Zhalong Protection Model
On September 10, 2017, Zhalong International Half Marathon started off from Zhalong National Nature Reserve. About 4,000 athletes participated in the contest to enjoy competitive long-distance running amidst beautiful scenery featuring flourishing plants and dancing cranes.
Water, the Source of Life
Straddling Songnen Plain in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang Province, Zhalong Wetland covers 210,000 hectares. In the Mongolian language, “Zhalong” literally means an enclosure for raising sheep and cattle.
Zhalong National Nature Reserve is China’s largest protection center for redcrowned crane and the world’s largest breeding center for the bird. “Water birds are the critical indicator of a wetland’s health,” explains Wang Wenfeng, deputy director of the nature reserve. Statistics shows that the reserve is home to 400 wild redcrowned cranes, a fifth of the world’s total, as well as 296 species of other birds, 35 of which are under state-class protection.
In the past, Zhalong Wetland was fed by the seasonal overflowing of the Wuyu’er and Shuangyang rivers. But because of human activities and natural environmental shifts, evaporation began exceeding precipitation. In 2001, a fire further worsened the wetland’s situation, threatening the lives of the birds.
How could a fire happen to a wetland? “A lack of water,” Wang sighs. “Back then, of 700 square kilometers of Zhalong’s core area, only 130 square kilometers had water. In some places cars even could pass without trouble.” According to a 2003 document, Zhalong Wetland needed a billion cubic
meters of water or it would have disappeared. So, during the springs and early summers of 2002 and 2003, Zhalong received an injection of 420 million cubic meters of water.
Water is the lifeblood of the wetland. The transfusion clearly helped the recovery of the environment, as evidenced by the doubled population of red-crowned cranes in 2003 compared with the figure in 2001. Its success helped water injections become a long-term mechanism, and now 250 million cubic meters of water are supplied to Zhalong each year.
Since Zhalong National Nature Reserve bid farewell to chronic water shortages, more birds and other animals have returned. “When Zhalong has water, its aquatic environment improves drastically,” says Gao Zhongyan, deputy director at the nature reserve’s Crane Breeding Center. “The population of rare species like redcrowned cranes grows, individual birds lay more eggs and the infant mortality rate improves by leaps and bounds.”
Meanwhile, the wetland plays a bigger role in regulating climate and counteracting pollutants. Sun Leshi, chief engineer of Qiqihar Municipal Meteorological Bureau, noted that the recovery of Zhalong Wetland gave neighboring communities more rainy days and less extreme temperatures, evidencing the positive regulating function of the wetland.
The conflict between birds and humans has eternally persisted in Zhalong.
The vastest, most intact and primitive wetland ecosystem in northern China, Zhalong is an important passage for various birds’ migration. Also, about 5,000 villagers lived in the core area of the wetland, farming, fishing and cutting reeds.
“The birds were afraid of people,” recalled Xu Minzhan, who moved out of the core area 15 years ago. “We used tractors instead of horses and cattle to plow. The engine sounds scared the birds away.”
In addition to the noise, villagers consumed land and resources. According to Wang Wenfeng, the growing human population asked for more from the environment, leaving fewer resources for their neighbors. “Some birds even abandoned their nests because of human encroachment.”
The situation presents a dilemma. Birds are severely impacted by human activities, but the local residents need to survive. Ultimately, the government decided to relocate the people. The government estimates that the relocation program will
involve 1,528 households and be financed by investments of more than 163 million yuan (US$24.6 million), including 98.18 million yuan (US$14.8 million) from the central government and 65.45 million yuan (US$9.8 million) from local governments.
For the protection of birds, people are relocating. It seems a hefty price to pay, but the bold move may prove worthwhile. “The wetland is rich in water and plant resources,” says Xu Minzhan. “Previously, it supported our lives easily. But things became more difficult with the increase of people.” So, Xu moved to a neighboring community, where he found convenient transportation, information flow and better income. “The government provides jobs for relocated residents such as gardening and driving. I can earn as much as 30,000 yuan a year plus my earnings from reed cutting. I am doing much better financially than before.”
More and more people have already moved out of the core area of the wetland. “Villagers used to hunt bird eggs to eat,” Xu admits. “But now everybody knows that protection is very important.”
In 2015, the first phase of the relocation program started. Relocated residents are still allowed to cut reeds from the wetland in winter. And locals are developing tourism featuring crane-watching in the snow and hot springs.
Green mountains and clear water are as valuable as gold and silver. Now, Zhalong Wetland has become a flagship brand of Heilongjiang Province, drawing more tourists to the area.
Zhalong has become a famous travel destination of Heilongjiang Province, drawing countless tourists to the area. IC Zhalong in March. VCG
Zhalong National Nature Reserve flourishes most in summer, during which time flocks of redcrowned cranes fly over dancing reeds. IC
Late autumn is the busiest season in Zhalong, during which time many migratory birds from Siberia gather there before flying south. VCG