It was a chilly February day. Dangwen and his wildlife monitoring team from the village of Yunta patrolled along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. The river was frozen solid, easy for poachers to walk over. That day, they encountered 220 blue sheep, five white-lipped deer, and a line of otter footprints. On the infrared camera traps that they had set up throughout the valley, three snow leopards appeared, a mother and two cubs – and the cubs had grown much bigger than three months before.
Yunta is in Sanjiangyuan in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau, where the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers rise. Having grown up in the village, Dangwen is very familiar with the land, the river and the wildlife, and especially proud of its sacred mountains that shelter abundant wildlife. A few years ago a mining company attempted to prospect the area. The villagers were deeply disturbed because mining the mountains would go against the spiritual values of Tibetan Buddhism and threaten their safety.
So when a young man from the Shanshui Conservation Center, a Beijing-based non-governmental organization, arrived to discuss the idea of organizing villagers to monitor wildlife and protect their lands, Dangwen agreed without hesitation. This is now the fourth year that Yunta villagers have carried out this monitoring, patrolled the village against poachers, and managed garbage to keep the land and rivers clean. The monitoring data shows that local wildlife populations, including snow leopards, are increasing. The villagers’ conservation conduct is officially authorized by the local government – their stories have been reported by China Central Television – and the mining company never returned. Inspired by Yunta, four neighboring villages began their own wildlife monitoring and anti-poaching patrols. With encouragement from local authorities, a village-based conservation network is being formed along the Tongtianhe Valley.
Yunta is a pilot village initiating community-led conservation in Sanjiangyuan, the 400,000 square kilometre area that serves as an important habitat for rich and unique biodiversity and a watershed of the three largest rivers in Asia serving a billion people downstream. It has been recognized as a conservation priority in China. A Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve was set up in 2003 and a National Park designated in 2016. Yet the area faces big conservation challenges: government agencies have limited manpower to manage this vast area and grazing rights to all its grasslands were given to households in the 1900s.
This means that conservation in Sanjiangyuan would not be possible without support from local Tibetan communities. Fortunately, as Buddhists, these communities embrace the value of respecting nature and caring for other living beings: their system of sacred lands is very similar to modern protected areas. They are natural allies for conservation. Yunta's experience has proven that, with proper training, villagers can become very qualified conservationists. Essentially they are providers of ecological services and should receive benefits from conservation in return.
Based on this experience, a policy recommendation was made to the government, and the newly designated Sanjiangyuan National Park quickly responded. A total of 16,400 jobs as guards, with monthly salaries of 1,800 yuan (about $260), are to be offered to villagers living inside the park (one per household). The next step is to explore the possibilities for reducing grazing in key habitats so as to allow wildlife – especially large carnivores such as snow leopards – to increase, and to slow down grassland degradation.
The Tibetan Plateau is the last place in Asia that still maintains a relatively intact ecosystem where large carnivores and ungulates, many unique to the region – such as the snow leopard, the Tibetan brown bear, the Tibetan antelope, the wild yak, the Tibetan wild ass, the Tibetan gazelle, and the blue sheep – roam freely. Maintaining this vast ecosystem is challenging because its population of pastoralists is rapidly increasing. The human population of Sanjiangyuan has doubled since 1980. Meanwhile global climate change may have added to pressures on the grassland. Is it possible, under these conditions, to protect the ecosystem successfully while supporting the cultural and economic well-being of Tibetan communities?
We remain hopeful. Over the past two decades, the conservation awareness of governments and civil society in China has boomed. After three decades of fast economic development, and demands by the Chinese people and government, a better environment is becoming a higher priority. Several large ecological programs have been initiated – perhaps among the largest financial schemes in the world - to pay for protecting and restoring forests, grasslands and wetlands, though their effectiveness could be improved by more scientific planning and participation. The urge for nature education from citizens, especially parents, is rapidly growing, and this has generated broad concerns over ongoing ecological degradation. Public participation in conservation is now protected by environmental laws. Political will, the interests of society, and traditional values are all coming together. This makes us believe that co-existence between humans and nature is not just wishful thinking. Yunta, indeed, offers a starting point.