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March 28, 2010

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The real danger of mistreating the environment

IF you didn't know better, it's hard to imagine that the enthusiastic, silver-haired man in a business suit is a biodiversity expert who has spent most of his life in the wild.

John MacKinnon, 63, is not only a renowned international biodiversity expert who has devoted himself to the protection of wild animals in Asia and Africa for over 40 years, but also a writer and film producer.

He has worked for a number of groups, including the Food and Agricultural Organization, World Wildlife Fund, World Conservation Union, United Nations Development Program, and been chairman for 14 years of the Biodiversity Working Group of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development.

He now works for the EU-China Biodiversity Program, and his book "A Field Guide to the Birds of China" is a bird lovers' bible.

He is a grandson of James Ramsay MacDonald, the first ever British Labour Prime Minister in 1924, and the first biologist to work with Dame Jane Goodall in the wilds of Africa observing animals like chimps and gorillas.

A missing little finger on his right hand is evidence of his tough days in the wild.

On the border between Vietnam and Laos, he discovered the huge Saola ox (or Vu Quang Ox), which has been recognized as one of the most exciting discoveries of the 20th century.

Only 10 new mammals have been discovered during the past 100 years and three of the findings have been attributed to MacKinnon.

He was invited to the 2010 China Top 10 Eco Heroes Award and Green Leaders Summit in Shanghai earlier this month as a judge.

And on the sidelines, he spoke to Shanghai Daily on the issue of environment protection and the range of conservation work that he has undertaken and loved for many years.

Q: Is the issue of biodiversity creating a world crisis situation?

A: We human beings are weakening the ecosystem by mistreating it. If we remove species, individual creatures, plants or whatever from the ecosystem, it becomes weaker. If we lose all our species, we lose intangible treasures that we know are valuable. You cannot put a price on it, because we need those species to maintain a healthy ecosystem. It's like if we burnt all the libraries, you will lose a lot of knowledge. We could buy some new books, but they wouldn't be the same. Why we are getting droughts, floods, desert everywhere that's driving the climate change not only in China, but around the world? We are getting these problems because of development. The climate is changing and we need to change our ecosystem to allow them to adjust to the change. We will need a lot of different species to do that.

Q: Do you believe that what we have seen in the film "2012" will actually happen if the ecosystem keeps getting unbalanced?

A: Actually, China closely resembles what Rachel Carson described as the "Silent Spring" 40 years ago, about finding no bird singing anymore. China's leading the world to that point. There are more people in China who are more actively changing everything. Every bit of China. Every road is new, every house is new, every field is being changed, and every waterway, every lake, everything is being transformed in a 20-year period.

Q: What was the situation like when you came to China in 1986?

A: China only had 300 natural resource protection centers and no books on birds. Most of its biologists followed Russian biologists to collect samples and did research on plants and animals with economic value. Although the facilities were really poor, the environment was a lot better then. People weren't being so destructive because the country was not so developed. They used simple farming methods and didn't cut down trees.

Q: Do you think Chinese people's awareness of the environment has improved?

A: Environment protection 20 years ago was a completely new thing to China and it's now way behind because many countries were way ahead, starting maybe 30 or 40 years ago. After years of effort from all the environment protection groups, all the animal protection groups, the government, everything is going better now. But it is not growing fast enough to deal with the problem; the actual state of the environment is worse.

Q: What driving force has kept you doing this for over 40 years?

A: You need a bit of optimism and a sense of humor because it is really depressing. And I guess I love the natural world, (animals) are so clever and so beautiful. I find it fascinating and I would just be heartbroken if we lose it. So I try to protect them.


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