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The Spring Tide in Sanjiangyuan

By Guo Feiran and Qiu Ju Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-05-12

The Sanjiangyuan area, located on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, is the most important source of fresh water in China. Home to the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow, and Lancang rivers, it is known as "China's Water Tower." It is a wholly unique plateau wetland ecosystem and serves as an important ecological defense for the country. 

In December 2021, a snow leopard was photographed looking down from the rocks of a snow-capped mountain in Cuochi Village, Qumarleb County, Qinghai Province. The photo prompted a flood of netizens to learn about the snow leopard online. 

Snow leopards are regarded as a barometer of the quality of high-altitude ecosystems. Because of both climate change and human activities, the snowline and glaciers in the Sanjiangyuan area have been retreating annually since the mid-20th century. The area of grasslands, lakes and wetlands has also shrunk, and many wildlife have become extinct. The snow leopard, an apex predator, is also on the brink of extinction.


Longbao National Nature Reserve in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai Province. PHOTO BY ZHAXI GYATSO 

On August 23, 2016, during an inspection trip to Qinghai, President Xi Jinping was linked via video to an observation site at the Angsai Canyon in the riverhead area of the Lancang River. President Xi inquired about the number of snow leopards in Zadoi County, the progress of ecological restoration, and the deployment of ecological wardens. On March 7, 2021, during a meeting of the Qinghai delegation to the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), deputy Kong Qingju showed photos of snow leopards and Chinese desert cats to President Xi, and explained the significant environmental improvements that had occurred in Sanjiangyuan. At present, there are about 5,000 snow leopards in the world, and more than 60% of them are located in China. Each year on October 23, International Snow Leopard Day, these ghost-like cats attain the status of Internet celebrity around the world. 

The abovementioned question and answer on the very same topic span a period of five years from 2016 to 2021. Behind the scenes in this period, a strong focus and continuous efforts have been devoted to promoting environmental protection at all levels. It is these efforts that have sketched the contours of the historic achievements in comprehensively restoring the ecosystem of Sanjiangyuan. 

Once known as the "ghost of the mountains," today the snow leopard is fast becoming the "returning king." 

Environmental protection is an enormously important undertaking. In Chindu County, there is a Khampa man who is known as the flightless black-necked crane. This person knows exactly when the first black-necked crane lands each spring—he knows where the cranes feed in the morning, where they rest at night, when they like to dance in the wind, and when they show off their feathers. He knows how to approach a flock of cranes without disturbing them. Though the black-necked cranes take to the sky and he remains firmly on land, they travel in each other's company. 

This person's name is Tsephel. He is 41 years old, his beard is unshaven, and he has a deeply tanned skin. Tsephel can be described as a close partner of the black-necked crane, but he is also the guardian of their common home. When we found him, he was busy picking up empty bottles and garbage bags with his callused hands and stringing them together on a rope tied around his waist. Local people say that for over a decade, Tsephel has set off in his vehicle as soon as the sun rises each morning to clean up garbage on the grasslands, highways, and riverbeds. Inspired by their father, his five children have also joined the endeavor. His youngest daughter Gengqiu Lhamo decided to take practical action. She led her class in setting up an environmental protection volunteer group. For this, Lhamo won the national "Outstanding Youth of the New Era" award for 2021. 

Sanjiangyuan has countless fathers and daughters like Tsephel and Lhamo. More and more herders are choosing to settle down, trading in their horse whips for volunteer armbands, and serving as guardians of their common home. 

As we walk on the vast land of Sanjiangyuan, looking at the expansive mountains, glaciers, lakes, and pastures, and catching sight of wild animals and birds, we cannot help but marvel at the vastness and majesty of nature. 

What sort of relationship should nature, humanity, and economic and social development have? How do we balance conservation and development over the long term? Can humanity and nature live together in harmony? 

The words of President Xi Jinping, in both 2016 and 2021 when he attended meetings of the Qinghai delegation during the annual NPC session and on the two occasions when he toured Qinghai, provide a clear answer: Protecting Qinghai's ecological environment is an issue of national importance; Qinghai's greatest asset is its ecological environment, and its greatest responsibility and potential also lie in the ecological environment; "China's water tower" is our country's source of life, and protecting Sanjiangyuan is crucial to the development of the Chinese nation; we must continue to promote the construction of national parks. 

Xi Jinping's important conclusions and requirements make clear our country's position, the direction of our efforts, and the approach that must be taken. 

The Sanjiangyuan National Park served as host to the first pilot of China's national park system. Through ecological protection and restoration projects aimed at comprehensively improving degraded alpine meadows, ameliorating degraded grasslands, tackling desertification, and promoting water conservation, the degradation of the Sanjiangyuan ecosystem has been basically checked, grass cover and grass production have increased by 11% and 30% respectively compared to 10 years ago, and the area of water bodies and wetland ecosystems has increased by 308.91 square kilometers. The headwaters of three major rivers are once again a landscape of stunning beauty. 

To promote ecological advancement, China is accelerating the development of a nature reserve system with national parks at the center. It is gradually incorporating into this system areas with the most important natural ecosystems, the most unique natural landscapes, and the richest natural heritage and biodiversity. The first batch of five national parks, including Sanjiangyuan, cover a protected area of 230,000 square kilometers, which is home to nearly 30% of mostly protected terrestrial wildlife species in the country. This is helping to gradually bring about a beautiful and picturesque scene of lush hills and clear waters across the great land of China. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 5, 2022)