Near the no man's land of Kekexili (or Hoh Xil) in the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Tibetan nomads have been monitoring wildlife, especially wild yak, since 1999.
Every season in a year, the nomads of Cuochi Village of Qumalai County in Qinghai Province get on their horses and patrol through an area the size of over 2,000 square kilometers and at an average altitude of 4,500 meters.
They have become the main force of conservation at the core area of National Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang Rivers Source Nature Reserve.
They have volunteered to do it, and they are not alone. Local Tibetan communities are actually major grass-roots conservationists in the region. In many areas of southwest China, such "community conservation" is being seen as the answer to effectively protecting the sacred lands.
On the Judingshan Mountains in the Aba Tibet Prefecture of Sichuan Province, Yu Jiahua and his brother started their own anti-poaching campaign in 2000. To make regular patrols against poachers, they even sold their yaks to hire helpers. In the past five years, they have confiscated seven hunting rifles and hundreds of traps from poachers, as well as stopped dozens of their attempts.
On Gonjo County, the Tibet Autonomous Region, Rinchen Samdrup and 1,300 of his fellow Tibetan farmers have voluntarily planted over 400,000 trees on the Senge'nanzong Mountains in the past two years. They also burned the garbage collected from the mountains and put wildlife there under protection because they have considered the mountains sacred for generations.
On Mount Pamuling of the Ganzi Tibet Prefecture in Sichuan Province, Tibetan monks have put the famous sacred mountains in the Tibetan region under complete protection. The place has become the easiest site in China to see wild blood pheasants and buff-throated partridges roaming around.
Attracting little public attention, these grass-roots conservationists have gotten used to working quietly.
When Yu got the chance to tell his story at the Workshop on Tibetan Sacred Land and Protected Area Management Agenda held recently in Kangding, Ganzi, the voice of the farmer in a washed-out overcoat moved as well as excited the audience.
The audience included not only representatives like himself from grass-roots communities in Sichuan, Yunnan, Qinghai provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region, but also scientists and conservationists like Professor Xu Zhihong, president of Peking University and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr Gorge B Schaller, a world renowned biologist, and Dr Lu Zhi, a leading conservationist of the country.
"To be honest, I am really surprised that our work can attract such attention from all of these experts from home and abroad," Yu told China Daily.
To the experts, the areas these nomads, farmers and monks protect are not only often religiously "sacred," but also of vital ecological importance.
Also a biologist and chairman of the China National Committee of Man and Biosphere Program of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Xu Zhihong knows that the sacred mountains and lakes mainly protected by Tibetan people in Southwest China are located in the areas of such great rivers as the Yangtze, Yellow, Lancang (Mekong) and Nujiang (Salween).
The areas are ecologically important to not only the country, but also the whole planet. They have supported extremely rich biodiversity which is unparalleled in other parts of the country, said the scientist. "But the diverse ecosystems in the areas are also fragile. Without protection efforts from the grass roots, many pristine natural environments in the region probably had already been spoiled," he said at the opening ceremony of the workshop.
Dr Lu Zhi, professor of conservation biology at Peking University and director of US-based Conservation International (CI)'s China Office, pointed out that the mountains of southwest China are one of the planet's 34 "Biodiversity Hot Spots," of which 70 percent is within the Tibetan region of the country.
Because of Tibetan people's tradition of protecting their sacred mountains and lakes, many of the areas have become better sanctuaries for wildlife.
But due to the shortage of hands and funds, few of these reserves have functioned well. Ganzi has nearly 40 nature reserves with an area of 35,000 square kilometers, but only about 400 rangers are taking care of the vast area, Lu Zhi said.
However, Ganzi is still one of the best places in China to see animals in the wild.
Lu explained that there are nearly 1,400 big or small sacred sites in Ganzi, covering over one-third of the prefecture (over 153,000 square kilometers).
"The local Tibetan communities are actually the major conservation force in the region," she said. "Their traditional resource management model targeting on the sacred sites has provided an alternative way of conservation for us.
"In many areas of southwest China, the kind of 'community conservation' is more efficient than governmental efforts, or nature reserves."
How to integrate the governmental and grass-roots efforts for better conservation was one of the major topics of the workshop.
The workshop, co-organized by Peking University and the CI China Office, also invited governmental participants from the Environment and Resources Protection Committee (ERPC) of the National People's Congress (NPC), the Ministry of Construction, the State Forestry Bureau, the State Environmental Protection Administration and many nature reserves in Southwest China.
Many of the participants agreed that the government should give legislative support to the "community conservation."
According to Cai Wei, an official with ERPC, the NPC is drafting the law for nature reserves.
"I think that our drafting of the law should use the experience of local communities for reference," she said. "The model of 'community conservation' introduced by the workshop should be encouraged by law."
As a result, the workshop put forward "the Kangding Proposal," calling for integrating "protected areas of communities" into the country's system of nature reserves.
Some nature reserves have begun trying to make it happen.
The National Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang Rivers Source Nature Reserve has decided to promote the monitoring model of the Cuochi Village to the reserve's other 17 core areas to build up a monitoring network.
Li Bajing, director of Gexigou Nature Reserve on Yajiang County of Ganzi, said that the local forestry bureau has upgraded the protected area of a local community into a reserve at the county level and hired the monks on Mount Pamling as part-time rangers.
On Danba County of Ganzi, said Luobu Jiata, deputy director of the local forestry bureau, his department expected that Danbe Jiangshen Lama, the incarnated living Buddha of Yongzhong Pengcuoling Monastery on Mount Dingguo, and his monks could join his team of wildlife rangers while engaging in some afforestation projects.
"We hope it would turn Mount Dingguo into an even better mini-reserve," he said.
For the grass-roots conservationists like Yu and Rinchen Samdrup, the endorsement and support of the other participants have been a great encouragement for their future work.
During the workshop, Rinchen Samdrup tried several times to make a "live broadcast" of the meeting to dozens of Tibetan farmers gathering in his house on Gongjue County through his mobile phone, though the Tibetan man understands neither Mandarin, nor English.
He said his fellow farmers were curious about how outsiders perceived their protection of their sacred mountains.
As he could only get the help of translators from time to time, he had a limited knowledge of what all of the participants talked about at the workshop.
"The villagers expect to feel the warm atmosphere of the workshop through my mobile phone," he said. "It's also a kind of encouragement for our protection efforts."
(China Daily December 28, 2005)