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Songshan: A Conservation Window in China


2008 Green Olympic Photo Contest

See some of the incredible photographs entered into the "Nature Reserves of China, Through the Viewfinder" photo contest.

The Conservancy is helping improve management not just at Songshan but 50 other nature reserves throughout the country. Check out this interactive map to see how the Conservancy is helping chart China's green future.

By Margaret Southern

With millions of visitors pouring into China for the 2008 Olympic Games, a nature reserve just 55 miles from Beijing presented an opportunity for tourists to experience the region’s spectacular biodiversity up close.

Nestled in the depths of the Yangshan Mountains, 11,500-acre Songshan National Nature Reserve is home to hundreds of plant and animal species, including four nationally protected animals: the golden eagle, imperial eagle, golden leopard and black stork.

But the reserve lacks the necessary facilities to accommodate increased ecotourism and does not have the resources to help limit unregulated public access, which has already damaged sensitive areas in the reserve.

That’s why the Chinese government has asked The Nature Conservancy to help transform Songshan — and 50 other nature reserves across the country — into a world-class nature reserves that safeguard their rich habitat and promote sustainable ecotourism.

'A Conservation Window' onto China's Protected Areas

The Chinese government has actually set aside more than 15 percent of the country’s land area in more than 2,500 nature reserves. Yet much of that land is not currently open to the public or actively managed.

“Many people have no idea that China has such a vast network of nature reserves,” says Guangzhi Yu, the Conservancy's Protected Areas project manager in China. “There are protected areas in every region of the country, encompassing a full diversity of habitat types.”

Songshan’s proximity to Beijing makes it a prime candidate to increase awareness of China’s natural heritage and the need to adequately protect it. Chinese officials have dubbed it a “conservation window.”

For the past two decades, however, an absence of science-based management and ecotourism regulation has led to overuse, which had a significant impact on the biological health of the reserve. Today, public access in Songshan is limited to one-third of the acreage.

How the Conservancy is Helping Songshan and Other Chinese Reserves

According to Yu, the Conservancy’s key objectives at Songshan over the next year include:

  • Using the Conservancy’s Conservation Area Planning method to identify key conservation targets, sources of stress to the targets, specific strategies to improve biodiversity health, and a plan to assess progress.
  • Training new land managers to protect and monitor biodiversity on an ongoing basis.
  • Developing an ecotourism plan to increase standards in tourism management, improve infrastructure and enhance visitor experience in the reserve.

“Our goal at Songshan is to create a model of effective conservation that will set a standard for other nature reserves throughout China,” Yu says.

Indeed, given the Conservancy’s nine-year record of success working in China, the Chinese government invited the Conservancy to help improve management at not just Songshan but 50 other nature reserves throughout the country.

“The Conservancy has a great deal of experience managing protected areas," Yu says. "So we can work with our partners to address challenges that are common to reserves around the world, such as balancing public access and protection of sensitive habitat.”

The ultimate hope is that the reserves inspire many of China's 1.3 billion citizens to become engaged with conservation. But with the Olympics so near, for now the spotlight is squarely on Songshan.

“I hope that visitors to China will seek out Songshan to experience the beauty and biological diversity of our country," Yu says. "It’s a very special place.”

Ecotourism Can Be Sustainable

Songshan is also special to the people who live near and within it — including the 70 residents of Xidazhuange, a tiny village at the heart of the reserve that offers a stark contrast to bustling downtown Beijing.

Every year from May to October, village chief Cai Zhao and his family run a small home-stay hotel for tourists that come for a nature getaway.

Zhao says that, since the establishment of the reserve in 1986, he has seen a substantial increase in business — helping him support his family and buy small luxuries, such as a television and refrigerator.

And the benefits are being felt throughout the community, he adds. In addition to having new economic opportunities from ecotourism, each family receives compensation for not logging in and around the reserve. In the winter, the reserve hires young men to assist in fire prevention patrolling.

Zhao reports that the average income in his village has increased from $25 USD annually in 1983 to almost $1,600 USD annually today, thanks in part to the reserve.

According to Zhao, villagers see the value of the land differently now. “People from local villages no longer cut trees from the nature reserve. And they have stopped using fire to increase their arable land area,” he says.

“The forest has become denser and coverage increases every year," he adds. "The air is fresher.”

Margaret Southern is a writer for the Nature Conservancy. 

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