Xinjiang zone to protect threatened glacier

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A protected area will be marked out in an attempt to arrest the shrinking of Glacier No. 1 in the Tianshan Mountains of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, authorities said on Wednesday.

All mining sites will be shut down in three to five years in the 948-sq-km protection zone, said Zhao Zhigang, an official with Xinjiang's Environmental Protection Department.

The regional government will restrict vehicles on a national highway section near the zone and strictly ban tourists from entering it, Zhao said.

Authorities will also take measures to deal with wild herb digging activities there, he added.

"The protected area, though not the same as a nature reserve, is still huge step forward for the protection of the glacier," said Zhao, adding a clear definition of the protected area will enable local governments to implement policies more decisively within the designated boundary.

The regional government has established a leading team for the construction of the area, where grazing will be restricted.

"The series of moves aims to reduce the impact of human activities on the glacier to the lowest level and better protect the glacier and rare animal and plant resources," said Zhao.

A World Wildlife Fund report indicated that the population of Ili pika, an endangered species of mammal endemic to the Tianshan Mountians, had reduced by at least 60 percent and needed urgent protection.

Melting glaciers having been driving the animal to live at higher altitudes and over-digging of herbs has deprived them of food, the report said.

"The area of the glacier has shrunk from 1.95 sq km in 1962 to the current 1.62 sq km. Its bottom has thinned by more than 40 meters," said Li Zhongqin, head of the Tianshan Mountains Glacier Observation Station under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

With an altitude of 3,750 meters, the glacier is retreating by four to eight meters every year, said Li, warning that both natural and human factors have accelerated its melting.

Approximately 120 km from the regional capital of Urumqi, Glacier No. 1 is the closest glacier to a city in the world.

The State Environmental Protection Administration proposed to set up a nature reserve in Glacier No. 1 in 1998 but the plan was never realized.

In 2006, the local government of Urumqi ruled that tourists were not allowed to visit Glacier No. 1 in order to protect the city's water source.

However, some visitors have managed to find their way to the area as there are no fences or guards to prevent entry.

More than a dozen households of herdsmen inhabit the area. To make money, some herdsmen have been taking tourists to the area by motorcycle.

In 2011, a regional committee administering agriculture and industry submitted a bill to call upon the Urumqi government to set up a "small reserve" for the protection of the No. 1 Glacier area.

China has 46,377 glaciers, with 18,311 located in Xinjiang. The autonomous region's glacier melt water accounts for about 25 to 30 percent of its surface run-off, and the thawing of the glaciers could have a disastrous effect on the region, according to the CAS.

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