Wednesday, Jun 1, 2016, 7:39 AM CST – China



Land of Hope

Wildlife populations have exploded after years of decline on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Many have attributed the success of conservation efforts to the role of local minority communities in the Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve project

Qiong Zhe, 50, Tibetan herdsman and voluntary anti-poaching ranger Photo by Zhu Hongzhi

In Tibetan Buddhism, water is viewed as a sacred spirit. This prayer tablet at the source of the Zhaqu river is tended by locals in Ganda village Photo by Zhu Hongzhi

Thanks to greater awareness and better protection, chiru populations are on the increase Photo by Zhu Hongzhi

Without fenced-off private pastureland in Cuochi, wild animals like Tibetan wild ass have free reign Photo by Zhu Hongzhi

Our pickup truck left Qumahe town to judder along a dirt road towards Cuochi, a village 230 kilometers to the west. Cuochi is now the fulcrum for the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve (SNNR), a sprawling alpine grassland 4,000 meters above sea level.

To me, a city-dwelling Han Chinese, wild animals seemed more numerous than people in this desolate but beautiful region. Herds of Tibetan gazelles raised their graceful heads to peer with disinterest at our passing vehicle before continuing to graze. Tibetan wild asses, known locally as kiang stood as motionless and proud as the Monarch of the Glen, brown smudges on the distant horizon.

Losa, 30, a Cuochi local and my driver, turned his head. "Nowadays the animals are not as scared of people as they were in the 80s and 90s," he said. "Back then, hunting was rife and all wildlife fled at the sound of an engine."

Like most local people living in this vast and remote region, Losa used to hunt and eat local fauna. Now, he educates out-of-towners like me about the spectacular species which inhabit his area. How times change.


Sanjiangyuan, or "Source of Three Rivers," is where the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong (Lancang) rivers originate, a vast area of some 366,000 square kilometers (141,313 square miles) and dominating the southeast corner of Qinghai Province.

  Apart from its status as "China's water tower," the SNNR's glaciers are also the source of major waterways from Myanmar to Vietnam, providing drinking water to tens of millions of people. The rich turf and ample fresh water supply as well as its remoteness from the human realm has made Sanjiangyuan one of the world's most diverse ecosystems, home to rare and unique species such as the Tibetan antelope, Tibetan wild ass, argali sheep, Tibetan gazelle, red fox, Tibetan fox, wolves, black wild yak and musk deer.

In 2000 the SNNR was made a national-level nature reserve covering an area roughly the size of Germany. 7.5 billion yuan (US$1.2bn) was invested by the central government to preserve the full ecosystem with all its flora and fauna, and to maintain the livelihood of the diffuse Tibetan communities living within its borders.

Studies have shown that in the last decade, enforcement of wildlife protection in Qinghai Province has resulted in increases in the breeding populations of both Tibetan gazelles and kiang. With this increasing prey base, the number of sightings of snow leopards, one of the world's rarest carnivores, has also increased (see: "Cat's Cradle", NewsChina, December 2012).

Biodiversity research conducted in August 2012 by the Sanjiangyuan Reserve Administration, the Center of Nature and Society at Peking University and the Shanshui Conservation Center reported sightings of seven snow leopards during a twenty-day field study in the SNNR, also recording a jump in the number of wild blue sheep, another major food source for snow leopards, to some 20 per square kilometer.

However, the scars of the 1980s and early 1990s, when many local fauna were hunted to the brink of extinction, will take decades to heal. The Tibetan antelope, or chiru especially suffered from intensive poaching to feed the underground bushmeat, wool and traditional Chinese medicine markets. Wool from the chiru is especially prized, and was smuggled by the ton into India where it would be woven into expensive shahtoosh shawls. In the 1990s, the chiru almost became extinct as a result of poaching.

Local Voices

As our vehicle bounced toward Cuochi, we crossed the expansive Lematan range, where a motorcyclist wrapped in a heavy coat flagged us down. I almost fell over after stepping out of the warm vehicle - despite the bright sunlight, a howling winter wind kept the air temperature well below zero.

The motorcyclist, Qiong Zhe, 50, told us he was a patrolman from the Chiru Brigade, an anti-poaching outfit charged with protecting chiru in the areas around Lechi village, a short drive from Cuochi. Tanned and weathered, Qiong tucked his hands into his armpits to protect against frostbite, talking up his team of 50 rangers, all of whom are volunteers from local villages. Apart from their responsibilities herding their family livestock, Qiong and his teammates are responsible for chasing off poachers or prospectors, either on motorcycle or horseback. They also perform a monthly head count of local chiru, reporting their findings to village officials who then pass on their information to zoologists and conservationists. The top figure reached so far, according to Qiong Zhe, was 800 head of chiru.

"I like wild animals, and Tibetan Buddhism teaches us that every life is equal, thus we need to protect them," said Qiong Zhe. "We started this initiative in 2010 under the influence of our neighboring village - Cuochi."

According to Gazong Cairang, Lechi's village chief, the whole Lematan range, an area of some 717,587 square feet of grazing pasture, has been set aside for the exlusive use of chiru. "Lechi is the traditional habitat for chiru," he told me. "After seeing Cuochi's achievements in protecting wildlife, we recognized our responsibility to protect them too."

The Qinghai provincial government has named both Cuochi and Lechi as model villages for community-based environmental conservation and major contributors to zoological research. But, as locals will readily explain, part of their motivation to protect the local wildlife is spiritual, rather than scientific. During the Cultural Revolution, the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and the resident priesthood came under withering attack, with local religious beliefs and associated culture almost completely eradicated. Still reeling from this shock, in 1985 locals faced an unprecedented blizzard that killed most of their livestock and ruined many acres of pasture. Many families, facing starvation, turned to hunting to feed themselves.

A Tibetan Buddhist revival was a contributing factor to the decline of hunting. A Rinpoche or high-ranking lama arrived in Cuochi and Lechi to preach compassion for all life and respect for the mountains and rivers that nurtured it. The involvement of local monasteries or monks in environmental protection, while often omitted from official media reports on the SNNR, is crucial to the conservation effort (see: "A Sacred Responsibility," NewsChina, September 2011). 

Cuochi village banned hunting in 1988 "in the interests of karma," and set up their own community laws for the punishment of poachers. "Even before the government drive to confiscate all guns and rifles in early 2000, the villagers had already stopped hunting," said Gama, Cuochi's Party Secretary.

According to Gama, Cuochi's conservation drive began with concern for declining wild yak populations caused by interbreeding with domesticated yak, resulting in robust and valuable hybrids. In 2004, Tashi Dorjie, or Zhaduo as he is commonly known, an ethnic Tibetan born in Cuochi and founder of the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGREPA) helped his home village to set up the Wild Yak Brigade anti-poaching initiative. Tusong, Cuochi's village head, told me that an initial team of 56 volunteers has since grown to over 200. "Four times a year, they set off to count the wildlife within our village area of about 2000 square kilometers (772 square miles), keep track of animals movements, record weather conditions and observe the mountain glaciers" said Tusong. "Generally, the patrol takes a whole day and requires a 20 kilometer motorcycle or horseback ride."

"We used to have frequent heavy storms, even droughts in the previous decade, but after we started the protection program, we noticed the grass grew better and the livestock seemed healthier," Gama told me. "We will continue on to attain a benign cycle. Now wild yaks and chiru are not afraid of human beings or vehicles, even car horns!"


Under the seven-year-long first phase of the SNNR plan, the Qinghai provincial government also adopted so-called "eco-migration" policies in the name of easing human strain on natural resources, specifically the overgrazing of pastureland.

Since 2005, a total of 50,000 people, mostly ethnic Tibetans, were relocated from their original pastureland in the area to suburban areas of nearby population centers. In contrast to similar programs in other parts of China, however, where locals have effectively been forced from their ancestral homes, eco-migration in this remote region is, at least officially, entirely voluntary. Thus, while some families have chosen to relocate, a significant community of nomadic herdspeople have remained on their pastureland. In Cuochi, for example, out of 301 families in 2005, only 43 families have since moved to Golmud and other cities.

Gama said Cuochi has also refused government demands that they enclose private pasture- each household continues to use their own traditional winter and summer pastures, and the village has also reserved common grazing land for use in emergencies.

"The reduction of livestock is not a good thing for pastureland. Without yak and sheep droppings, or regular trampling, there is not enough nutrition for the grass to grow," said Ouyao, a SGREPA project manager. "Eco-migration has encouraged the departure of most of our young people and children. I fear they might cut their ties with the land, the livestock, and never return."

"All the traditions have been lost, and I expect that in no more than 20 to 30 years, if there are people herding, they will not be local Tibetans, but outsiders hired by big companies or rich investors," he continued.

"Things are interconnected," Zhaduo remarked in our interview. "Modern lifestyles and eco-migration drove more youngsters away to study, so there are not enough people to herd sheep. That's why most households only raise yaks."

UNEP GEO 5 report states that "the exclusion of local communities from many State and privately protected areas along with a failure to fully acknowledge their role in safeguarding biodiversity remains a challenge to real progress."

"Agreement Protection"

Due to its achievements, in 2006 Cuochi has was made a pilot region for a new protection model entitled "Agreement Protection" promoted by environmental NGOs including Conservation International and the Shanshui Conservation Center with endorsement from Sanjiangyuan Reserve Administration, a government-backed authority.

According to the ground-breaking agreement, Sanjiangyuan Reserve Administration signed a two-year renewable contract with Cuochi village, stating that responsibility for the protection and monitoring of wildlife fell within the responsibilities of the local villagers, with the associated bodies responsible for providing academic guidance and financial support.

So far, the new model has operated smoothly, with patrols now equipped with cameras, binoculars, and professional outdoor clothing and equipment to deal with the harsh terrain. Detailed and scientific records are now habitually presented to local administrators.

"This is indeed not an issue of money, but authority," Zhaduo told me in his office in Xining, the provincial capital. "The spontaneous protection of the community is the most cost-effective method of conservation, since the people who live on the land know it the best.

"So long as these people are willing to guard their own living homeland, once they are endowed with power and capability, they will do a great job. The locals here are the main protectors of the environment, so when we started conservation work on the plateau, the most important thing was to involve the locals," he continued.

Wang Xiaoyi, a sociologist from the China Academy of Social Sciences has publicly endorsed Agreement Protection as a viable alternative to existing conservation initiatives, many of which have led to the decimation of ethnic communities followed by widespread environmental degradation.

"This might be a very meaningful new attempt ignited by environmental NGOs," he said. "However, protection of the SNNR is a very complicated issue. Without a sound complex regional and village-level framework, its effect in some areas is limited."

My curiosity about the spread of these community-based conservation initiatives took me to Yunta, a village on the banks of the Yangtze, where a similar scheme has just gotten underway.

When I arrived on a gloomy afternoon in mid-February, local Dang Wen was preparing for his monthly patrol. Thanks to the cultivation of local caterpillar fungus (Cordyceps), a popular and valuable component in traditional Chinese medicine, local villagers are relatively well-off, with average annual incomes of 100,000 to 150,000 yuan (US$16,000 to 24,000). Located in a valley and surrounded by rocky cliffs and alpine forests, the territory is rich in blue sheep, bear, deer, and snow leopards.

"We spend two days each month in the mountain valleys to see if there is illegal deforestation or poaching going on, as well as collecting garbage," said Dang Wen. "Our data have been kept updated since October 2012, and we pass the results on to the Shanshui Conservation Center."

Yunta's villagers, according to the superior Haxiu township head Xiran, have always had a strong affection for local wildlife. The village has already sent a prospecting outfit from the Guizhou Province Nonferrous Metal Bureau packing, despite the company's presence being approved by the hugely powerful national Bureau of Land and Resources.

"We are thankful for the clean water, fresh air and everything else nature has bestowed upon us," said Dang Wen. "I have no plans to leave my home village and I hope my children will stay in this beautiful paradise instead of going to the big city to make money."

George Schaller, a renowned biologist and veteran of the Tibetan plateau remarked in his recent book Tibet Wild: "It has become axiomatic that conservation can be successful only if local communities are fully involved in planning and implementing management efforts. Indeed, rangelands lend themselves well to long-term conservation as long as the approach is adaptive and flexible, and pastoralists can remain mobile. Other countries, such as the US, Australia, and many African countries, have degraded their rangelands extensively through indifference, negligence, greed imperfect scientific information, and lack of suitable policies."

Schaller concludes: "We can learn from their mistakes and should apply any relevant knowledge there, and initiative largely to responsibility of Chinese scientists in cooperation with provincial and local officials and with community leaders."

Conservation on the Tibetan plateau, one of China's most vulnerable remaining ecosystems, has become a major concern for government at all levels. There are rumors that the government is about to pour another 10 billion yuan  (US$16bn) into the region, but how this money will be spent remains unclear.

Mining, sand excavation, road construction and tourist development are all encroaching on the local habitats of wild animals, as well as contributing to deforestation and receding water resources.

Locals are aware that, while they are currently able to fight off destructive enterprise, their power is limited by China's top-down development strategy, putting the future survival of these regions at the mercy of Beijing policymakers. "Can you tell me what would happen if mining or prospecting in these regions were endorsed by the central or provincial government, rather than by private companies?" Dang Wen asked me. "We couldn't stop them. What would we do?"

Mining in particular is feared by communities on the Tibetan plateau, which is as rich in mineral wealth as it is in wildlife. Zhaduo told me that there are over 100 mines in the Sanjiangyuan region, including some joint-venture projects with Canadian mining company Inter-Citic located only 12 kilometers upstream from the SNNR Core Zone. Inner Mongolia, formerly a pristine steppe populated almost entirely by nomadic herding communities, has now been eviscerated by similar profusions of open-cast mining and sprawling urban developments (see: "What's Yours is Mined," NewsChina, November 2012)

I had no answer for Dang Wen. I was reluctant to raise other examples where community-based conservation has been shunted aside in favor of industrial and commercial development, such as Evenki trapping communities in the northeast. I simply offered up a silent hope that community-based protection efforts such as his, rather than the entreaties of State-backed mining conglomerates, would make their voices heard in the corridors of power.


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