- Wild China
Wild China is a beautiful photographic evocation of China's remaining wilderness areas. The text and photographs move systematically through each of China's major biogeographic regions, sketching out the main flora and fauna and emphasizing the rare or endemic species. Most of the book centers on a selection of some of China's five hundred nature reserves, ranging from the deserts of the Northwest to the tropical regions of the far Southeast. The author has been deeply involved in conservation efforts in China for many years and brings to this book a firsthand knowledge of many of the sites he discusses. His text intersperses description of species with tales of his own experience traveling in some of these areas.
The book's major appeal will be to the general public rather than scholars or policy makers. It shares the beauties and the limits of international ecotourism generally, and is designed for the coffee table. There is, for example, little systematic discussion of these areas as functioning ecosystems, but a great deal of taxonomic listing of striking or rare species. Birds and large mammals are well represented; insects, spiders, amphibians, reptiles, and other less beloved creatures get short shrift.
Humanity is generally assumed to be properly outside these natural areas, and their human ecology is not seriously discussed. There are eight pages on humans, divided by ethnicity and sometimes overly reliant on misleading characterizations (like the "matriarchal" Yi on p. 47, or the Muslims as a "mixture of races" on p. 52). Most of the "wilderness" areas under discussion, however, in fact include humans as part of the ecosystem (both as residents and tourists), and these areas have interacted with humanity for a very long time. Yet humans are largely painted as interlopers in the "natural" ecosystem, as threats to biodiversity but not part of it. Humans are, of course, transforming these environments, often to the great detriment of their biodiversity. Yet humans are also inseparable from them, and the implied ideal of true "wilderness," untrammeled by humanity, reflects a specific Western cultural development.
The book is also not very revealing about the policy decisions involved in creating and managing these reserves and their interactions with local people. This is disappointing given the author's long involvement with the development of these policies in China. We learn very little, for example, about compensation for people whose land-use rights are limited by creating a reserve, or about the political process itself as various interested parties balance competing demands on the use of this land. [End Page 481]
The strengths of the book are instead as armchair ecotourism, or as a companion to real ecotourism. The book is a truly beautiful reminder of China's geographic and biological endowment. It shows how much more there is to China's biology than rice paddies and pandas. If, in the process, it also inspires people to think more about preserving China's ecological (and human) diversity, it will have made an important contribution. [End Page 482]
Robert P. Weller is an associate professor of anthropology at Boston University; he is currently working on environmental policy implementation in China.