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Keep Lashihai A Bird Paradise
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Two decades of rapid economic development in China has pulled many people out of the water of poverty.

Unfortunately, it has also dried up a large number of wetland habitats, as waves of buildings are erected on the once thriving soil.

In a world-famous sanctuary for tourists, people are trying their best to protect a surviving wetland with the help of the local government and community.

Nestled at the center of the Lijiang County of Southwest China's Yunnan Province, the Lijiang Lashihai Plateau Wetland Nature Reserve was established in 1998 by the Yunnan provincial government to preserve an indispensable wetland habitat.

With Lashihai and Wenhai lakes and Wenbi and Jizi reservoirs as the four constituents, the reserve is blessed with a variety of soggy habitats and verdant hills. Diversified species of plants and animals have created a prosperous ecosystem.

The 65-square-kilometer (25-square-mile) reserve is home to some 300,000 Naxi and Li ethnic people. But it becomes more populous during winter - as the reserve turns into a paradise for migratory birds. Lashihai Lake is the main area where birds dwell.

When people go skiing in the north, flocks of birds evade snow in the warm paradise. The winged creatures can be seen capping trees and hills, and hovering above the lakes. Around 140,000 migratory birds spent their winter beside Lashihai Lake last year.

According to Peng Guihong, an engineer from the reserve's management centre, a repertoire of 165 species of birds can be observed in Lashihai. Some of them are endangered species, including the black-necked crane, white stork and ruddy shelduck.

The sojourners' arrival begins at the end of September, and peaks in December, before they leave in early April.

This bustling scene has grown over time. When the reserve was first established in 1998, approximately only 20,000 birds were observed in Lashihai. The figure grew during years of struggle between conservation and local people's subsistence.

People living by the Lashihai Lake have long supported themselves by fishing and logging. Some people also hunted the migratory birds for money before the reserve was set up.

As the population and the number of tourists surged in the 1990s, more trees were logged for cooking and heating, and more fish were harvested.

The destruction caught the government's attention and they decided to do something to keep the wetland alive. One move was to ban fishing from every November to the following March; another was to make bird hunting illegal.

But this does not mean that local people have to give up their livelihood for conservation.

To protect the wildlife in Lashihai and improve local people's quality of life, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an American-based environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), started working closely with the Lijiang township government two years ago.

"We act as an adviser to the local community and government," said Graham Bullock, ecotourism associate of TNC's office in Lijiang. "And we try to provide the local people with alternative sources of income."

Alternative ways of earning money are important not only in improving people's living standards but also in preserving the ecosystem. When people do not have to eke out a living by damaging the environment, much work will be saved in educating them to love nature, experts said.

Ecotourism is one of TNC's suggestions.

With the support of the Lashihai Nature Reserve, the Lijiang County Tourism Bureau, the Lijiang Culture and Gender Center, and local township governments, the Lashihai Watershed Green Tourism Program was launched last year to create and manage tourism opportunities in the Lashihai watershed.

Local companies working within the program donate 10 percent of their net profits to a conservation and community development fund, which provides financial support for community development and conservation projects in local areas.

The program also helps to boost local economic development by creating job opportunities within the Lashihai community, especially in tourism and related industries.

"Ecotourism benefits a lot, as people do not have to solely depend on fishing," Bullock added.

TNC co-operates with the local tourism bureau in offering tour guide training courses, in which knowledge on birds, ecology, cultural heritage and guiding skills are taught. In January they trained 28 members from the local community alone.

In preserving the wetland's biodiversity, TNC has advised using alternative energy sources to replace fuel woods. By using biogas generated from the fermentation of human and livestock waste, the local people can save trees from being used for cooking and heating.

The TNC has also helped the local people set up power generating units that are environmental friendly and fuel-efficient, Bullock said.

TNC's main task is to let local people and the government know there are alternative ways to do less harm to the environment.

Yet, conflicts still exist. Some farmers in the vicinity of the Lashihai area complain the migratory birds are eating up their crops.

A management plan has been discussed to ensure smoother co-operation with the local people in preserving the wetlands. Members from TNC and the local government are now working on a better compensation scheme for local farmers when birds eat their crops.

The ecotourism program is still in its infancy, but plans on promotion and preservation are on the way.

Half a century ago, Russia's Peter Ku fell under the spell of Lijiang and described it as "the forgotten Kingdom" in his book of the same title, as Lijiang was isolated from the outside world. In the following decades, tourists flooded in, and the kingdom was no longer forgotten.

Now, an unaware paradise of birds is about to undergo the same process of becoming famous. But the local government, community and NGOs, like TNC, will try their very best in striking a balance between profit-making and conservation of the wildlife and migratory birds in the area.

The article first appeared in the latest issue of the Chinese language monthly magazine Nationality Pictorial.

(China Daily July 1, 2002)

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