Environmentalists are drawing outside the lines of traditional wetlands conservation in a plan designed to save China's most treasured natural wilderness areas.
In 2005, an alphabet soup of organizations, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, General Environmental Facility (GEF) and State Forest Administration (SFA), began spelling out a new "mainstreaming" conservation strategy to involve local stakeholders in China.
"One strategy is to draw a line around (a reserve) and say no one can go in, and protect the birds and biodiversity," UNDP China's resident coordinator Khalid Malik says.
"Given the way the economy is moving, the population is moving, what we have learned globally is that we can have a much more mainstream approach to how nature and man can somehow balance each other."
To this end, the UNDP/GEF Wetlands Project, launched under SFA implementation in 1999, shifted gears from keeping people out of reserves to bringing them into the loop.
This required working with local residents to develop limited, rather than restricted, use benefiting those living in reserve areas outside of the core protection zones.
The approach is now being piloted in Jiangsu province's Yancheng wetlands, which stretch 600 km along the coast northeast of the capital Nanjing.
It was one of four key sites UNDP and GEF selected for the US$15.2-million conservation project in China, which also covers the Dongting Lake, Sanjiang and Ruoergai wetlands.
Yancheng's wetlands provide habitats, migration stopovers or wintering sites for 395 - or about one-third - of China's bird species, including nine threatened species, such as spotted greenshank (Tringa guttifer).
The wetlands are the seasonal home to the largest winter population of the threatened red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis), which is estimated to number from 600 to 1,000.
The marshes also provide a breeding ground for the endangered Saunders' gull (Larus saundersii), whose population has dwindled from 1,000 in the early 1990s to 600 today.
About 40 sq km of Jiangsu's coastal wetlands have been designated as Yancheng's "core zone", in which use is restricted. The remaining 2,500 km are in the "experimental zone", where use is limited.
The trick is getting the local people to understand the use there isn't only limited but also multiple, SFA vice administrator Yin Hong says.
"A conservation-only approach isn't enough, so we've been advocating for reasonable use, as long as it doesn't adversely impact the environment," she says.
She explains this sort of use must be based on scientific research and include ecologists in the planning.
Malik says the key to the success of the mainstreaming approach lies in education.
"Fundamentally, the people themselves are the best custodians of nature," he says.
"Therefore, I think if you can make people more aware of the biological diversity, of the environmental issues, and that each person has a right to clean air and to clean water, then I think we can all try to do a better job."
(China Daily December 16, 2008)