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China's First Group of National Parks Built to Contribute to Global Ecological Protection
2022-04-18 ICCSD

"All beings flourish when they live in harmony and receive nourishment from nature." Biodiversity is the source of the vitality on earth as well as the foundation of human survival and development, and protecting biodiversity will sustain life on earth and promote sustainable development of the mankind. At the Leaders' Summit of the 15th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity held in Kunming on October 12, China officially announced the designation of its first group of national parks which include Sanjiangyuan (Three-River-Source) National Park, the Giant Panda National Park, the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park, the Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park, and the Wuyishan National Park. This marks an important step forward in China's efforts to promote ecological protection, build a beautiful China and facilitate the harmonious coexistence between man and nature.

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Why does China build national parks? 

The concept of "national park" was first proposed by American artist George Catlin in the 1830s, and the first national park in the world was the Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872 in the United States. This term was later used by many countries around the world, and national parks are now commonly recognized as a type of natural reserves. So far, more than 100 countries have set up as many as 1,200 national parks around the world.

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Rich experience has been gained in running national parks since the first one was established more than 100 years ago. For China, the purpose of building national parks is to retain the authenticity and integrity of ecosystems and preserve biodiversity so that the ecological shields will be protected and future generations will be left with precious natural assets. In the era of ecological protection, building national parks not only enables China to pay back its debt in ecological protection in history, but also systematically puts an end to the passive efforts of nature conservation. The establishment of the first group of national parks also removes the veil from national parks with Chinese characteristics for the first time.

What's different about these five parks? 

The first group of national parks established this time stretches ten provinces, namely Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan, Shaanxi, Gansu, Jilin, Heilongjiang, Hainan, Fujian and Jiangxi, all of which are covered by the key areas in China's ecological security framework. With a protected area of 230,000 square kilometers, these parks cover nearly 30% of the national key protected terrestrial wildlife species. They have the most important natural ecosystems, the most unique natural landscapes, the most representative natural heritage and the richest biodiversity. They are highly representative in China and reflect how ecological protection is prioritized and treated as public welfare. One common feature shared by all five national parks is the fact that each has its own distinctive ecological function. For instance, the Sanjiangyuan National Park mainly protects the vital ecological function areas on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. The Giant Panda National Park and the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park protect such precious and endangered wild animals as giant pandas, Siberian tigers and Amur leopards, as well as important ecosystems in which these flagship species are seen as umbrella species. The Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park, and the Wuyishan National Park are where important forest ecosystems in tropical and subtropical areas are preserved. Now let's explore the uniqueness of these five national parks one by one.

The Sanjiangyuan National Park

The Sanjiangyuan National Park is located in the hinterland of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Covering a protected area of 190,700 square kilometers, it realizes the overall protection of the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang Rivers. Featuring rich ecological types and complete ecological functions, this park boasts a variety of glaciers, snow-capped mountains, high-altitude wetlands, gobi desert, alpine grassland and meadows. It is a model of large-scale conservation of alpine ecosystem on Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the third pole of the earth. The primitive forests, vast grasslands, rare and precious flora and fauna all around form a unique natural landscape in the world's high-altitude regions. The Sanjiangyuan National Park is a paradise for wild animals to take shelter and "Noah's Ark" for them to reproduce.

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At present, there are 69 national key protected wild animals in the park, accounting for 26.8% of the total in China. Among them, there are as many as 16 national first-level key protected species such as snow leopards, Tibetan antelopes, wild yaks and Tibetan wild donkeys. This is also one of the areas with the highest population density of snow leopards in the world.

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Snow leopard images captured by infrared cameras in Qumalai County, the Yangtze River section of the Sanjiangyuan National Park

The Giant Panda National Park

The Giant Panda National Park spans a protected area of 22,000 square kilometers across Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces. It is where wild pandas are mostly found and a major breeding habitat for them. More than 70% of China's wild pandas are under protection in the park. However, the adorable giant pandas, also known as the "iron eating beasts" in ancient times (they got this nickname probably because of their stunning bite force which was developed by eating bamboos), are not solely found in Sichuan. The Qinling Mountains are also one of the vital habitats of giant pandas. Giant pandas here are dubbed "the beauty among the national treasures" because of their round bodies, cute look, and resemblance to cats.

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(Photo via the Giant Panda National Park)

The ultimate purpose of building the Giant Panda National Park is not only to protect pandas, but also to use the influence of giant pandas to protect other species. Giant pandas are actually an "umbrella species", and such effect is called the "umbrella effect". Given the rich biodiversity inside the park, it is also a demonstration area for biodiversity conservation, a pioneering area for realizing ecological value and a model for ecological education in the world. The "four treasures of the Qinling Mountains", namely the giant panda, crested ibis, takin and golden monkey, and other rare plant species can also be found in the park.

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(Photo via the Giant Panda National Park)

The Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park

The Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park takes up land in Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces and borders Russia and North Korea. With a protected area of 14,100 square kilometers, it is home to the largest population of wild Siberian tigers and Amur leopards, and the only breeding families of them in China. Wild Siberian tigers and Amur leopards used to be found in almost each mountain in northeast China in history. However, due to increased human activities, forest loss and degradation, their population and habitats have shrunk rapidly. Thus, the establishment of the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park will effectively protect and restore the population of wild Siberian tigers and Amur leopards, and strike a balance between biodiversity protection and economic development.

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(Photo via official website of the Northeast China Tiger and Leopard National Park)

At present, a complete food chain that is composed of small, medium and large-sized animals can be found in the park. Such a complete food chain is indeed rare in China. The park is thus known as a "gene pool of species" and a "natural museum". As the park is located in the central zone of mixed coniferous and broad-leaved forest ecosystems in Temperate Asia, it has a myriad of vegetation forms and a relatively complete ecological structure. Therefore, it also enjoys a typical temperate forest ecosystem. Deep inside the forest are tall red pines and thousand-year-old Japanese yew trees. The scenery changes its color in each of four seasons. Every year, early spring plants such as coltsfoot and the yellow star-of-Bethlehem begin to come out of the ground before the snow melts. With the gentle breezes in spring, colorful wild flowers start to bloom. In summer, greenness is everywhere with clear streams winding down the mountains. In autumn, the whole mountains are dyed red, and cool breezes send leaves off branches. In winter, the magnificent snow fields stretch for thousands of miles.

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The Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park

The Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park is located in the middle of Hainan Island. It covers a protected area of 4,269 square kilometers and preserves the most complete and diverse continental island-type tropical rainforest in China. It is the only distribution site of the world's most endangered primate — Hainan gibbons. It is also a treasure trove of tropical biodiversity and genetic resources, and has become a model of precious natural resource heritage and biodiversity conservation in island-type tropical rainforest. The biodiversity index in the park is as high as 6.28, which is comparable to Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. Famous mountain ranges including the Wuzhi Mountain, the Yingge Mountain, the Jianfeng Mountain and the Diaoluo Mountain, are all within this area, hence the reputation as the "roof of Hainan". This place is also known as "Hainan water tower" as the main rivers of the city such as the Nandu River, the Changhua River and the Wanquan River all have their headwaters here.

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(Photo via the Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park)

The inhabitants in the Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park are mainly the Li people and the Miao people who are kind and boast colorful culture, such as singing, dancing and mysterious Li tattoos dating back to the ancient times. Li brocade was among the first batch of items included in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

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(Photo via the Hainan Tropical Rainforest National Park)

The Wuyishan National Park

The Wuyishan National Park stretches across Fujian and Jiangxi provinces and covers a protected area of 1,280 square kilometers. With the world's most complete and largest primary mid-subtropical evergreen broadleaved forest ecosystem among those at the same latitude, it is a treasure house of flora and fauna in southeast China. As both World Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites, Wuyi Mountain exemplifies how cultural and natural treasures are passed down from generation to generation and how harmonious coexistence can be realized between man and nature.

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(Photo via the Wuyishan National Park)

The complex terrain and diverse ecological environment in the Wuyishan National Park provide an ideal habitat for wild animals to live and reproduce. This place is hence dubbed by biologists from China and abroad as the "kingdom of snakes", "world of insects", "paradise of birds", "origin of the world's biological model specimens" and "key to studying Asian amphibian reptiles", etc. Moreover, the Wuyi Mountain in the park is also famous for its long history and rich culture. The Yue people had already lived here as early as the Neolithic Age. Since the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220) dynasties, the Wuyi Mountain has gradually become the holy place for Taoism and Buddhism. The unique and ideal natural environment in the mountain has attracted the literati and officials from different dynasties to pay a visit. The wisdom from the forefathers and traces left by the literati along the Jiuqu Stream have been well-kept as a variety of cultural heritage.

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The establishment of the first group of national parks has attracted the attention of numerous experts and scholars. Su Yang, a researcher at the Development Research Center of the State Council, noted, "There are only five national parks in the first group because the national park system reform in these regions has been effective and the tasks in the pilot trial programs of the system have been basically completed. As the system reform proceeds, more national parks will be set up when the pilot zones are well resourced."

As for whether the national parks will be accessible for public recreation, here are the answers from experts. Unlike the parks which are usually built for sightseeing and leisure, national parks are one of the most important types of nature reserves in China. They belong to the areas where development is prohibited in China's planning of major ecologically functional zones and are incorporated into the ecological red lines with the most stringent protection policies being implemented. The primary function of national parks is to ensure the authenticity and integrity of important natural ecosystems. Other functions may include scientific research, science education and leisure. Actually, strict protection does not exclude science popularization and leisure. It means conducting these activities while ensuring effective protection. For ordinary citizens, these national parks provide people with better places for science popularization, education and leisure. Residents who live in the communities around the parks can even benefit from the ecological protection there and gradually embrace a path of sustainable development.

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National parks do not only belong to this generation of Chinese people, but will continue to benefit many generations to come. We hope that national parks can serve as a perpetual medium for enhancing the harmonious coexistence of mankind and nature. Meanwhile, the establishment of national parks in China will also provide replicable experience for other countries and contribute to the cause of ecological protection worldwide.

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