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Xinjiang Jade Rush Sparks Environmental Havoc
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Saimati Tulahon is just one of 200,000 jade hunters desperately scouring the bottom of Yurungkax River in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region but success has eluded him for the last three months.


"Large jade stones are nowhere to be found now, even if you dig 10 meters deep," said Tulahon, who, like all the others, has become addicted to the hunt.


The river produces the world's finest jade - Hotan Jade - and is renowned for its pure white nephrite, a variety of the semi-precious stone. But the assault on the riverbed is taking its toll.


"The riverbed, which is hundreds of millions of years old, is undergoing unprecedented degradation," said Wang Shiqi, an expert in gemstones at Peking University.


Some 2,000 mechanical diggers are clawing at the riverbed day and night along a 100 km-long stretch of the river, the upper stream of Yurungkax.


"If the mass hunting continues like this, the river's Hotan Jade resources will disappear in five to six years," said Professor Wang.


Xinjiang produces some 250-300 tons of Hotan Jade a year, 20 percent of which is pure white nephrite. A kilogram of white Hotan Jade can be sold for over 100,000 yuan (US$12,500), and prices have been rocketing in recent years because of a sharp decrease in output.


Lured by big profits and get-rich-quick tales promises, jade hunters from all over the country swarm around the river during summer before the river freezes over in autumn.


Jade trader Zheng Shengli said that he thinks the river will be depleted of jade in no more than three years if this level of exploitation continues.


"About half of the digging machines have stopped running because of the decrease of jade in the river," Zheng said.


He said most local residents are poor, but many borrow money to buy mechanical diggers, which can cost as much as 350,000 yuan (US$43,700).


The water conservation authorities in Hotan Prefecture admitted that the rampant excavation has caused degradation of the river's biological system, resulting in serious soil erosion.


In 2004, jade hunters using heavy machineries wrecked ruins of an ancient civilization dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and the Tang dynasty (618-907), located at the western bank of the Yurungkax River.


So far, no measures have been put in place by the local authorities to curb the jade prospecting.


Professor Wang has urged local governments to stop the indiscriminate use of heavy excavation machinery along the Yurungkax River, the main source of the stone.


(Xinhua News Agency September 1, 2006)

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