Just over 20 years ago, I visited China representing the US National Park Service and traveled extensively to suggest how China might manage its protected areas. During our tour, I noted that their parks and protected areas, some carrying the National Park moniker, were poorly managed and lacked the professional oversight found in the US and in other nations with mature national park systems. I also remember vividly the complex environmental, political, economic and social issues facing China even then. On an early morning walk in Beijing, I saw an immaculate, western dressed woman stepping over the trickle of blood from a hog being butchered on the floor of her home. That scene captured for me the rapid transition China was experiencing.
Fast forward twenty years later, with funding from the Paulson Institute, I led an interdisciplinary team to China to evaluate their efforts to establish a National Park system. The impetus for this effort comes from President Xi Jinping’s direction to create an “eco-civilization” and celebrate “beautiful China”. He has stated that China will have a complete National Park System by 2030 and 10 “pilot national parks” have been designated to lead the effort. Our task was to evaluate one of those pilot national parks: Sanjiangyuan.
Accompanying me were UC Berkeley Professor Steve Beissinger, recent UCB Masters graduate Thea Yang and a small team of park professionals. After a brief orientation in Beijing, we flew to Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai Province. From there we traveled in four vehicles for eight days, covering over 3000 KM, with an average altitude of 4000 m (one pass was at 5000m). The 30 million acre Sanjiangyuan Pilot National Park is the headwaters of three major rivers: the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Mekong which serve at least 900 million people downstream. The area is sparsely populated, mostly nomadic Tibetan yak herders with small remote villages. Known as the “third pole” it is cold, dry, and high elevation. It is beautiful country, with most of the species of wildlife still resident. We saw antelope, gazelles, griffins, hawks, wild donkeys, white lipped deer, foxes and one lone wolf. (We did not see a snow leopard.) There are vast wetlands, high mountains, glaciers and roaring rivers.
Over the course of the two weeks, we attended at least a dozen meetings with local, provincial and central government officials and heard both their vision for the pilot park and their concerns. We noted a lot of really positive efforts and also some things that are concerning regarding the conflict between development and conservation. Making it work is the hard part, and they were all eager to hear from us on our experiences with national parks in the US and around the world.
The team unanimously recommends that Sanjiangyuan become China’s first National Park under the new program, as it has world class resources, both natural and cultural. An important component is the embracing of the Tibetan culture and belief system in Sanjiangyuan as a part of its stewardship, capitalizing on the Tibetan respect for all life. The full report on Sanjiangyuan National Park is due in November. I will be also preparing a report on the budget/finance of the new China National Park System and preparing two training programs for their central government leadership in September and November at UC Berkeley.
Based on this experience, I have confidence that this effort to create a national park system in China is quite serious and has the support at the very top of the Government. The University of California, Berkeley and the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity has the opportunity to build a program of conservation of national parks that will foster national pride in China, putting conservation of their parks in every classroom and positively affecting the biodiversity of China as well as the planet.