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Authoritarian Environmentalism in Animal Conservation

In recent years, environmental conservation and climate issues have become important to nations’ political agendas. Surprisingly, authoritarian regimes have shown a lot of advantages in solving such problems. Generally speaking, democratic governments often face significant resistance to the development and implementation of policies on the environment. Policymakers are also subject to interference from multiple sources, such as interest group lobbying, local community protests, and outside voter and media voices. (There are often numerous parties involved in environmental issues) In contrast, authoritarian regimes are able to take advantage of their coercive force and the public obedience and trust in the government to achieve their environmental goals. Therefore, some scholars have found through research and study that authoritarian governments may be able to demonstrate greater enforcement power on the issue of environmental protection. But this point is still highly controversial, many people argue the positive effects of democracy on the environmental outcome as well as a pessimistic view of authoritarian environmentalism. This article will focus on animal protection and the establishment of nature reserves. It will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of authoritarian governments in this specific issue through the Chinese government’s achievements in protecting the Tibetan antelope and the establishment of the Qinghai Hol Xil Nature Reserve and several other minor examples.

History of Tibetan antelope conservation and the Hol Xil Nature Reserve

The Tibetan antelope is an endemic species that lives on the Tibetan plateau in China, and as with all animals that are widely poached, the Tibetan antelope has something of high commercial value on them, the most valuable items on the Tibetan antelope is their wool, shahtoosh. As a result of organized illegal poaching, the Tibetan antelope population plummeted from 1 million to about 70,000 in the short decade between 1980 and 1990.[1] In 1994, a group of ranger heroes died in a gun battle with poachers, the incident brought widespread attention to the Hoh Xil region and sparked a nationwide anti-poaching campaign. The government recognized in this tragedy what happened in the Hol Xil area and awarded the urgency of establishing a nature reserve to prevent poaching.[2] In 1996, the Hol Xil National Provincial Reserve was established.  Only a year later, the central government raised Hol Xil to the status of a National Nature Reserve (Which break the rule), and with it, the Hol Xil National Reserve Administration is established. This is an integrated management agency that coordinates the work of the central, provincial, municipal, and local authorities and the local residents. The government’s protection of the Hol Xil area is unprecedented, starting with the dispatch of a large number of patrols to the Hol Xil hinterland to combat poachers, and a complete patrol system has been set up. Secondly, the Administration has set up five protection stations along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway in Hol Xil to block the access of poachers. Most importantly, the government has given the Hol Xil National Reserve Administration the power to break the geographical boundaries of several other nature reserves belonging to other provinces near Hol Xil in western China, allowing them to combat poaching on a wide scale, which has led to the formation of a joint inter-regional enforcement mechanism.[3] The effect of these initiatives has been remarkable, as there has not been a single poaching incident in the Hol Xil Nature Reserve since 2006, just ten years after the reserve was established. According to monitoring statistics, the population of Tibetan antelope in Hol Xil and the surrounding area has increased from 20,000 in the 1990s to nearly 70,000. In recent years, the government has even increased its efforts to manage the Hol Xil Reserve. They have started artificial feeding and breeding of Tibetan antelopes, established a plateau animal research base at the reserve, set up wildlife protection publicity monuments on the roads at the edge of the reserve, and used the influence of the official media to promote the significance on wildlife protection.[4] These laid a good foundation for Hol Xil to be declared a World Heritage Site. In order to achieve this goal, the Qinghai provincial government determined a series of remediation contents and proposed a work plan based on the traffic, oil and gas pipelines, power transmission and communication lines, and construction facilities around Hol Xil. The result is expected. In 2015, Hol Xil was inscribed on China’s World Heritage Tentative List, and on July 7, 2017, it was inscribed on the World Heritage List after passing the final review at the 41st General Assembly of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

The Tibetan Pastoralists Controversy

China’s application for the World Heritage designation for Hol Xil was fiercely opposed by an international advocacy group, the International Campaign for Tibet. The group claimed that recognizing the area as a World Heritage Site would help China’s efforts to resettle thousands of local residents from the plateau to villages.[5]

This criticism is not an unexpected thing, as an authoritarian government, China’s mandatory resettlement of a portion of the local Tibetan population sounds reasonable. However, the Chinese government has not resorted to such coercion on Tibetan pastoralists, rather, it has fully respected the views of Tibetan pastoralists and included them in the work of the reserve. In fact, Tibetan pastoralists have had a crucial contribution to the conservation of Tibetan antelope and the establishment of the Hol Xil Nature Reserve. In the culture of the Tibetans, Hol Xil is a pure land and the arrival of poachers is certainly against what they believe in. The rangers who died in the aforementioned shootout with poachers were all Tibetan pastoralists, and not only that, the majority of the Hol Xil National Reserve Administration staff are Tibetans.[6] The Chinese model of Authoritarian environmentalism is not always coercive, and there are times when it is flexible and adaptable.

Institutional advantages?

The success of the Hol Xil Nature Reserve has brought to light a new possibility, that authoritarian regimes seem to be better environmental protectors. This runs counter to the commonly perceived fact. Marina Povitkina, in her “The limits of democracy in tackling climate change”.  refutes the idea that democratic governments do a better job on climate issues and explains why democratic regimes are not as strong as authoritarian governments when it comes to environmental issues. Political leaders in democracies are shortsighted due to frequent political challenges through electoral cycles, they focus on providing voters with some visible results, or on making policies that benefit the economy but work against environmental issues. In addition, there are many parties that could have an impact on their political decisions. Politicians have an obligation to respond to the short-term goals of these parties, which may conflict with environmental protection and the long-term interests of the public.[7]

To illustrate this point, the Jackson Hole National Monument Controversy is a good example. In 1943, President Roosevelt utilized the Antiquities Act to establish Jackson Hole National Monument. But this initiative was strongly opposed by Jackson Hole residents, and Wyoming ranchers whose interests were being infringed upon banded together to create the Committee for the Survival of Teton County in order to oppose the excesses of federal government bureaucracy. The issue was vigorously debated in Congress, but in the end, no agreement could be reached. It was not until 1949 that a compromise was reached between conservationists and ranchers, brokered by former Wyoming governor, Leslie A. Miller.[8]

The establishment of Grand Teton National Park has contributed greatly to the local biodiversity, its ecosystem supports a wide variety of species including bears, elk, moose, and many fur-bearing animals including weasels, martens, beavers, and otters. A large number of visitors attracted to the national park each year also brings numerous jobs to Jackson Hole residents, which leads to a booming local economy. Cliff Hansen, once the staunchest opponent of the monument and later a Wyoming state senator, conceded decades later that the park’s expansion was ultimately in the public’s best interest.[9]

It took the federal government seven years to reach an agreement with local ranchers and a special interest group (Wyoming Stock Growers Association) on such an expansion of a national park with clear long-term investment value. This example exposed one of the flaws of the democratic regime when it comes to environmental issues – the need for policymakers to compromise the short-sightedness of some groups. This case is in stark contrast to the establishment of Hol Xil Nature Reserve, where the government was able to exclude all outside influences. Furthermore, the Authoritarian system allows the government to make exceptions in policy and invest large amounts of money to achieve long-term environmental conservation.

Can the success of Hol Xil Nature Reserve be replicated

Apparently the isolated case of Hol Xil Nature Reserve does not prove that authoritarian environmentalism is necessarily a success? Authoritarian Environmentalism is more effective in addressing environmental issues than other models, this claim is challenged in “Authoritarian Environmentalism Undermined? Local Leaders’ Time Horizons and Environmental Policy Implementation in China” by Sarah Eaton and Genia Kostka. The authors point out that the rotation system of local officials and their pursuit of political accomplishment would lead to problems similar to those of democratic regimes. China’s special political system results in frequent turnover of local officials, for instance, the average tenure of China’s 898 municipal

party secretaries (the top leaders and decision-makers in a city) is only 3.8 years, and the heads of departments that play a key role in environmental policy implementation rotate on average once every four years, these contribute significantly to policy inconsistency. [10]

In addition, the pursuit of political accomplishment by local officials leads to short-sightedness and the fact that the most sensible policies are not developed. Local officials will only allocate resources to programs that can have an apparent effect in the short term. The classic example is that after the central government proposed a target for increasing forest cover in 2011, many local leaders devoted huge amounts of resources to reforestation, thereby neglecting many more important issues.[11] One exception is those issues that receive widespread attention, where local governments need to make progress consistently visible to the central government, the media and the public in order to ensure that they do not come under criticism. In other words, only issues of global importance such as Tibetan antelope conservation are subject to the sustained investment of funds and resources by local governments. Issues that are critical to the local community, but that do not show results during the leadership’s tenure or receive widespread outside attention, do not receive the resources they deserve.

May not be as good, but at least not as bad

Contrary to what people might expect, the bureaucrats of authoritarian governments are not as strong in execution. But when it comes to environmental policy, authoritarian bureaucrats are not held hostage by interest groups or the masses in the way that democratic leaders are. Sometimes, leaders of democratic governments are pressured by their voters and large interest groups or corporations (often their donors) to implement policies that may be harmful to the environment. But this could never happen with authoritarian government bureaucrats. In other words, local officials in China may not be as good, but at the very least they are not as bad.

In their article, Sarah Eaton and Genia Kostka develop a critique of China’s authoritarian environmentalism, using the example of the Datong city government in Shanxi province. Shanxi province is a major coal-producing region in China, and the local coal mining companies contribute significantly to local finances and employment, while the owners of these coal mining companies have deep ties to local officials. However, following the central government’s new development strategy and pollution control requirements in 2011, Shanxi province has drastically reduced its coal production. Although, as Eaton and Kostka argue, Shanxi’s economy is not free of its dependence on coal mining, and the essential problems have not been solved by inactive local bureaucrats, at the very least, the numbers are better on the surface. If this had happened under a democratic government, things would have looked quite different. A visual example of this is the support the Trump administration has been giving to Midwestern oil and gas companies during his term and bragging about record energy production during his term in his campaigns at Texas and Pennsylvania.[12] This seems somewhat out of place at a time when most of the world’s major countries are pursuing a move away from traditional energy sources. But this is what his voters and allies would like to see, they do not care about environmental issues and future development trends, and therefore these Trump policies of support for traditional energy companies will not be opposed by them. Since 2010, when China’s current leader Xi Jinping came to power, the country has gotten a change of direction with his development strategy of Clear waters and green mountain, which is a strategy for economic development that revolves around reducing pollution and transitioning to sustainable development. Chinese bureaucrats were pressured to make changes, and China’s special bureaucratic system led them not to dare to cross certain red lines to formulate development strategies and policies that were contrary to the general direction of the central government. In the process, in order to show the central government their achievements, local bureaucrats will do a lot of face-saving projects that waste money, which may not be as cost-effective in solving environmental problems, but at the very least do not make the environment worse.


Overall, the success of the Hol Xil Nature Reserve does set a template. The amount of money invested, the time span, and the long-term planning of policy development are difficult to replicate in a democratic regime. China has established several nature reserves after Hol Xil, and all have had remarkable success. China’s authoritarian environmentalism has shown some distinctive strengths in the protection of some of its “star animals” (panda, Tibetan antelope, Chinese sturgeon), as well as in a number of environmental issues that have received widespread attention. But this is limited to those issues that have caught the eyes on a national and international level, and China’s particular bureaucratic system has made it impossible to circumvent the flaws of democratic regimes on environmental issues that are invisible to the outside world but crucial to local livelihoods.

[1] “Wildlife Tibetan Antelope,” WCS China, accessed December 20, 2022,

[2] “Comprehensive Protection to Keep Hol Xil Poaching-Free for 12 Years,” Xinhua, accessed December 20, 2022,

[3] UNESCO World Heritage Centre, “Qinghai Hoh Xil,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, accessed December 20, 2022,

[4] “Comprehensive Protection to Keep Hol Xil Poaching-Free for 12 Years,” Xinhua, accessed December 20, 2022,

[5] Steven Lee Myers, “China Is Challenged on Bid for UNESCO Heritage Status in Tibetan Area,” The New York Times (The New York Times, July 6, 2017),

[6] “Comprehensive Protection to Keep Hol Xil Poaching-Free for 12 Years,” Xinhua, accessed December 20, 2022,

[7] Marina Povitkina, “The Limits of Democracy in Tackling Climate Change,” Environmental Politics 27, no. 3 (February 2018): pp. 411-432,

[8] “Grand Teton National Park and The Jackson Hole National Monument Controversy,” American Heritage Center (AHC) #AlwaysArchiving, February 16, 2022,

[9] ibid

[10] Sarah Eaton and Genia Kostka, “Authoritarian Environmentalism Undermined? Local Leaders’ Time Horizons and Environmental Policy Implementation in China: The China Quarterly,” Cambridge Core (Cambridge University Press, May 9, 2014),

[11] Sarah Eaton and Genia Kostka, “Authoritarian Environmentalism Undermined? Local Leaders’ Time Horizons and Environmental Policy Implementation in China: The China Quarterly,” Cambridge Core (Cambridge University Press, May 9, 2014),

[12] “The Oil Industry Actually Hasn’t Done That Well under Trump,” POLITICO, accessed December 20, 2022,


Eaton, Sarah, and Genia Kostka. “Authoritarian Environmentalism Undermined? Local Leaders’ Time Horizons and Environmental Policy Implementation in China: The China Quarterly.” Cambridge Core. Cambridge University Press, May 9, 2014.

“Grand Teton National Park and The Jackson Hole National Monument Controversy.” American Heritage Center (AHC) #AlwaysArchiving, February 16, 2022.

Myers, Steven Lee. “China Is Challenged on Bid for UNESCO Heritage Status in Tibetan Area.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 6, 2017.

“The Oil Industry Actually Hasn’t Done That Well under Trump.” POLITICO. Accessed December 20, 2022.

Povitkina, Marina. “The Limits of Democracy in Tackling Climate Change.” Environmental Politics 27, no. 3 (2018): 411–32.

“Wildlife Tibetan Antelope.” WCS China. Accessed December 20, 2022.

Yu, Xuan. “World Heritage Site Application for Hol Xil Reserve.” Yushu News. Accessed December 20, 2022.

“Comprehensive Protection to Keep Hol Xil Poaching-Free for 12 Years.” Xinhua. Accessed December 20,Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Qinghai Hoh Xil.”

UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Accessed December 20, 2022.  2022.