The Devouring Dragon: How China's Rise Threatens Our Natural World

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A pioneering, investigative look at China's devastating effect on the world's environment and the future of life on Earth


China is transforming our natural world at an alarming rate. It is the world's largest market for endangered wildlife, poached from India and Africa. It is the top importer of tropical timber, harvested illegally in Indonesia. In Brazil, farmers clear large swaths of the Amazon rainforest to meet Chinese demand for soybean...

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The Devouring Dragon: How China's Rise Threatens Our Natural World

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A pioneering, investigative look at China's devastating effect on the world's environment and the future of life on Earth


China is transforming our natural world at an alarming rate. It is the world's largest market for endangered wildlife, poached from India and Africa. It is the top importer of tropical timber, harvested illegally in Indonesia. In Brazil, farmers clear large swaths of the Amazon rainforest to meet Chinese demand for soybean oil and beef.  In the U.S., toxic levels of mercury originating from Chinese power plants have polluted a third of American lakes and nearly a quarter of its rivers.

Craig Simons's new book, The Devouring Dragon, looks at how China, in its ascendance, has become the world's worst polluting superpower, creating a devastating environmental impact worldwide. Simons argues that China's most significant impacts over the twenty-first century will be not only on jobs, corporate profits and political alliances, but also on our natural world. The Devouring Dragon combines in-depth reporting with wide-ranging interviews, scientific research, and travel to some of the most beautiful places on earth. It amply demonstrates the urgency of the issue and also hope for the future. With the Obama administration placing China among its top three foreign policy priorities, Craig Simons argues eloquently for ways in which the United States and China can forge a new era of cooperation, support emerging environmental groups within China,  and begin to ensure a sustainable future for the planet.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Environmental journalist Simons, who spent years reporting from Asia, recounts his adventures witnessing the mind-boggling extent of devastation wreaked on the Chinese—and global—landscape by unchecked growth. Pairing on-site observations and interviews with data taken from academic research and government reports, the author paints a dire picture of the wanton destruction of entire ecosystems, choking pollution that shaves years off of life expectancy, and massive climate change, which he predicts will become “humanity’s most important challenge.” Simons’s tour of the Three Gorges Dam, which has displaced millions of people and could mean extinction for dozens of species, reveals a tightly controlled propaganda operation designed to hide any downside risk, which only foreigners are foolish enough to ask about. Meanwhile, Chinese industry is turning some of the last old-growth forests in India and Papua New Guinea into furniture, and darkening the air with soot half a world away over the Rocky Mountains. As lively and colorful as it is depressing and enraging, the book is long on anecdotes, but short on concrete policy suggestions. Simons’s vague recommendation that “we need to think differently” leads one to suspect that the situation will only get worse. Agent: Janet Silver, Zachary Schuster Harmsworth. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Combining history, scientific research, statistics, and extensive travel, reporter Simons illustrates the environmental consequences of one nation's rapid economic ascendancy. Simons's thesis is simple: that in little more than a decade China has physically changed the face of the planet, with as yet undetermined consequences. Like Jonathan Watts's bestseller, When A Billion Chinese Jump, but with a wider geographical perspective, Simons supports his arguments with interviews of leading scientists and policymakers across continents, and with voluminous statistics from the U.N. Environment Program, World Bank, International Energy Agency, and a host of other sources. Covering from the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea to tiger preserves in India, and from small villages to megacities across China, Simons informs his narrative with the language and perceptions of indigenous peoples impacted by this looming environmental disaster. VERDICT Though painfully bleak at times, this work is nonetheless a significant contribution to the body of literature documenting the catastrophic environmental toll of unbridled economic development in the 21st century. Of special interest to historians, policymakers, ecologists, and other scientists specializing in this world region.—John Creech, Central Washington Univ. Lib., Ellensburg
Kirkus Reviews
A frank, depressing wake-up call of impending environmental disaster. You can't fault the developing Chinese world for wanting the same prosperity enjoyed by Americans and Western Europeans. Yet, as China-based journalist Simons notes, the world's resources are nearly exhausted, and there are simply too many Chinese growing too quickly for healthy sustainability on the planet. In alternating chapters, the author looks at significant facets of the shrinking natural world in China and affected environs due to pollution, exhaustion and extinction resulting from China's staggering economic growth and industrialization since the 1970s: vanishing fish, such as the Chinese sturgeon and the ancient, blind white river dolphin (baiji), from the polluted Yangtze River; thinning numbers of endangered animals such as tigers, orangutans, rhinoceroses, tortoises and others due to their relentless, widespread use in traditional Chinese medicine cures; and greenhouse gas emissions that have surpassed the West. Simons explores why there is not more of an ecological outcry: New "baselines" of sustainability are continually set, and expectations continue to slide, so ideas about normality have shifted. Simons suggests a helpful way of thinking about and managing the crisis--biologist E.O. Wilson's acronym HIPPO, or "habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population growth, and overharvesting"--and the author reports from shrinking forests in Papua New Guinea and neighboring India for a deeper look at the extent of the environmental devastation. He cites some of the failed progress after the Kyoto Protocol and Copenhagen Accord and suggests that a shared sense of responsibility can help "save what's left." A step-by-step grasping of the enormity of an impending biodiversity crisis.
From the Publisher
"As lively and colorful as it is depressing and enraging."—Publishers Weekly

"A frank, depressing wake-up call of impending environmental disaster. A step-by-step grasping of the enormity of an impending biodiversity crisis."—Kirkus

"From the coal mines of Colorado to the forests of Papua New Guinea, and all over China in between, Craig Simons illustrates from the ground up how the Middle Kingdom's economic takeoff is upending the planet at the very moment it is reaching an environmental tipping point. The book is both a gripping grassroots narrative of economic development as well as a heartfelt plea for the future."—Richard McGregor, author of The Party and Washington Bureau chief for the Financial Times

"China’s insatiable appetite for resources has raised the world’s metabolism in ways that you could never imagine. Craig Simons' Devouring Dragon takes you clear across the globe—from the ghost town of Trinidad, Colo., to a jungle in Papua New Guinea to the world’s largest dam on the Yangtze River — as he tells the fascinating story of the world’s interconnectedness. This is the most important book about the environment in years, scary, riveting and packed with insight into how the world’s resources are exploited for economic growth."—Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood

"In The Devouring Dragon, Craig Simons gives a lucid portrayal of the ways in which the world is being changed by China’s rise. The science and the statistics are sobering, but so are the human faces behind the numbers as Simons writes with deep sympathy for people struggling to overcome poverty and isolation: the New Guinean who longs to travel, the Chinese farm family who, despite being careful consumers, are part of a massive transformation that threatens to throw the world out of balance."—Peter Hessler, author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip and Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China

"Simons paints a devastating picture of the global consequences of China’s relentless and rapacious growth, from the clear-cutting of the earth’s last stands of exotic hardwoods to the extinction of major animal species, from coal dust that reaches Oregon to the crippling pollution that swaddles China’s cities. China’s rise, as Simons shows, has raised hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty; the cost, environmentally and ecologically, has been calamitous for the planet."—Edward A. Gargan, author of The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong

"The Devouring Dragon offers a wide-ranging, carefully researched, and ultimately chilling account of China's impact on global biodiversity and climate change. Craig Simons journeys around the world to speak to illegal loggers, biologists tracking species extinction, and a panoply of Chinese — whose appetite for resources and a higher standard of living is catalyzing a planetary environmental crisis. By turns diverting and personal, informative and thoughtful, this book serves as an urgent call for all of us to change our patterns of consumption before it is too late."Judith Shapiro, author of China's Environmental Challenges and Mao's War against Nature

"A compelling and superbly written account of China’s massive environmental impact around the globe. A must read for any thoughtful citizen, The Devouring Dragon portrays the choice before humanity: a headlong rush to a highly degraded planet OR a truly sustainable path that respects the wondrous living planet and its promise for all."—Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy George Mason University Biodiversity Chair The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment

"From Papua New Guinea to Trinidad, USA, Simons goes further than anyone before him in tracing the impact of China's rise on the global environment. Adroitly blending science and theory with personal stories and on-the-road reportage, this book vividly describes the risks posed by climate change and biodiversity loss as Chinese consumers follow the unsustainable path set by their counterparts in the West. The author does not flinch from grim stories, but neither is he overwhelmed by them. This book ends with an optimistic message of empowerment and change."—Jonathan Watts, author of When a Billion Chinese Jump

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312581763
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/12/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.36 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

CRAIG SIMONS has reported on the environment from twelve Asian nations for Newsweek and Cox Newspapers. He has also written for Outside, Backpacker, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Last year he was one of twelve journalists to win a prestigious Knight Fellowship from MIT. He lives in China.

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Read an Excerpt

The Devouring Dragon

How China's Rise Threatens Our Natural World
By Craig Simons

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Craig Simons
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312581763

On a warm, gray afternoon I found myself standing on a cracked mud bank of the world’s third-longest river thinking about what it is and was and could become. The scene looked nothing like the Yangtze popularized in scroll paintings and travel guidebook photographs. There were no mist-shrouded mountains or wooden fishing boats, no swooping sparrows or spindle-legged herons, no blue-water waves or Buddhist pagodas.
Instead, I looked across a quarter mile of turbid, rust-colored water flecked with trash. A dirty rubber ball, a few soda bottles, and a crumpled potato chip bag floated next to a hunk of Styrofoam. Two medicine vials and a rotting cabbage had washed ashore near the disintegrating hull of an abandoned ferry. A half-dozen barges carrying small mountains of goods—coal, steel, motorcycles, giant metal containers—pushed upstream against foot-high waves, each pouring a chimney of smoke into the smoggy sky.
The Yangtze cuts a line through the heart of China, traveling thirty-nine hundred miles from a glacier high on the Tibetan plateau to where it empties into the East China Sea just north of Shanghai, and I was standing roughly at its midpoint, in the center of Chongqing, a city most famous to Westerners as the launching point for trips through the Three Gorges, the narrow, steep canyons through which the Yangtze funnels on its journey east. Until 2006, when the Chinese Communist Party celebrated the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, tens of thousands of foreigners traveled to Chongqing each year to board cruise ships that took them through the gorges, and the river became as well known outside of China as the Great Wall or Beijing’s Forbidden City. Early visitors included people like Archibald Little, a merchant who boated through the gorges in 1887 and was careful to write down each day’s date because, as he put it, the “river varies so wonderfully at different seasons that any description must be carefully understood only to apply to the day upon which it is written.”
But the dam had changed everything. Standing by the river, watching the barges grind their way past a landscape of construction cranes and half-finished apartment buildings, listening to the din of traffic, I couldn’t imagine any seasonal variation. Soon, the only way the river would mark the movement from summer to fall and fall to winter was by where its waters fell against black and white numbers painted on concrete banks. On the day I stood on its shore, the Yangtze had reached 163. Translated, that meant the top of the Three Gorges Dam reservoir was 163 meters—534 feet—above the base of the dam, still too low to reach Chongqing but close.
*   *   *
For China, the Yangtze River and its Three Gorges hold an almost mythical prominence. The Chinese call the Yangtze the Chang Jiang—the Long River—and it has played a central role in history as far back as one cares to look. Many of China’s earliest-known Neolithic societies lived along its banks: two and a half millennia ago, the people of a kingdom known as the Ba buried their dead in caves high in the cliffs of the gorges, a practice that showed an early sophistication of both communities and technology. More recently, the river became the locus of revolutionary history: the Heavenly Kingdom of the Taiping, a band of rebels that almost toppled the Qing dynasty in 1860, built their capital in Nanjing, the first major city upstream from Shanghai; the Republican Revolution of 1911, which finally ended two millennia of imperial rule, began in Wuhan, a sprawling city on the Yangtze’s middle stretches; during World War II, Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist government, the Kuomintang, retreated up the river with a flotilla of junks carrying everything from dismantled power plants to the nation’s treasury.
After the Three Gorges Dam split the Yangtze in half in 2003, it had taken on grander meanings, becoming a symbol of both China’s ambitious rise and how that growth has damaged the natural world. When the dam was completed, Beijing released a list of world records set by the project, among them that the dam and power plant were the world’s biggest, eventually capable of supplying 85 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity—enough to run a city of 17 million people; required the largest-ever forced-resettlement for a single structure—necessitating the movement of some 1.4 million people; and used more dirt, stone, concrete, and steel than any other project ever built anywhere.1 It also created the world’s longest man-made lake, a reservoir stretching 360 miles—nearly half the length of California—that has turned what was once a beautiful and challenging river journey into a pancake-flat lake with a dirty bathtub ring. Today, fewer foreigners make the trip. But just as Americans flocked to the Hoover Dam in the 1950s, Chinese tourists have made up the difference as they rush to gaze proudly on a cradle of their nation’s early history and, sometimes more ardently, on their own wonder of the modern world.
I, on the other hand, had flown to Chongqing in search of a fish. A few months earlier I had come across a brief article about Chinese sturgeon, a fish I knew little about, and clicked open the link to find a photograph of a scientist holding a man-size animal with giant, armor-like scales. The story explained that the species had lived in the Yangtze for 130 million years but now teetered on the brink of extinction. Its size was also impressive: Chinese sturgeon, Acipenser sinensis, can live for forty years and grow to sixteen feet, making it one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. (I would later learn that the Chinese paddlefish, another Yangtze species, can reach twenty-three feet, giving it the title, but none had been seen in the wild since 2003 and it is probably extinct.)
The approaching extinction of a species that had seen the arrival and disappearance of the dinosaur age seemed more important than the daily drumbeat of Chinese economic and political news, and over the next months I became obsessed with the fish. I read books and journal articles and learned that, like salmon, Chinese sturgeon spend much of their lives in the Pacific Ocean, sometimes traveling as far as Japan before finding their way home. Before the Three Gorges Dam and an earlier, smaller dam, they swam more than a thousand miles upriver to spawn in what must have been one of nature’s most spectacular wildlife moments: thousands of minivan-sized animals flopping around in shallow streams and marshes.
I visited a hatchery where a Chinese scientist explained that sturgeon are among the oldest surviving members of Actinopterygii, the class of fish that dominate today’s rivers, lakes, and oceans—accounting for 96 percent of all fish species—and represent a delicate thread to the biological history of mammals, including humans. The earliest sturgeon fossils so far found are 300 million years old, squarely in the Paleozoic Era, and some scientists believe they evolved 100 million years before that.2 If they’re right, sturgeon would have been alive when the first fish crawled out of a river, establishing the long tradition of land animals. (The first vertebrate to leave water—Tiktaalik roseae—is believed to have emerged from an equatorial river roughly 375 million years ago.) One source put their seniority into perspective by collapsing the last 600 million years into a single year: January 1 represented the day the first multicellular animals appeared; the first vertebrates arrived on the morning of February 27; assuming that sturgeon evolved 400 million years ago, they punched in on May 2; the first primate emerged on November 9; modern humans—Homo sapiens—evolved at three hours before midnight on December 31.
I was also struck by how badly sturgeon fared over the twentieth century and, in the bigger picture, what their plight says about the future of the world’s rivers. One book noted that “as recently as 1890 the biomass of Atlantic and short-nosed sturgeons in Delaware Bay was in the neighborhood of 48 million pounds.”3 Native American tribes built weirs from tree branches and trapped Atlantic sturgeon as they migrated to breed. In Europe, members of the Viennese royal court amused themselves along the Danube River by firing cannons at “fleet-sized squadrons of migrating beluga sturgeons.”4
Today, there are no sturgeon in the Delaware Bay or anywhere between there and North Carolina’s Cape Fear River, and a person would be extremely unlikely to kill a beluga in the Danube with a cannon or any other weapon, since they’re almost all gone. In 2009, all twenty-seven of the world’s sturgeon species were listed on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the most important tally of endangered species. A recent notice by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stated that “the Caspian Sea population is believed to be so depleted that natural reproduction in the wild may be insufficient to sustain the species.” In Russia’s Volga River, “the number of female sturgeons … was considered insufficient to even support artificial propagation efforts.”
I decided to learn about sturgeon—and particularly Chinese sturgeon, perhaps the most endangered of the group—while a few still survived, and, a few phone calls later, was talking with Wei Qiwei, a professor at the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute and one of China’s top sturgeon experts. Wei was happy to help. In fact, a student named Wang Chengyou was planning to spend a few weeks looking at sturgeon just west of the Three Gorges Dam. Would I like to tag along?
*   *   *
Wang Chengyou was tall and whip thin, like a tree that has spent all its energy growing upward and had nothing left to add heft. At twenty-five, he had the distracted look typical of graduate students—disheveled, with his hair unkempt and his glasses smudged. When I met him, he was wearing blue jeans, battered knockoff Nike sneakers, and a white and yellow T-shirt that he had put on, intentionally or not, inside out. His enthusiasm was even more striking: he had the energy of someone who needed to collect thousands of data points to make more than the 700 yuan—just over $100—monthly salary his position offered. He was on the river, where he could collect copious amounts of information, and so he was hopeful.
When I’d called Wang a few weeks earlier, he had sketched out our plan. The Chinese Academy of Fisheries Sciences, a national agency tasked with managing China’s fish populations, had learned to raise sturgeon in captivity and each year dumped several thousand fish into the river just east of the Three Gorges Dam. Then its scientists crossed their fingers and hoped some would make it to Shanghai without getting hit by boats or caught in fishing nets or killed by passing pipefuls of industrial pollution. If they swam that gauntlet, the sturgeon would eventually reach the Pacific, and from there they might return years later to spawn.
But the Yangtze River Fisheries Research Institute had started releasing fish more than a decade earlier and the program had been a failure: in 2008, only six sturgeon had made their way up the Yangtze to spawn in their last remaining breeding ground and most of their eggs were defective, possibly because water flowing from the dam comes from the bottom of a five-hundred-foot-deep lake and is colder than what sturgeons have been used to for millions of years.
The institute was desperate to find another way to keep wild sturgeon alive and had tasked Wang with releasing five adult fish upstream from the dam to see if they survived. Since sturgeon have evolved to spend much of their lives at sea—sometimes traveling for ten years—it seemed unlikely that they would adapt to a giant, dirty reservoir, but Wang looked at the problem scientifically: until he had enough data to say that it couldn’t be done, hopefully in the form of a doctoral dissertation, anything was possible.
And so we stood together on a bank of the Yangtze River in the middle of Chongqing waiting for a truck carrying five Acipenser sinensis. As we kicked at bits of trash that had washed ashore, I asked Wang how he had ended up studying the fish.
Western scientists generally have stories about how they fell in love with their subjects, but Chinese are almost always more practical: for Wang, the journey to the Yangtze had started in a poor farming village where his parents had invested their savings to help him escape. He had studied hard and tested into a teachers training college, and when he was about to graduate, a professor had asked if he wanted to study sturgeon.
Wang knew nothing about the fish, but the job sounded better than teaching at a rural high school and, without thinking much, he accepted. When he arrived at the research institute he walked to a tank holding Chinese sturgeon and looked at the animal he would spend years of his life trying to understand. He found them beautiful.
“I remember thinking they were very large and had a good color,” Wang said. He was even more impressed by their pedigree: “When I learned that Chinese sturgeon are one of the world’s oldest-living species, I realized it would be a shame if they went extinct.”
As I got to know Wang, I learned that he was also concerned because the Chinese sturgeon is akin to a canary in a coal mine. That night we met for dinner at a restaurant where diners cooked a wide variety of vegetables and indistinguishable animal parts in huge vats of boiling oil and water. As we picked through the meal, Wang explained the plight of sturgeon as one of greater ecological collapse.
To get a sense of how badly the Yangtze has been misused, one needs to imagine it thousands of years ago, before people began to dominate its ecology. From its headwaters in China’s northwestern Qinghai Province, it flowed through one of the world’s most diverse landscapes. In China’s far west, it wound through accordion-like valleys on the Tibetan plateau that even today protect dwindling populations of snow leopards, cranes, wild goats, and takin—a relative of the ox that looks like a cross between a moose, a cow, and a bear. From the thin, clear air of Tibet the river rushed down remote canyons to the Sichuan basin, where it widened and slowed through forests teeming with wildlife. Historical and archaeological records show that the wilderness along the Yangtze’s eastern half sheltered rhinoceros, tigers, deer, several species of monkeys, pandas, and a forest-dwelling cousin of the African elephant. Few people have studied the river’s ichthyological history, but because Yangtze exploitation became severe only in the 1970s, it preserves a remnant of that earlier diversity. More than 350 species of fish have been recorded in its basin, one-third of them found nowhere else. Among the unique endemic species are, or in some cases were, the Chinese sturgeon, a rare finless porpoise, a dolphin, giant soft-shelled turtles, and the only alligators found outside of North America.
Chinese have lived along the Yangtze for millennia, but the beginning of the river’s rapid deterioration can be traced to a push for industrialization in the beginning of the late 1970s. Today the Yangtze River basin accounts for 40 percent of China’s economic output and almost one-third of its people. It supplies more than 70 percent of China’s rice and fish—most raised in ponds laced with antibiotics—and absorbs more than 40 percent of its sewage, four-fifths of it untreated.5
Because the river annually carries 900 billion tons of water, enough to fill Lake Erie twice, experts once assumed that it would flush out any toxins people threw into it. But the combination of slow-moving reservoirs and factory-dumped chemicals has led to serious health problems. A 1998 study of irrigation water used in the Yangtze basin found cadmium levels 160 times above the allowable standard.6 Tests found that people living in the area had consumed levels of the heavy metal nearly high enough to cause itai-itai, a disease that weakens bones and causes kidney failure. In 2008, a group of Chinese and Swiss scientists measured pollution in the river and found cadmium, mercury, and chromium, a sometimes carcinogenic heavy metal, exceeding European safety standards by as much as 500 percent. “The enormous loads … may assume a disastrous effect in the Yangtze estuary where it flows into the East China Sea,” the scientists wrote.7
Wang also knew that the Three Gorges Dam is making the situation worse. The reservoir has submerged more than one hundred cities and towns and tens of thousands of acres of farmland, most of which had not been cleaned before they were flooded.8 A 2006 report by Chinese hydrologists called the Yangtze “cancerous” and warned that more than two-thirds of its length could be effectively dead—unable to support most of the plants at the bottom of the food chain—within five years.9 Landslides also became a problem as the reservoir rose, and scientists warned that its weight might hasten or intensify earthquakes.10
To me, the four decades of abuse looked like an enormous experiment in how quickly people can destroy large, seemingly impervious ecosystems, with the species that lived in the river acting as bellwethers. Between 1980 and 2005, the catch of wild Yangtze fish had fallen by 75 percent, leaving many species threatened or extinct.11 Most had slipped away with little notice, though the baiji, a blind white river dolphin that inhabited the river for 20 million years, had attracted a brief upswell of concern. A team of international scientists spent six weeks looking for baiji, pronounced bye-gee, in 2006. After failing to find any, they declared the dolphin extinct, earning it the distinction of being the first large mammal killed off since the Caribbean monk seal was hunted out of existence in the 1950s.12
Wang drew his own lessons. For him, the Yangtze’s collapse was a worrying marker of modern China’s greater environmental crisis. “We need to do a much better job at protecting the environment,” he said. “We’re only beginning to realize how bad things are and what the consequences could be.”
*   *   *
Our sturgeons arrived late in the afternoon on the back of a blue East Wind truck, the ubiquitous workhorse of China’s economic growth, and we followed it through Chongqing’s urban sprawl, past a China Telecom office and a branch of the Bank of Chongqing and a shop advertising “European-style furniture.” It was a warm June day and hundreds of stores had set their merchandise on the sidewalks: air conditioners, plastic mahjong tables, racks of clothing, bins of toys, and all of the other thousands of things that people buy.
Like most Chinese cities, Chongqing is better measured by its population density than by its population: 7 million people live in an area roughly half as large as New York, which—with 8 million people—is the most densely settled part of the United States. The result is that people are everywhere, all the time, and while China’s crush is often invigorating, that afternoon it reminded me of Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings, which I had seen years earlier in Madrid’s art museum. Goya had painted the works when he was in his seventies, embittered by recent wars and depressed by his approaching death, and they show a mass of humanity tumbling over itself in competitive despair.
We passed street after street of busy shopping malls and rundown hotels and characterless apartment buildings. Chongqing is built on steep hills that rise from the Yangtze and is famous for its bangbangjun, a phrase that literally translates as “stick-stick army”: because many of its traditional lanes are too narrow for cars, thousands of people find work lugging goods around the city on bamboo poles, and we passed dozens of men bent double under small mountains of plates or car parts, washing machines or baskets stuffed with chickens and rabbits headed to their imminent deaths. Outside the Chongqing train station, a hulking building that could compete as the world’s ugliest structure, an image of Goya’s darkest work—a painting called Saturn Devouring His Son—emerged from my foggy memory: built by the Communist Party at the height of its utilitarian drabness, the building had a blank tile façade punctuated by bare lightbulbs. Hundreds of people wandered through an enormous parking lot ringed by dirty billboards and asphalt gray roads that rose in elevated loops. A huge crowd had gathered around two middle-aged women who stood screaming at each other.
Ten minutes later we turned past a pair of steamrollers and pulled to a stop beside a front-end loader digging sand from a Yangtze riverbank. At the edge of the river, a thirty-foot boat stenciled with the Chinese characters for “Sturgeon Seeker 2” bobbed beside a decommissioned ferry. Wang introduced a thin man wearing worn-out tan slacks and a blue oxford shirt as Yang Xiaohua, our driver.
*   *   *
Over the past decade I had been on the Yangtze a half-dozen times. As a Peace Corps volunteer I rode crowded river ferries to visit friends in cities east of Chongqing. As a journalist I cruised through the Three Gorges in a self-proclaimed five-star ship where I shared my room with a mouse. But this was my first time on the Yangtze in a small boat, and as I rushed to put on my life jacket, I could feel the Yangtze’s power in a way I hadn’t before: the reservoir had yet to reach the city, and the river coursed under our boat in a pulling wave that felt strong enough to send us hurtling eastward. As Wang untied our ropes and Yang throttled the engine, I took a seat in a small, enclosed cockpit and plotted my escape route, should the river prove too strong.
As we slid away from the shore, our engine buzzing over the din of distant car horns, it became clear that Sturgeon Seeker 2 could overpower the Yangtze’s flow and I relaxed enough to focus on where the East Wind truck had pulled to a stop. Two men in rubber hip waders had climbed its side and were struggling to lift a large sturgeon onto a canvas stretcher: the sun had broken through the haze and its gun-metal shine reflected dully through the damp air.
The plan for the rest of the day, and for the coming weeks, was simple: we would release the sturgeons and follow them. Each of the five large fish had been fitted with a small tracking device and Wang had submerged a dozen fixed receivers in the river at various points to the east. He dropped a four-foot-long metal tube—a Vemco VR100 ultrasonic tracking receiver—off the side of the boat and hooked a cable into his laptop. Its screen flickered and then displayed the rough contours of the river bottom. A speaker emitted a static buzz that Wang explained was noise from a coal barge grinding its way up the middle of the channel.
Onshore, the scene was akin to a Federico Fellini movie. A group of men in tight Speedo suits had been swimming at the river’s edge—pushing themselves ten or twenty feet away from the bank and then being swept downstream—and they crowded around as the scientists carried the first sturgeon toward the river. Watching from the boat, thinking about how sturgeon had inhabited the Yangtze for millions of years, the moment seemed a potent metaphor for man’s impact on the natural world: without help, few Yangtze species will survive the coming decades. And then the men waded into the river and released the fish. As it slipped beneath the waves, sharp, metallic beeps cut through the computer’s static.
Wang had given each of the fish a number, and the second release—number 8268, a fish that was five years old and three feet long—seemed unprepared for the Yangtze. Dropped into the river, it moved a few feet from the men and then floated with its head out of the water, its ebony eyes just visible above the dark brown surface. Scientists have written that sturgeons sometimes behave in playful ways—the editors of one academic text admitted surprise at how young sturgeons “demonstrate an uncanny similarity to puppies, swimming in somersaults, wagging their tails and watching with beady, reflective eyes,” behavior that “often allows an attachment between researcher and subject that is unknown with other fish species”—and, to me, the fish seemed sane.13 After being raised in concrete pools, 8268 was finally in the river nature had intended, but it was skeptical of the dirt and noise.
After several minutes, one of the swimmers—a middle-aged man carrying a red buoy as large as a beach ball—swam to the sturgeon and pushed its head underwater. But the fish quickly resurfaced and the surreal dance—the man pushing the fish underwater; the fish returning to look at him—continued for several minutes before the fish finally accepted its fate and, with a slap of its metallic tail, disappeared. Wang’s computer tracked its movements as it dove from eighteen feet to twenty-one feet, heading east, for a few moments one of only two sturgeon alive west of the Three Gorges Dam.
*   *   *
The scientists released the other adult sturgeons and then pulled open a hatch at the back of the truck to dump two hundred sturgeon fry—month-old fish smaller than my hand—into the river in what seemed certain to be a death sentence. Then Yang swung the boat around and we followed the larger fish. Sonar can travel hundreds of feet in rivers, but the noise from boat traffic interfered with the signals and within ten minutes we had lost them. The speaker emitted a static hum that sounded like a soundtrack for a light rain that began to fall.
We cut the engine and drifted east, moving at between ten and twenty miles an hour as the river widened and narrowed, deepened and became shallow. We slipped under two massive suspension bridges and by remnants of the past and tributes to the future: a crumbling stone pagoda sat near a fat power plant cooling tower; packed-earth farmhouses abutted a port where cranes stacked tractor trailer–sized containers into colorful cubes; Chinese characters painted on a large sign read, “Energy comes from nature; save energy to protect nature.” At steady intervals, red 175-meter markers—the height, in meters, that the Three Gorges Dam reservoir would reach when full—were painted on the riverbanks.
We drifted for several hours, the drone of the sonar resonating with the rain, and I tried to imagine the Yangtze as it once was, a majestic river supporting a wide variety of life. But the longer we searched, the more the effort to reintroduce sturgeon seemed a fool’s errand. Instead, I was reminded of the history of global sturgeon exploitation, a slaughter neatly summed up by a group of academics as a story “of human gluttony and greed” and “one of the most telling ways in which humanity has failed in our stewardship of the planet.”14
Even for a fish tale, the details of that extermination are lurid. The first European colonists to North America, for example, initially disdained sturgeon—along with salmon and lobster—at least partly because Native Americans ate it and the colonists wanted to maintain clear culinary boundaries. Until a few colonies faced starvation, they stuck to cod and shad. But after they were forced to eat the fish, they realized sturgeon was easy to catch and tasted fine.
From there, economics began to dictate desire. As European immigrants poured into North America, the prices of more favored fish rose. By the 1850s poorer citizens had developed a taste for smoked sturgeon, which peddlers marketed door-to-door as “Albany beef.” To maximize profits, fishermen found uses for previously discarded parts of the fish: heads were boiled to make oil; swim bladders were used in gelatin.
In 1870, a German immigrant named Bendix Blohm began packaging sturgeon eggs—caviar—along the Hudson River and selling them to Europe, a simple idea that marked the beginning of the end for most of North America’s sturgeon. As Blohm became rich, fishermen began targeting the species, and by 1880, Caviar, New Jersey, had become the world’s top producer of the delicacy, sending fifteen train cars of wild-caught sturgeon eggs to New York City each day. In New York, the best-quality eggs were repackaged and shipped to Europe, but lower-grade eggs were plentiful enough that bars offered them like today’s offer peanuts. The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad sold American caviar in its dining cars at the same price as olives and celery.
The rising trade drove sturgeon fishing across the country. By 1885, almost 9 million pounds of sturgeon meat were being fished from the Great Lakes each year. By the end of the century, Sandusky, Ohio, a small city on the edge of Lake Erie, had replaced Caviar as the world’s top sturgeon market. And as that fishery began to give out, people began hunting sturgeon in the cold, fast rivers of the American northwest, slower southern rivers emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mississippi River watershed.
The resulting collapse has been repeated countless times. Sturgeon can live for over one hundred years and need between seven and twelve years to reach sexual maturity. Mature females spawn only once every few years. By 1900, the thirtieth anniversary of the American caviar industry, most of the sturgeon that would have been swimming up the Delaware River had been killed. “The fish that should have been spawning for the first time in 1900 had never been born,” Inga Saffron writes in Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy. “Their eggs had long ago been eaten.”
The collapse spread west. In 1885, fishermen caught 5 million pounds of sturgeon in Lake Erie. Ten years later their total catch was 200,000 pounds. In 1914, the U.S. Fish Commission reported: “Even in the present generation we have seen the shores of the Potomac River in the vicinity of Mount Vernon lined with the decomposing carcasses of these magnificent fishes, witnesses to the cruelty, stupidity, and profligacy of man, and the same thing has been observed everywhere in our country.”
*   *   *
Two hours after we left the dock, the Sturgeon Seeker 2 drifted into countryside. Rows of corn were planted like dress-brigade soldiers and the land’s fertility was obvious: everything was green—the fields and, between them, narrow pockets of bamboo and palm trees. Sparrows, noticeably absent in the city, skimmed the water hunting insects. But the sonar continued to emit a low static hum and, as dusk fell, Yang started the engine.
An hour later we docked under the neon glow of Chongqing’s night skyline. As we unloaded, I could hear the muffled noise of the city above us—car horns and the dull, thudding bass of a discotheque. We climbed a long concrete staircase toward a looping highway and near the top I turned to look again at the Yangtze. Under the light of a smog-dimmed moon, a tiny wooden fishing boat puttered into the current and passed behind a barge carrying a mountain of coal.
In the gloom I could just make out its name. It was called Giant Ship 99.

Copyright © 2013 by Craig Simons


Excerpted from The Devouring Dragon by Craig Simons Copyright © 2013 by Craig Simons. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Posted April 13, 2013

    What is china thinking??

    Excellent and upsetting book addressing the damage waged on the natural world by the industrial expansion and demands of new money in China. Well written, fast paced, with excellent citations/references at end. Includes: pollution, deforestation of rainforests, endangered precious woods and animal habitat; pressure to kill endangered elephants, tigers, rhinos for ornamentation and medicine-probably driving to extinction. Addresses climate change and the huge amounts of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere from coal fired industries. All current headline material. Indicates that China may be the tipping point regarding the earth's rich environment. A frightening look into the possible future of our planet.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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