Who owns China’s first national park, wildlife, indigenous people or tourists?

It may seems obvious that a national park belongs to the nation. However, who composes the nation? Whose interest should be prioritised, and why? This article aims to discover the emerging discord among tourists, indigenous people and wildlife, during the establishment of China’s first pilot national park — Sanjiangyuan. 

Sanjiangyuan National Park. Photo credits to Yuhan LI

Sanjianggyuan is a wonderland. You will be astonished by its culture, biodiversity and landscape.  It is located on the Tibetan Plateau with an average altitude over 4500m. Sanjiangyuan means “Origins of Three Rivers”. Three big rivers, the Yangze River, the Yellow River and the Mekong River, have their sources there. This place is home to Tibetan herders, who move around the mountains with their yaks, who believe in Buddhism and no-killing of life, and who have lived together with carnivores for thousands of years, such as snow leopard, wolf, lynx, brown bear, pallas cat and mountain cat. 

Tibetan herders and the baby yaks inside the Sanjiangyuan National Park. Photo credits to Céline XU
Snow leopard walking in front of the town Namsei. Namsei is located at the origin of the Mekong River. Photo credits to Shanshui Conservation Center
Sanjiangyuan National Park attracts tourists from all over the world, for its amazing landscape, wildlife and culture. Photo credits to Céline XU

In 2015, Sanjiangyuan became the first pilot national park in China, covering 123,100 km², which is almost the size of England. This land was once a protected nature reserve, where the presence of humans was strictly controlled. Now, Sanjiangyuan opens its arms to embrace curious hearts from all over the world. 

One distinct feature of the park is indigenous people — the Tibetan herders. This is unlike national parks in other countries, where indigenous people were expelled during the establishment. Here, Tibetan herders have to the right to stay, and they are authorized by the government to protect the environment. This environment protection job brings extra £2400 to each family annually. Besides financial incentives, protecting nature is also deeply rooted in the culture. Tibetan Buddhism values life, whether it is the life of a human, a snow leopard, a black bug or a tree. They live with the nature, and become part of the nature. 

Tibetan herder Qupeng and the wild blue sheep that he rescued. Photo credits to Yuhan LI

When indigenous people encounters nature conservation, people tend to think about the innate conflict of development and conservation, where local people’s rights to land and access to income to income are denied. This is not the case in Sanjiangyuan. Here, people generate most of their income from caterpillar fungus — a valuable traditional Chinese medicine — which is well managed by the community and does little harm to the environment. Meanwhile, as mentioned in the beginning, indigenous people continue to stay in their land and receive payment from the government to protect the environment. 

However, conflicts do exist. They arise among indigenous people, wildlife and visitors.

Snow leopard preys on herder’s yak. Photo credits to Frédéric LARREY

The first type of conflict is between indigenous people and wildlife. Should the park prioritize the conservation? Yes, it should, and Sanjiangyuan National Park is doing a good job on developing wildlife monitoring, anti-poaching, and community based conservation. However, the paradox here is that the wildlife is so well protected that human beings become the vulnerable ones in this relationship. In recent years, indigenous people have suffered an increasing number of homes being destroyed by brown bears. Meanwhile, there is the continuing conflict of wildlife preying on yaks. Local people start to question with the notion: Law protects wildlife, but who protects us? A sick snow leopard sometimes receives more attention than a sick person. Local communities love these animals, but these unhappy encounters bring them a sense of unfairness. 

Roads provide convenient access to hospital, school and town. However, some tourists view them as destruction to the pristine nature. Photo credits to Yuhan LI

The second type of conflict lies between visitors and indigenous people. For some visitors, they come to Sanjiangyuan with an illustration of pristine nature, where time is frozen by ice. Visitors are fascinated to see megafauna wondering around the mountains, or herders milking yaks in their traditional customs. Visitors are frustrated to see new roads, vehicles and signs of a modern world.  They argue this might be the last well preserved land on earth, and it will be regretful to see roads and telegraph poles flooding in. Meanwhile, these roads and technologies brings local people to healthcare, school and a new world. Visitors want to go back, but the local people may want to move ahead. 

Whose interests should be prioritised? Wildlife, indigenous people, or visitors? Wildlife wants to continue their freedom of life, eating whatever they can find, going to where ever they want to go, including herder’s yaks and homes; Indigenous people want to receive protection from these wildlife, as well as gaining access to convenient infrastructures. The visitors, want to preserve a land with little human intervention,  or at least far from the modern world, that nature dominates.

These issues pose serious questions to policy makers. Sanjiangyuan is the first pilot park in China. People have little experience of dealing with these problems. The government and NGOs are trying to develop insurance system and precaution measures to solve the human wildlife conflicts. They are also looking into design regulations that control the negative impact from development projects. 

Local community discussing solutions. Photo credits to Yuhan LI

Biodiversity and culture diversity enrich Sanjiangyuan. This is a park with local community living inside. It is so precious that people fear to lose it. But how to protect it? Which is more important, wildlife or humans? What will be the best form, an ancient wonderland, or a part of the evolving modern world?

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