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Conservation Blueprint Aids Earthquake Response

By Misty Herrin

A massive earthquake wreaked unimaginable devastation in Sichuan Province in May 2008, killing nearly 70,000 people and causing untold billions of dollars worth of damage. The disaster also took heavy environmental tolls in one of China’s richest areas of plant and animal life. Huge landslides and terrain changes impacted many endangered species, such as the giant panda, golden monkey, and takin.

Soon after the quake, the Sichuan government called The Nature Conservancy for assistance with a rapid ecological assessment. They needed up-to-date data in order to take quick and effective action in areas of greatest ecological importance.

Fortunately, the Conservancy had recently completed a mammoth conservation assessment in Sichuan as part of our Blueprint Project in China. The Blueprint helped the government quickly create a science-grounded recovery plan and has helped partners secure funding for restoration in the quake region.

The Conservancy’s Blueprint Project coordinator, Zhao Peng, breaks it down for

Why did Chinese officials turn to the Conservancy for information? Couldn’t they have found what they needed other ways?

Zhao Peng:

Before the Sichuan Blueprint was created, the information contained in it was scattered among a range of sources, from academic institutions to unwritten local knowledge. Without the Blueprint database, it would have been impossible to gather vital information quickly enough to guide a rapid recovery plan. With the Blueprint, we were able to provide officials with the data they needed within just one day. This is a sobering illustration of the value of an integrated and up-to-date ecological assessment on a regional scale.

How much data are we talking about?

Zhao Peng:

The Blueprint includes information on more than 4,000 species of animals and plants. We worked with local partners for three years to compile more than 50,000 records about the region’s ecosystems and species.

But we always hear that time is running out for the planet. Is it really a good idea to spend years doing an ecological assessment?

Zhao Peng:

That’s a good question. It’s about making the most of limited resources and time. We need to know where to focus our efforts, what the main conservation targets are, and what will constitute success. For example, how much of a certain habitat must be preserved in order to protect biodiversity over the long term? An overall assessment provides a guide for smart conservation action on the ground — and not just for us. A Blueprint that is grounded in credible science can help focus and improve the conservation efforts of other groups, agencies and communities.

And now that the Blueprint is finished the Conservancy can take action?

Zhao Peng:

Actually, we’ve been taking action the whole time. Over the past ten years, we’ve worked with local partners on a wide variety of conservation efforts in neighboring Yunnan Province, such as green building and renewable energy projects, environmental education and community outreach programs, and our campaign to save the Yunnan golden monkey. We’re also working here to introduce a national park model of conservation with state-of-the-art visitor services and educational components to compliment the country’s nature reserve system, while across China we are helping key nature reserves improve the effectiveness of their conservation. That’s key to getting people excited about conservation.

So that is to say, we’ve been assembling the Sichuan Blueprint at the same time that we’ve been taking action nearby. Now we’re well-positioned to apply our lessons learned in Yunnan Province to important areas throughout China.

So the Blueprint helped officials create a recovery plan. Anything else?

Zhao Peng:

Actually, yes. The Blueprint also helped local partners secure funding for recovery efforts. With the Blueprint project’s extensive and credible data to support their application, partners were able to earn the confidence of the Global Environment Fund, an independent funding agency, and as a result received $1 million for conservation activities in the affected region.

The grant is also making it possible to train more partners on how to use the Blueprint data. It’s a sophisticated and admittedly complex computer system. By helping more people readily access and understand the data the Conservancy can help the whole conservation community work smarter and faster. The importance of that was never more apparent than after the earthquake.

About the Interviewee

Zhao Peng is the Nature Conservancy's Blueprint Project coordinator.

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