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Tibet’s pilot national park: a land of golden opportunity?

Wildlife is flourishing in this remote area of the Tibetan plateau, but loss of local Buddhist and nomadic culture spells trouble for the future

The family of Luo Zhu, a 43-year-old Tibetan nomad, owns four horses, and over 40 yaks on the high plateau pastureland in Angsai, China’s western Qinghai province. In the 1990s, his family had many more animals, he said, sitting in his tent in late August.

“We used to have 100 sheep, 50 goats and over 120 yaks on the same pastureland, but now our major income is from the harvesting of Chinese caterpillar fungus so we do not need so many animals,” Luo explained.

Luo’s tent is tucked in the deep valley of Angsai, a gorgeous landscape of red sandstone canyons and river gorges along the Zhaqu River, upstream of the Lancang, known as the Mekong once its reaches Southeast Asia.

Apart from its unique topography and rich water resources, the area is also famous for its well-preserved flora and fauna. According to Luo Zhu, it is common to spot rare animals including the snow leopard, blue sheep, white-lipped deer, wild boar, wild cats, alpine musk deer and red fox near his tent.

“At sunset, large groups of blue sheep might come down from the mountains for water by the riverside,” he said, pointing at a stream running past a few metres away from his tent. “A brown bear also visited a few times when we were not at home, destroying the house and eating our food.” Although about three to five yaks are killed by snow leopards or wolves each year, Luo said he was not angry with those animals. “We’re used to living with them and our children like to see those animals around,” he said.

Luo Zhu’s neighbours, and indeed almost all the herdsmen in Angsai, are used to living alongside wild animals. Luo Ji, a 26-year-old woman living a few miles uphill, said that in August the usually elusive snow leopard killed a young yak on the mountain slope at the back of her family tent.

Pilot national park

Although China boasts about 10,000 protected areas, it lacks a unified system to regulate and safeguard these regions. Over the past few years, the central government has started to push for the establishment of a new national park system borrowing heavily from planning and management practices used in the US. In mid-2015, the central government announced plans to build nine pilot projects across the country over the next three years, including in the Sanjiangyuan region on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

A 123,100-square-kilometre region within Qinghai province’s Sanjiangyuan area has been chosen. Sanjiangyuan, or “Source of Three Rivers”, is where the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong (Lancang) rivers originate. The whole area provides 15% of the water discharge of the Lancang, 25% of the water discharge of the Yangtze, and 49% of the water discharge of the Yellow River.

This fragile corner of western China is known as Asia’s “water tower”. But against the background of climate change and economic development its high grasslands are quietly changing. The area faces environmental degradation including desertification and melting glaciers, caused by overgrazing and climate change. This is turning large swathes of precious grasslands and wetlands into desert.

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Last April, the Qinghai government defined the boundaries of three subareas within the national park. Angsai, together with the other four towns, has become part of the Lancang River subarea, a region covering a total area of 13,700 square kilometres within Zaduo county.

In Angsai, an area of some 2,000 square kilometres at an average altitude of over 4,000 metres, Tibetan nomadic herders live alongside a huge variety of wildlife species in alpine meadows, rocky terrain and thick forests.

Due to its remoteness and the local Tibetans relatively environmentally-friendly way of life, Angsai and its surrounding regions maintain an intact ecological system. Thus, snow leopards have frequently been seen near human settlements in this region. Earlier this year, infrared cameras in a natural leopard habitat in Angsai recorded the mating of two snow leopards, a world first.

“The evidence shows that there is a healthy breeding population in the region,” said Lu Zhi, professor of Conservation and Biology at Peking University, during an interview with the domestic media in late April.

Local Tibetans believe it is a blessing to see the snow leopard, a sacred animal according to traditional culture. Thus, a significant number of herders have actively participated in wildlife preservation initiatives, which include anti-poaching activities, installing camera traps, scientific monitoring and rubbish collection. During a recent study by the wildlife conservation NGO Shanshui Conservation Centre (SCC), 13 snow leopards, three leopards (Panthera pardus) and 11 other carnivore species were spotted and recorded by cameras traps stationed in the region.

“So far, statistics indicate that Angsai is one of the hot spot habitats for snow leopards and enjoys the most intact carnivore population in China,” said Zhao Xiang from Shanshui.

Public involvement

Tsedan Druk, the party committee secretary of Zaduo county, said that Angsai National Park would seek a conservation model focusing on public participation combined with scientific research and investigation. Zaduo county has invited experts from different fields to help plan the pilot project.

“We invited rafting specialists, NGOs like Shanshui for the scientific survey of biological resources, geology experts to conduct research on rock formations and our indigenous folklorists to gather and compile local cultural resources,” explained Tsedan: “We also invited eco-tourism experts to plan eco-tourism within the national park.”

To involve local communities, the park authorities launched an initiative in July to hire one ecological protection ranger from each household inside the region. Over 7,000 rangers will eventually be hired by the end of 2017 in Zaduo county, with each one receiving 1,800 yuan (US$265) a month, to supplement their existing income sources. In 2014, the average monthly wage in Qinghai was 1,859 yuan (then US$275.)

“Appointed rangers are trained and responsible for tending the pastureland, wetland area, wildlife monitoring and rubbish collection within the national park area,” continued Tsedan: “This will directly benefit locals by increasing their family income.”

Park preparations

In August, Zaduo county government and Shanshui jointly held a nature observation event in what will soon become Angsai National Park. They invited over 40 nature lovers to participate in competitions like bird watching and nature photography. The purpose of the event, apart from being a practice operation of eco-tourism for the national park, was to get a quick background survey for the region’s flora and fauna.

According to Buni Ma, the head of Angsai township, over 300 local herders were directly involved in the event. A total of 15 drivers/tour guides were hired at a daily rate of 500 yuan per person. As Zaduo county government provides free accommodation and transportation, the event is free of charge for all participants.

An inside source told the reporter that Zaduo county had invested as much as 1 million yuan (US$150,000) on the four-day event. “We expect this form of eco-tourism can be a feasible and normal operation model in the future in Angsai, which can also bring more income to local Tibetans,” added Buni Ma.

“During the recent few months, we accepted tourists coming for rafting along the Lancang River and observing and photographing wildlife, and our local government has provided financial and logistic support for these events to test the feasibility of similar tourism models.”

Tibetan nomads in the local community have been enthusiastic about the development of the national park scheme. Gama, 29, a driver and tour guide for this event said that he was willing to get involved in the future eco-tourism project in Angsai.

“By combining local community participation, general public involvement, government guidance, and scientific institutions support, we are practicing a national park scheme and gaining preservation experiences that are reproducible,” said Tsedan Druk.

Management problems

So far, a detailed tourism plan for Angsai National Park has not been mapped out, allowing all kinds of visitors to flood in. Various sources confirmed eco-tourism and high-end tourism would be adopted in future to limit the number of visitors, but there is no clear definition of what this means yet.

“In my opinion, we should go to Bhutan to learn from their eco tourism management and achievements, so that we can limit the entrance, attain protection while increasing local communities income,” added Ni Ga, a member of the park management bureau. In Bhutan tourism is strictly controlled, with tourists having to pay a hefty daily tariff of between US$200-250.

Ni Ga, head of Zaduo county land and resources bureau. (Image by Wang Yan)

The Angsai National Park pilot project has gained nationwide attention. In late August, during his personal visit to Qinghai, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a video conference with local governors and rangers from Angsai. Xi pointed out that Qinghai province “must respect and protect nature, build up a solid national ecological security barrier, and integrate economic, social and ecological benefits.”

The management of China’s existing protected areas has developed in a messy, piecemeal fashion, with parks controlled by different bodies and often run in order to make large profits from ticket sales. This has failed to stop environmental damage. As a result, Angsai National Park has created a new integrated system with personnel taken from different relevant government departments. The system aims to cut across the local and departmental interests of existing operators to try to ensure the park is run for the public benefit.

“Now the National Park for Lancang River Management Bureau has been established and consists of 48 personnel, which will enable us to conduct more effective management for the ecological protection of the whole area,” Tsedan added.

This practice was endorsed by Yang Rui, head of Tsinghua University’s landscape architecture department and a member of a team of experts appointed by the central government for the national park project. He argued that setting up a completely separate management bureau helped dismantle the existing intertwined interests among different government departments within a protected area.

However, through interview and observation, it became clear the independent system exists only on paper. The local government of Zaduo county still holds full administrative power over Angsai national park management bureau. And all the 48 personnel are still shouldering their former responsibilities and positions within the local government system.

For example, Tsedan Druk, the party secretary of Zaduo county is also the party secretary of the Lancang River National Park Management Bureau. Ni Ga, the resource management bureau chief for Lancang River National Park still holds his post as Zaduo county national land and resources bureau chief.

“We [staff within the national park management bureau] have dual identities, and this indeed is hurting our work within the national park system,” admitted Ni Ga. The newly appointed staff, in practice, have no real authority and the park remains under the control of the local county government.

In addition, without new laws to protect the national park system, staff have to make do with existing laws to protect the area. One positive change, according to Ni Ga, is that the new management can effectively prohibit some potential mining activities that might otherwise be allowed within the same region.

Cultural loss

In Angsai and its neighbouring pasturelands, more and more herders have abandoned their traditional nomadic way of life, sold their livestock and moved to an easier life in the urban area because of the lucrative income from collecting caterpillar fungus each spring.

A dirt road was constructed in 2013, reducing the two-day journey by horse to the county centre to a mere two-hour bumpy drive. But as money steadily trickles into the area, cultural and religious traditions appear to be receding.

Most herders interviewed admitted they were not going to monasteries or donating money to monks frequently, a rare phenomenon in Tibetan communities. In Tibetan Buddhism traditions, hunting or disrespecting nature is prohibited around a sacred mountain, and this includes touching the water source from the mountain. In Angsai, these taboos seem to be fading as well.

“We heard there used to be a sacred mountain nearby when we were kids, but in the recent few decades, locals have gradually stopped mentioning this or following the traditions,” said Luo Zhu, the nomad.

Along with nomadic culture, Tibetan Buddhism traditions are also disappearing.

The 900 hundred-year-old monastery – the only one in the vicinity of Luo Zhu’s family home – has been deserted for over a year. Three ancient pagodas near the monastery have either collapsed or are under threat. One pagoda was even looted by local thieves in 2014, and the ancient Buddhist scriptures and some remains were scattered without any preservation efforts. Sonam Dhargay, a volunteer ranger in Angsai, admitted that the influx of tourists in the past two years has worsened the situation of the pagodas.

Ancient Buddhist scriptures and relics from a looted pagoda. (Image by Wang Yan)

Tashi Samge, a Tibetan monk and environmentalist, is worried about the future development of the area. “In Angsai, an area of rich culture and art that can be traced back thousands of years, the preservation of the indigenous culture is equally important to the preservation of the flora and fauna of the national park,” Tashi said to the reporter.

“I do not know what our national park will be like in the future. One thing is certain as far as I am concerned: if there is no monastery and monks any more in the region, and once the herders are also moved out, the valley will be dead, despite the increasing number of brown bears and snow leopards,” continued Tashi.

Ni Ga shared similar worries about locals’ future: “Once the caterpillar fungus bubble has collapsed, those (local Tibetans) who have abandoned their pastureland and nomadic lifestyle will have no other way to make a living. At that point, who can ensure that they will not resort to [using] the wildlife resources?”

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