The rich biological diversity of the Mountains of Southwest China Hotspot is threatened by excessive exploitation of the region's natural resources. Signs of the loss of biodiversity are evident: forest and ecosystem loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitats, and species population declines. Major direct threats include:
Forest ecosystems in the region were under intense pressure from commercial harvest by state-run enterprises from the early 1950s until a national logging ban took effect in 1998, limiting logging to subsistence needs of local communities. State forestry management laws and regulations have traditionally prescribed a "quota management" system. In principle, such a system required sustainable resource use by stipulating that annual timber harvests should be less than annual forest growth. In practice, however, the quota management system was consistently overwhelmed by political events or development pressure.
When timber markets were opened in the 1990s, no strong management mechanism was in place to properly deal with market-driven overharvesting by logging companies owned by different levels of government and by the communities that were involved as contractors and labors. At the same time, forest users did not pay sufficient attention to replanting in state-owned and collective forests.
Compounding management problems, forest inventory statistics are often inaccurate, resulting in logging quotas well above annual growth increments. The resulting overharvests, combined with land conversion for agriculture, were the main causes for the loss of 85 percent of old-growth forest cover along the Upper Yangtze during this period.
Illegal hunting and unsustainable harvest and trade of wildlife
The harvest of endangered animal and plant species is one of the most acute causes of species population decline in the region. Although hunting is almost always illegal, many reserves and law enforcement units are not sufficiently staffed or funded to enforce wildlife laws effectively.
Due to weak law enforcement and management capacity, harvesting of wild plants and other nontimber forest products that are sold primarily for use as foods or traditional medicine is often unsustainable. Overcollection of certain nontimber forest products, such as orchids and matsutake mushrooms, is already apparent in many areas. In some places, highly sought-after species are no longer found outside of strictly protected nature reserves or have disappeared altogether. The importance of hunting and foraging for nontimber forest products in local economies has increased as a result of the logging ban and a growing market for these products.
Construction of infrastructure such as roads, dams and power lines is an important part of regional development plans. Basic infrastructure is lacking in many areas. The government is committed to changing this situation, and the Western Development Program features slogans calling for road access, television, telephone and electricity for every village. However, infrastructure projects generally fail to include environmental impact assessments or other mitigation plans. Road projects directly and indirectly damage ecosystems. Another side effect of greater road access is increased potential for trade in wildlife and nontimber forest products.
Collection of fuel wood is permitted under the National Natural Forest Protection Program. Year-round heating, cooking and preparation of livestock feed require large volumes of fuelwood. While consumption levels vary with altitude and between ethnic groups, an average household will consume between 10-30 cubic meters of fuelwood per year.
Before the logging ban, a substantial percentage of fuel wood was collected from logging slash on state-owned lands; now villagers are forced to rely more heavily on their own collective forests. In most areas, these forests are not managed in a sustainable manner.