Mountains in Tangjiahe National Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province in China. Photo: Magnus Lundgren/Wild Wonders Of China

China’s National Parks Reinvented

The plan to make ten huge national parks around China has rolled out. But nature conservancy is nothing new to China. In fact, one could argue this is where it all began.

On September 26 last year, China officially unveiled the overall plan for establishing its new national park system. This was not a mere side project from some department far down in the hierarchy. The plan was jointly published by the general offices of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council.

“This marks the completion of the top-level design of the national park system and the beginning of the next stage of substantial construction” pronounced Wang Yi, deputy head of the Institute of Science and Development at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

A public statement reads that by 2020, the country will complete pilot programs for establishing national parks, following the principle of “ecological protection first.” Aiming to protect China’s large natural ecosystems, the national parks will be set up in specific land, marine and ocean areas to achieve a combination of ecological protection and sustainable development. The country has set up 10 pilot programs, covering the Sanjiangyuan (the source of China’s three major rivers), giant panda habitats and the Great Wall. Also, the central government has ordered all its provinces and regions to establish an ecological “red line” that will place such designated regions under “mandatory and rigorous protection.”

A golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus). Photo: Staffan Widstrand/Wild Wonders Of China

The new national park system in China might have come as a surprise to people with knowledge on nature conservancy around the world. Doesn’t China already have a large number of national parks? Yes, nearly 250 since the first batch were launched in the beginning of the 80s. Additionally, the country has 31 UNESCO Global Geoparks, 16 UNESCO World Heritage Natural Sites (and approx. another 20 on the waiting list, close to 500 National Nature Reserves and many other forms of protected areas on a provincial and a national level.

So why is China’s leading institution presenting the new national system like it’s something new and important? Because while the current system might sound good in theory, it in fact has serious flaws. Flaws that will now be mended.

Clearer areas of responsibility

A recurrent problem with China’s approximately 8,000 nature conservation areas has been that different authorities would have overlapping assignments and areas of responsibility, without a clear mandate. One of China’s most internationally respected news outlets, the English-language Caixin Global, writes that “lax oversight and competing interests of different authorities have made these reserves vulnerable to encroachment and excessive development.” It then lists examples like open-pit mining inside conservation zones in the Ningxia autonomous region, and that administrators at Henan’s Xiaoqinling National Nature Reserve were censured for allowing mining companies to dump more than 20 million tons of waste in protected areas.

Tangjiahe Nature Reserve, Sichuan Province in China. Photo: Staffan Widstrand/Wild Wonders Of China

In other instances, the authorities have had common goals of protecting nature but completely different solutions. Take for example the case of the previous nature reserve Sanjiangyuan, covering 123,000 square kilometers in Qinghai, and the home to the headwaters of the great rivers Yangtze, Mekong and the Yellow River. According to Caixing Global, the area was previously managed by a local agricultural department, and at the same time by a forestry authority. When the agricultural department paid local farmers to tend to the grassland and to build and maintain fences separating their plots, the forestry authority, tasked with protecting endangered species, paid the same local residents to remove these fences or lower their height to protect the Przewalski’s gazelle.

Now, Sanjiangyuan will be the first national park within the centralized park system.

Pandas will gain contact

Aside from creating a unified system, the new national parks will of course also provide protection to threatened species. Yao Sidan, head of the Department of Forestry in Sichuan province – home to the country’s largest giant panda habitat areas – has in China Daily said that the construction of railway lines, roads and power transmission lines has resulted in the fragmentation of panda reserves.

“The fragmentation increases the level of isolation for panda populations and increases the odds of extinction for small, isolated panda groups,” said Yao Sidan.

A pilot scheme to build an administration of a giant panda national park has been approved, according to the State Council. The scheme will form a cross-provincial national park that will unite more than 80 fragmented habitats scattered in Southwest China’s Sichuan province, Northwest China’s Shaanxi province and Gansu province, with an area of 27,134 square kilometers.

A male Tibetan macaque (Macaca thibetana). Photo: Magnus Lundgren/Wild Wonders Of China

1800 years of nature conservation

The Chinese state has turned to the USA for help. The Poulson Institute is a Chicago-based think tank, or as they call it, a “think and do” tank, with the mission to strengthen US-China relations and to advance sustainable economic growth and environmental protection in both countries. The Poulson Institute has been consulted since the plan to establish the ten national parks was presented in 2014, with research, planning, in depth case studies etc. Also, the Institute has hosted a delegation of Chinese experts in the United States for intensive training with U.S. national parks and conservation professionals.

Nearly all the major nature conservancy organizations from North America and Europe have Chinese branches. However, many Chinese would get defensive at the suggestion that nature conservation is something that is imported from the West. True, the country is wrestling with enormous environmental problems in the wake of its rapid industrialization and urbanization. But the notion that untouched nature and wild animals must be protected, and that such areas are of the utmost importance for humans as well, has long been a cornerstone of Daoism.

The Aishan Foundation gathers several of the world’s foremost researchers in Daoism. The purpose of the Aishan (“care for mountains”) Foundation is the study of the so-called nature sanctuaries of Daoism, which the foundation describes as “outstanding sites in terms of landscape beauty, vegetation and wildlife.” During the 2nd century, Daoists in West China created what could be the first nature reserves in human history, with 24 mountain sites in the Shu region of north-west Sichuan. These “nature sanctuaries” then spread to other parts of China. The Aishan Foundation writes on their website, that around 150 areas were saved from hunting, land clearing, plant gathering, mining or pollution – and that almost all still exist today. This comes as no surprise for the many Daoist experts in the foundation. As they see it: “Dao is nature.”

Gabriel Arthur
gabriel.arthur@norragency.com