With a huge population, and a booming, but still underdeveloped economy, the Chinese have opted for a get-rich-first lifestyle, after which they may think about protecting their environment. It is a curious fact that in a country so proud of an artistic and literary heritage extolling the love of natural beauty, even the most emblematic places are not safe from litterbugs who choke gardens, hills, and lakes with refuse.
On a larger scale this translates into a couldn’t-care-less attitude to environmental pollution, particularly of air and freshwater sources, which are often poisoned with dangerously toxic substances. As with so many aspects of life in China, an infrastructure of well-meaning laws and administration certainly exists, but its use is dependent on lazy, and often corrupt, officials.
Despite these multiple handicaps, an array of around 300 national parks and nature reserves has been established, protecting about two per cent of China s land area. These are backed up by provincial and local initiatives, such as designated ‘scenic areas’, which may lack the resources and more rigorous controls of the national bodies, but add to the stock of at least partially protected zones.
Undoubtedly the best known internationally is the Wolong Nature Reserve (Wolong Ziran Baohuqu) near Chengdu in Sichuan province, designated an International Biosphere Preserve by the United Nations for its role in protecting the endangered giant panda. Other endangered species that call Wolong home are the snow leopard, golden monkey and golden langur, and the musk deer.
The Zhalong Nature Reserve (Zhalong Ziran Baohuqu), 280km from Qiqihar in Heilongjiang province, is an excellent spot for birdwatchers, as is the remote Qinghai Lake in Qinghai province, and the Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province.
Zhalong was China’s first nature reserve, established as recently as 1979, an indication of how recently environmental protection was considered an issue in China. Its 210,000 hectares of wetlands are a permanent home or stopover for 180 bird species. These include eight of the world’s 15 crane species, of which six are on the endangered list. One of them, the red-crowned crane, is an ancient symbol of longevity, and there are 500 in the reserve. Other species, such as storks, swans, geese, and herons, are best seen from April to September.
Qinghai Lake (Qinghai Hu), China’s largest saltwater lake, is surrounded by snow-tipped mountains and located 3,200m above sea level in remote Qinghai province. The Bird Island sanctuary hosts about 100,000 migrating birds, including geese, cranes, vultures, and Mongolian larks. Its Longbao Black-Necked Crane Sanctuary plays an important role in the preservation of this threatened species.
Trees are the main players at the Changbaishan Nature Reserve (Changbaishan Ziran Baohuqu) in Jilin province, on the border with North Korea, where 210,000 hectares of virgin forest are protected. The trees form bands of growth, depending on the altitude, and include white birch, Korean pine, dragon spruce, and fir. Above 2,000m the landscape is tundra, while in the valleys there are deciduous trees which attract tour groups for their autumnal colours.
At the opposite end of the country, near Nanning, on the border with Vietnam, the Longrui Nature Reserve (Longrui Ziran Baohuqu) is the home of the world’s only population of white-headed langur monkeys, while the plant kingdom is represented by the equally rare golden camellia.
In Hunan province, in the southeast, is a complex of connected nature reserves known as the Wulingyuan Scenic Area (Wulingyuan Fengjingqu), a remote area of rugged cliffs and hills emerging from the subtropical forest. Among its caves and plunging streams are numerous hiking and rafting possibilities.