The Longxi-Hongkou Nature Reserve is located in Dujiangyan City, Sichuan Province, China, just west of the metropolis of Chengdu and nestled on the edge of the Hengduan Mountain Range. This wide-ranging swath of jagged mountains extends 900 kilometers across the Yunnan, Sichuan, and Qinghai Provinces, marking the easternmost edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Across most of the range, local communities boast a mix of Tibetan, Qiang, Hui, Han Chinese, and other minority cultures among some of the most mesmerizing natural backdrops in the world.
Dujiangyan was one of the cities most affected by the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake, which made headlines around the world and called attention to some..*ahem*..shoddy infrastructure and construction across the northern and western areas of Sichuan province. Since then, it has transformed itself into a tourism-focused city, and has won a multitude of national awards for its development and hospitality towards both domestic and foreign tourists.
Longxi-Hongkou covers an area that is also home to ~11 wild giant pandas, a small but important population when it comes to preserving the genetic diversity of the species throughout its range. This makes the reserve a key corridor to protect biodiversity, as well as the last ecological barrier before habitat gives way to Chengdu and the heavily-populated Sichuan Basin. The region also connects the internationally-renowned Wolong Giant Panda Reserve to the southwest with Baishuihe Reserve and other key panda habitat in the north.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Dujiangyan Forestry Department envision Longxi-Hongkou Reserve as one of the main gateways through which tourists can experience the Giant Panda National Park, which will encompass a massive swath of the aforementioned Hengduan Range. Tourists flocking from nearby Chengdu, greater Sichuan, and the rest of the country will be able to experience the edge of wild giant panda habitat without impacting any core biodiversity areas.
Over the past half year or so, I have had the privilege to work on certain key aspects of this project. TNC and the Dujiangyan Forestry Department aim to develop a tourist-friendly environmental education curriculum in the reserve, serving to educate the public on biodiversity, habitat, and other important issues in the area. To this end, TNC has been working with the forestry department to create a Visitor’s Center and environmental education curriculum at the reserve’s southernmost protection station. Additionally, TNC is assisting on utilizing key community-based conservation concepts to help prepare the existing local communities for integration with the national park in development.
Understanding China’s Conservation Landscape
When I first arrived in Sichuan and made contact with TNC China, I was invited to give a talk about my experiences with management and education in the U.S. National Park system. With relevant volunteer, outdoor recreation, and academic experience, I was able to delve into the aspects of management and education that have made the U.S. National Park System successful to date. At the time, I admittedly wasn’t so familiar with Chinese methods of conservation, or the advantages and obstacles of managing nature reserves in China.
I spoke about the excellent public-private partnerships and non-profit solutions that bring environmental education from the national parks to the inner city, or the programs that transform the wilderness into a classroom for elementary and middle school students. I praised the focus on interpretation and natural history that rangers and park staff were trained for. I harped about engagement, and how outdoor recreation opportunities in national parks and public lands builds an understanding of and appreciation for nature from a young age. I claimed that building relationships with neighboring communities and landowners was crucial to the management success of the park. I also warned about the use of emerging technologies, in that they can bring great benefit but also encourage unsustainable travel.
All of that, I learned, was fine to speak about, but had little application in describing the conservation situation that exists in China today. China today is suffering from a lack of environmental education and engagement. The government is bullish about protecting species and ecosystems, but has clear issues in designating use and opportunities for sustainable outdoor recreation. Communities of people — many hundreds if not thousands of years old — exist nearly everywhere you could want to protect in China, and working cooperatively with them is critical for success. Technology use in China is rampant, and it is crucial to integrate it into the planning and execution of any curriculum or tourism management plans. Understanding issues like these up close has been the backbone of my journey conservation in China so far.
TNC is working to address these issues at Longxi-Hongkou and the surrounding areas, through a targeted environmental education curriculum, tourist management plan, and local community cooperation. Since I arrived, I have been able to see first-hand the attitudes, practices, and obstacles that come with building sustainable solutions and engaging with natural resources in Sichuan.
Continued in Part Two.