists brought water deer to Shanghai from Zhoushan Islands and expanded the group after years of breeding. Then the deer went through trainings to test their ability to survive in the wild.

There were two types of reintroduction — one was in controlled environments such as parks in the suburbs of Shanghai, the other was in wild environment including at Nanhui Dongtan.

“We wanted to encourage on-site protection to bring back the native species in its original habitat. The program really kicked off when a pilot project was launched in Huaxia Park in 2006 to see if the water dear released there could adapt to the climate and other conditions,” Chen said.

Chen’s project mainly focused on adjusting and expanding the early habitats like the renovated Huaxia Park as well as searching for potential new grounds.

“There are around 300 water deer in Shanghai now, but to have the appropriate sex ratio and age structure, we need at least 500 to have small groups of water deer distributed around Shanghai.”

Ti Gong

Chen Min, professor of East China Normal University

Chinese alligator

The Chinese alligator is also another case of endangered species that was successfully reintroduced back in Shanghai. It is one of the oldest animals on Earth, a relic of Oligocene epoch 37 million years ago, yet they barely survived urbanization.

Populations have decreased as wetlands were lost to agricultural development and human activity — killing the reptiles for their meat and for medicinal purposes. As recently as 10 years ago, an alligator in a market cost 100 yuan (US$15) per centimeter of length.

The Chinese species, also known as the Yangtze alligator, is smaller than its American cousin. Its ancestors were terrestrial, but the species evolved as the environment changed, adapting to life in the water.

In order to save the Chinese alligators, breeding centers have been created, including one in Xuancheng, Anhui Province, in 1979, which was renamed the Anhui Research Center for Chinese Alligator Reproduction and registered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. More than 10,000 Chinese alligators now live in the farm.

But Shanghai’s first reintroduced Chinese alligators were brought in from the US. Six Chinese alligators were released in the Dongtan Wetland Park in June 2007. In 2015, another six were released in the park.

The Chinese alligator is fully armored, even on its belly, which is not a common trait of the crocodile family. It has a flat head, strong limbs and long tail used for both swimming and self-defense.

The alligators live in fresh water and have large appetite, especially ahead of their winter hibernation periods.

The Chinese alligator breeds in summer. The male and female mate in June, and the female would build nests in July, using weeds, twigs and mud. Each clutch contains 10 to 30 eggs. The female alligator guards the nest, and the eggs incubate in natural temperatures, hatching after 60 days. The sex of the offspring is determined by the temperature in the nest.

Bo Shunqi / Ti Gong

Chinese alligator

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