China honors promise to protect nature, but it's a bumpy ride ahead

As a conservationist, 27-year-old Wang Chunli knows what a rewarding yet bumpy ride China must take before reaching its "Beautiful China" destination by the mid-21st century. 
Courtesy of Paradise Foundation

Wang Chunli (right) and her colleagues from the Xianghai Ecological Protection Center clear old fishing nets in the Xianghai nature reserve. ­

As a conservationist, 27-year-old Wang Chunli knows what a rewarding yet bumpy ride China must take before reaching its “Beautiful China” destination by the mid-21st century. 

For the past two years, she has been wrestling with the paradox between humanity and nature.

In December 2016, Wang went to Xianghai National Nature Reserve in China’s northeastern Jilin Province for the first time. She was amazed by the rich landscapes, but shocked by the severe human disturbance in the reserve.

“I didn’t expect so many people to be living in a nature reserve. There were even residents among the habitat of red-crowned cranes and heartlands of rare plants,” Wang says.

The Xianghai nature reserve, created in 1981, is an important wetland for migratory birds to reproduce and refresh during migration. The reserve sprawls across over 1,000 square kilometers and 12 villages in Tongyu County, Jilin.

There are still more than 15,000 people living in the Xianghai nature reserve.

Before 2015, 30 percent of the core zone, in which human activity is strictly prohibited, was farmland.

Cui Yongzun

Grus grus are among over 200 kinds of rare birds that can be found in the Xianghai nature reserve every year. The Xianghai nature reserve, created in 1981, is an important wetland for migratory birds to reproduce and refresh during migration. 

Zhang Xuejun, 56, was born and raised in Xianghai, and witnessed first-hand how human beings occupied the reserve.

“When the wetland was first built, everyone appreciated the pleasing environment. But when they saw that putting sheep out to pasture was lucrative, they all rushed to grab land in the core zone,” Zhang says.

At first, the local government sent out patrol teams to crack down illegal grazing. But it did not work well because grazing was not limited to one location. In recent years, Jilin provincial government decided to solve the puzzle with an immigration project. It removed 248 houses and shacks, returned 6,711 hectares of farmland to grassland and reimbursed the villagers 8,000 yuan for every hectare each year.


Elm forests are a treat in the reserve. 

However, driven by profit, people still catch rare birds and poison fishes in the core zone.

“The biggest challenge is to coordinate ecological protection and community development, on which the government can work with NGOs,” says Wang, who has been running a pilot program since 2016.

Over two years of research and negotiation, the Beijing-based Paradise Foundation signed a 30-year agreement with the Xianghai nature reserve and local government in December 2016, to set up the Xianghai Ecological Protection Center, which covers half the reserve’s core zone. The center is directly managed by the foundation and supervised by the government. 

Courtesy of Paradise Foundation

Local villagers used to graze their livestock at the Xianghai nature reserve. Now the local government and NGO workers are collaborating to help them balance the need to earn a living and protect nature at the same time. 

Wang became the director of the center and the first thing she did was to visit several households in nearby villages to learn about their needs.

“Wang and her team always come to talk about the importance of ecological protection, so I know that wetland is the kidney of the earth. Now they are looking for good ideas for improving our lives,” Zhang says.

On one hand, the center recruited local villagers to help with patrols, so that they could crack down on poachers while creating jobs. On the other hand, they developed environment- friendly industries, such as breeding native chickens and growing organic grains.

Despite Wang’s efforts, most villagers still sit on the fence, in fear of inexperience and bleak market prospects. Zhang was among the few who agreed to breed native chickens.

“I believe in the concept of ecological protection. For the sake of our descendants, we need to make changes,” he says.

Courtesy of Paradise Foundation

Old Creek nature reserve, the first privately protected project in China.

Ecological breeding demands zero use of chemicals and vaccines. Zhang bought 500 chicken nestlings, and raised them on his own 6-hectare wooded area. More than 100 of them died from the temperature, diseases and predators. But after careful calculation of the costs, Zhang is still optimistic regarding profits. 

The paradox of Xianghai is a common issue for most nature reserves in China. 

“Finding a solution for human disturbance is the key to the success of running nature reserves. It’s great to see governments are joining hands with NGOs. What is done in Xianghai tells us the privately protected areas are one right path to pursue,” says Zhu Chunquan, country representative of the International Union for Conservation of Nature China Office.

Zhang Xumin

A patrol team in the Xianghai Ecological Protection Center.

In 2013, Old Creek nature reserve, the first privately protected area project in China, was jointly launched by the Paradise Foundation and the government of Pingwu county in China’s southwestern Sichuan Province. It covers an area of 110 square kilometers, including the migration corridors for many rare species such as giant pandas. Under a 50-year land trust agreement, the foundation is in charge and pays for the management of the reserve.

After years of endeavor, poaching has been practically eliminated in the reserve. Moreover, thanks to the innovation of customized agriculture, people at Minzhu village near the reserve are escaping poverty. Among 280 households in the village, 90 have seen an increase in annual income by 10,000 yuan.

According to a report published by The Nature Conservancy in 2017, China has seen a rise of privately protected areas across the country, which is a great complement to the current nature reserve system.

Still, the country aims bigger with its green development strategy. In 2017, the Overall Plan for National Park System came into effect, which includes 10 national parks, the protection of many endangered species, and the preservation of historic sites like the Great Wall for the sake of the natural environment.

Courtesy of Paradise Foundation

A Village in the pilot zone of the Xianghai Reserve. The reserve sprawls across over 1,000 square kilometers and 12 villages in Tongyu County, Jilin. 

According to the report delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last October, China will develop a nature reserve system composed mainly of national parks. 

“In the past, nature reserves tended to be small and offered shelter mainly for one single species or had an incomplete ecosystem. National parks will help improve this situation,” says Cui Guofa, professor at the Nature Reserve Department at Beijing Forestry University.

However, a national park covers a larger area than a reserve, and would require a larger population to move out of the core zone. Building the Giant Panda national park means migration of 170,000 people in Sichuan Province alone, according to the provincial Forestry Department.

Courtesy of Paradise Foundation

Old Creek honey 

Wang hopes that national parks could try out Xianghai’s model, stressing both ecological protection and community development, and “leading the locals to protect the environment.” 

Zhang Xuejun’s new year resolution for 2018 is to maintain the clear waters and lush mountains, while getting rich with his fellow villagers. 

“Farmers from other villages as well as some businessmen have come to see how I feed the free-range native chickens. I hope more households will join me this year,” he says.

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