Hainan Gibbons

China's stunning Hainan Island sits apart from the Mainland, a piece of paradise broken off the southern part of the country. Recently the provincial government there announced a 10 year plan to increase the area of non-commercial forest to 896,666 ha – with natural forest cover accounting for nearly three-quarters of this.

Hainan is China's largest swathe of tropical natural forest, and one of the country's most important repositories of animal and plant species. In 2005 the island was included in a government effort to manage natural forest as non-commercial forest land, but the pressure of economic growth and development proved too great – the scars of deforestation are more than evident.

By comparing natural forest maps from the state forestry administration in 2001 with satellite imagery interpretation results from 2010 of the mountains of central Hainan, a picture of destruction over the last decade emerges: natural forest made way for pulp and paper plantations, disrupting their usual role of water and soil conservation, and dramatically changing the local forest ecosystem. The situation is no less urgent on the coastline, where Casuarina-based forest fell under the axe in the name of large-scale real estate development projects, thereby threatening "coastal shelterbelts".

But this recently announced plan is a bright, new, turning point. Nature forest registered to non-commercial forest will increase from 612,266 ha to nearly 658,867 ha which is almost equal to the current existing natural forest of the whole island. This effectively means virtually all the natural forest will be protected and thereby free of the threat of commercial logging. Safe to say this is a vital step in the ecological restoration of Hainan, and will go a long way to compensate for the negative impacts that have already burdened this island hideaway.

That said commercial logging ban should not be the final stop for the pulp plantation which are located in the natural reserves and eco-sensitive area. What is also needed is a comprehensive scientific assessment of these areas, starting with vegetation restoration in phases using natural and artificial management as supplements, and thus enhancing the ecological security and service value. Meanwhile, restoration will also help build the eco-corridors between many fragmented and separated habitats of many tropical rare species. Take, for example, the Hainan Black Crown Gibbon (Hylobates concolor hainanus) of which there is only 23 individual animals left on this planet.

As international tourism begins to put increasing pressure on the island to continue commercial development, the challenge of meeting this pressure without sacrificing ecologically sustainable development will too grow. No doubt this plan for state-protection is an excellent foundation. But now it's time to also strengthen the implementation and supervision of this new policy.

Image © Greenpeace / Shi bai Xia