China plans national park on Tibetan plateau

| Chistina Larson and Emily Wang 14 Nov 2019

There's a building boom on the Tibetan plateau, one of the world's last remote places. Mountains long crowned by garlands of fluttering prayer flags are newly topped with power lines. At night, illuminated gas stations cast a red glow over new highways.

Ringed by the world's tallest mountains, "the rooftop of the world" is now in the crosshairs of China's latest modernization push, marked by multiplying skyscrapers and high-speed rail lines.

But this time, it's different: the Chinese government wants to set limits on the region's growth to implement its own version of one of the US's proudest legacies - a national park system.

In August, policymakers and scientists convened in Xining, capital of Qinghai province, to discuss China's plans to create a unified system for limiting development and protecting ecosystems.

Zhu Chunquan, the China representative of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, notes that after the economy has boomed, priorities are now expanding to conserving natural resources.

"It's quite urgent as soon as possible to identify the places, the ecosystems [to protect],'' Zhu says. He serves a panel on the development of China's national park system, expected to be unveiled in 2020.

This is "a new and serious effort to safeguard China's biodiversity and natural heritage,'' Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm says.

One of the pilot parks will be in Qinghai in western China, which abuts Tibet and shares its culture. The area also is home to endangered species such as the snow leopard and Chinese mountain cat, and encompasses the source of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers.

But a key question looms already: Can China marry the goals of conservation and tourism while safeguarding livelihoods and culture?

"One of the unique features of China's national parks is that they have local people living either inside or nearby," Zhu says.

When Yellowstone was created in 1872, the US government forced Native Americans in the area to resettle outside the park boundaries. But in the 21st century, countries now must consider how best to include local populations in their planning.

China has previously undertaken vast resettlement programs for large infrastructure projects such as the Three Gorges Dam, which left farmers without suitable agricultural fields or other livelihoods.

But in developing the national parks, the government is giving jobs to people living in the Qinghai pilot park - called Sanjiangyuan - to stay and work on their land.

The "One Family, One Ranger'' program hires one person per family for 1,800 yuan (HK$2,013) a month to perform tasks such as collecting trash and monitoring for poaching.

Kunchok Jangtse is a Tibetan herder who works for the program and volunteers to maintain camera traps for scientists. "Our religion is connected with wild animals because wild animals have a consciousness and can feel love and compassion,'' he says.

He is grateful for the additional income, but hopes his main livelihood won't be impeded and be eventually forced to leave."I'm not a highly educated person, and I am very concerned it may bring many difficulties in my life if I would switch my job,'' he says.

Protected areas are not a new idea in China. In fact, 15 percent of land is already used but many are run without enforceable guidelines.

In contrast, the national parks system being designed now is to incorporate global best practices and new science.

Ouyang Zhiyun, deputy director at the Chinese Academy of Science's Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, was the lead scientist for a "national ecosystems assessment". Now, he is mapping priority areas for conservation, focusing on habitats of endangered species that live only in China.

"If we lose it here, it's gone,'' he says.

The first parks to be incorporated in the park system will showcase vast and varied landscapes and ecosystems - from the granite and sandstone cliffs of Wuyishan in eastern China to the lush forests of southwestern Sichuan province, home to giant pandas, to the boreal forests of northeastern China, where Siberian tigers roam.

When it comes to ecology, few countries have more to lose, or to save, than China.

"A huge country like China literally determines the fate of species,'' says Duke University's Pimm.

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