Hoh Xil Heroes

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Xiao Huan­huan

On July 7, 2017, the 41st ses­sion of the UNESCO World Her­itage Com­mit­tee ap­proved the ad­di­tion of China’s Hoh Xil to the World Nat­u­ral Her­itage List. Hoh Xil, lit­er­ally “blue ridge” or “beau­ti­ful girl” in Mon­go­lian, is lo­cated in the north­west of Qing­hai Prov­ince and the cen­ter of the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau and cov­ers an area of 6 mil­lion hectares. It is pop­u­larly known as one of the three ma­jor “no-man’s lands” in the world. The re­gion boasts the dens­est dis­tri­bu­tion of lakes on the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau and tens of thou­sands of square kilo­me­ters of wilder­ness, wild an­i­mals, moun­tains and glaciers. With the in­scrip­tion, Hoh Xil be­came Asia’s largest World Nat­u­ral Her­itage site.

“I heard the good news late be­cause I had been busy pa­trolling the fields,” says Sonam Ge­leg, “We drank some liquor to cel­e­brate.” The 39-year-old is head of the Wu­dao­liang Pro­tec­tion Sta­tion of Hoh Xil and one of more than 40 mem­bers of the Hoh Xil Pa­trol Team. Sonam and his col­leagues re­mained ex­cited for days af­ter hear­ing the news. For decades, they have en­dured var­i­ous hard­ships at an al­ti­tude of more than 5,000 me­ters while com­bat­ting poach­ing and il­le­gal min­ing as well as sav- ing wild an­i­mals. They feel the hard-won vic­tory made all their painstak­ing ef­fort worth­while now that Hoh Xil is of­fi­cially rec­og­nized as a World Nat­u­ral Her­itage site.

End­ing Poach­ing

Sonam di­rectly par­tic­i­pated in Hoh Xil’s ap­pli­ca­tion for the sta­tus of World Nat­u­ral Her­itage. On Oc­to­ber 15, 2014, Qing­hai Prov­ince for­mally started prepa­ra­tions by gath­er­ing a group of spe­cial­ists in fields of bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity, ge­ol­ogy, wa­ter engi­neer­ing, hy­drol­ogy, me­te­o­rol­ogy and aes­thet­ics. Af­ter more than a year of work, Hoh Xil fi­nally qualified to rep­re­sent China to bid for World Her­itage list­ing in Jan­uary 2016.

Dur­ing this pe­riod, the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture and Nat­u­ral Re­sources (IUCN) sent in­spec­tors to Hoh Xil for field trips. Sonam Ge­leg per­son­ally ac­com­pa­nied them. “They were as­ton­ished by the bio­di­ver­sity of the place,” says Sonam. “Before com­ing here, all they knew was that the cli­mate is dry and cold and lacks oxygen and wa­ter, mak­ing the land un­suit­able for hu­man habi­ta­tion. Af­ter the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, they agreed that Hoh Xil con­formed to stan­dards for nat­u­ral her­itage with high in­tegrity and good pro­tec­tion and man­age­ment con­di­tions.”

Ac­cord­ing to IUCN’S eval­u­a­tion re­port, more than a third of the higher plants found in Hoh Xil are unique to the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau, and all the her­bi­vores that live on th­ese plants are also found nowhere else. “The nom­i­na­tion has ex­tra­or­di­nary nat­u­ral beauty,” the re­port de­clared. “Its beauty is be­yond hu­man imag­i­na­tion and amaz­ing in all re­spects.”

Sonam is usu­ally a quiet man, but when speak­ing of Hoh Xil, he starts talk­ing a mile a minute. “For 12 years, we haven’t heard the gun­shots of poach­ers,” he says. “We risked our lives to achieve this. To­day, Hoh Xil is home to 60,000 an­telopes, a big in­crease from 20,000 in 1997, its low­est on record. More than 20,000 Ti­betan wild don­keys and tens of thou­sands of wild yaks also live here. The ef­fec­tive pro­tec­tion of lo­cal an­i­mals greatly helped Hoh Xil’s ap­proval.”

Guardians of the Plateau

In 1997, 19-year-old Sonam re­tired from the mil­i­tary. His pas­sion was so ig­nited by watch­ing a doc­u­men­tary about Hoh Xil pro­tec­tor Sonam Dar­gye that he

de­cided to go there to be a pa­trol­man. At that time, he and his team­mates worked and lived in tents, which were fre­quently blown away by pow­er­ful winds. On trips into the wild, they couldn’t even light a fire to boil wa­ter, so they of­ten gnawed on dry in­stant noo­dles washed down with a hand­ful of snow. With­out bed­ding, they hud­dled to­gether to keep warm at night.

In ad­di­tion to pa­trols, the team was also tasked with col­lect­ing garbage, which is not an easy job at 5,000 me­ters above sea level. As few as sev­eral steps can make one out of breath, and they had to bend over re­peat­edly, which caused headaches and loss of ap­petite at night. “In the late 1990s, Ti­betan an­te­lope poach­ing was ram­pant, and we en­coun­tered heav­ily armed poach­ers al­most ev­ery time when we pa­trolled. Sev­eral times, I nar­rowly es­caped get­ting shot my­self.”

His leath­ery tanned skin makes Sonam look older than his age. “I never knew cold and oxygen de­fi­cien­cies could cause phys­i­cal dam­age or I would have taken some coun­ter­mea­sures,” Sonam smiles. The pa­trol team usu­ally drives down bumpy roads through the no man’s land a dozen hours a day. One pa­trol trip in the re­gion of­ten takes as long as a dozen days. If the truck gets stuck in the mud, they dig it out. In rainy sea­son, they do this as of­ten as 30 times a day.

Since 2010, the team’s work­ing con­di­tions have im­proved. They at­tached a trailer to the truck to carry gaso­line, tents and lug­gage. Now they can boil wa­ter when away from the sta­tion. While pa­trolling, at least they can have in­stant noo­dles hot and add pack­ets of pick­les. Driv­ing 10 hours across bad road con­di­tions leaves the team time for only one meal a day. For 20 years, Sonam has lived rough and now suf­fers from se­ri­ous lum­bar disc her­ni­a­tion and arthri­tis, “oc­cu­pa­tional dis­eases” shared by al­most all of his col­leagues.

“Ev­ery time we went into the wilds of Hoh Xil, we felt like we were say­ing our last good­byes to our fam­i­lies,” says Sonam. In 1999, they were trapped in the moun­tains for 40 days with a truck that ran out of gas. To save food, they ate just one piece of steamed bread a day. When they were found by the res­cue team, they hadn’t eaten for three days. “With Hoh Xil ap­proved as a World Nat­u­ral Her­itage site, it was all worth it,” Sonam ex­claims.

More than Glory

Af­ter risk­ing their lives to pro­tect Hoh Xil for 20 years, Sonam and his team­mates are fi­nally see­ing the fruits of their ef­forts. In 1997 when he be­gan pa­trolling, he rarely saw a Ti­betan an­te­lope. Find­ing traces of Ti­betan an­telopes three times a week was con­sid­ered a big suc­cess. “They were very sen­si­tive to hu­man voices and the sound of en­gines,” Sonam re­veals. “If we got a few hun­dred me­ters from them, they would scat­ter.”

Now, wild an­i­mals can be seen ev­ery­where in the core area of Hoh Xil and along the Qing­hai-ti­bet High­way, in­clud­ing Ti­betan an­telopes, Ti­betan wild don­keys and ar­galis. Train pas­sen­gers of­ten cap­ture pho­tos of Ti­betan an­telopes, and they’re no longer afraid of hu­mans. When some­one raises a cam­era, they of­ten look up at the lens. Sonam is most proud of his work in this re­gard.

Re­cent news, how­ever, has made Sonam feel the in­scrip­tion is just the be­gin­ning. High-res­o­lu­tion satel­lite mon­i­tor­ing by the Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Qing­hai Prov­ince has shown that some salt lakes have ex­panded 4.5 square kilo­me­ters since last year. The spread of salt lakes will kill grass and erode the soil. And if they con­tin­ued ex­pand­ing, the Qing­haiTi­bet rail­way and high­way, as well as the Lanzhou-ti­bet ca­ble and pipe­lines, would all be threat­ened.

“So, be­com­ing a World Nat­u­ral Her­itage site is more than about glory—it means greater re­spon­si­bil­ity,” says Sonam. “It’s both a pres­sure and a mo­ti­va­tion for us. We will de­vote our lives to bet­ter pro­tect­ing this pure land.”

Hoh Xil, lit­er­ally “blue ridge” or “beau­ti­ful girl” in Mon­go­lian, is known as one of the three ma­jor “no-man's lands” in the world. VCG

Thanks to the painstak­ing ef­forts of Hoh Xil Pa­trol Team, the pop­u­la­tion of Ti­betan an­telopes in the re­gion has in­creased from 20,000 in 1997 to 60,000 to­day. CFB More than 20,000 Ti­betan wild don­keys live in Hoh Xil. VCG

Hoh Xil boasts the dens­est dis­tri­bu­tion of lakes on the Qing­hai-ti­bet Plateau. VCG When their truck gets stuck in the mud, the pa­trol­men dig it out. In rainy sea­son, this hap­pens as of­ten as 30 times a day. VCG

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