A running stream in Laohegou, Sichuan Province.
Model of land conservation Laohegou is China's first land trust reserve. © William Ma

Stories in China

Celebrate TNC's 25th anniversary in China with a memoir of Laohegou

Journey back to the beginning of how Laohegou became China's first land trust reserve, paving the way forward for land conservation in China.

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First Of Its Kind

In 1998, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) was invited by the Yunnan Provincial Government to carry out conservation projects in Northwest Yunnan. Now 25 years later, TNC has established offices in China and has been leveraging our science, expertise and collaborative partnerships to work with government agencies and local partners to achieve conservation goals.

In 2011, TNC initiated the Laohegou project and in 2013, it was established as China’s first land reserve in Sichuan Province. The Laohegou Land Trust Reserve is now being managed by The Paradise International Foundation, the first-of-its-kind civic land conservation organization that has the mechanism to finance long-term reserve management through private contributions.

On this monumental milestone of TNC’s 25th anniversary in China, villagers are sharing their anecdotes of Laohegou and the changes they have seen over the past 12 years of people-led conservation.

What is a land trust?

The land trust model allows TNC to bring the private sector into conservation, giving local people, businesses and individuals a chance to help ensure that China’s most important lands and waters will be sustainably managed and protected into the future.

A panda caught on camera.
Say bamboo! A wild panda caught on infrared camera in Laohegou. © Paradise International Foundation

Transforming “Widows' Village”

The Laohegou Land Trust Reserve is located in southwest China’s Pingwu county in the northeastern of Sichuan province. The county is known for perhaps the largest density of wild giant pandas in the world and also covers part of the Northern Min Mountains’ wild giant panda genetic exchange corridor. In addition to giant pandas, the reserve is home to a wealth of rare plants and animals such as Sichuan golden monkeys, musk deer and black bears.

Unfortunately, until the beginning of this century, this ecologically important but unmanaged area was not under any legal protection, putting its biodiversity at risk from activities such as illegal hunting and fishing using electric shock or poison.

Xinyi Village is one of seven villages that border Laohegou, and almost every adult male villager has had experience in hunting. Locals would say, "If you're poor, you live in the mountains; if you're rich, you go to the plains. In the late 1980s, a piece of panda fur can be sold for over US $10,000, who wouldn't be tempted?" Out of over 160 households, more than 70 households have had men arrested and imprisoned for poaching, some even sentenced to death for poaching giant pandas. As a result, Xinyi Village was also known as the "widows' village".

If you're poor, you live in the mountains, if you're rich, you go to the plains. In the late 1980s, a piece of panda fur can be sold for over US $10,000, who wouldn't be tempted?

 "March 6th, sunny.

Today, our patrol group consisting of me, Lao Meng, Liu Bo and Lao Sun went to the Muguaxi area to check for traps. Our neighbor mentioned that their dog got caught in a trap on the beam over Mupugaxi a few days ago."

- Notes from Lao Zhong's journal

Lao Zhong, whose full name is Zhong Junde, is 60 years old and is the captain of the Xinyi Village patrol team. Every time he goes on a patrol in the mountains, Lao Zhong writes a few lines in his notebook. This habit has been going on for four years.

Lao Zhong was previously sentenced to seven years in prison for participating in the hunting of giant pandas and only returned to the village in 2017. When he came back, Lao Zhong noticed that villagers from Xinyi, as well as neighboring villagers, often went to the mountains to dig for a medicinal herb called chong lou (重楼). The mountains near Xinyi Village are well known for their high quality medicinal plants. Because of this, much of the natural vegetation has been disturbed as villagers come to dig, and many medicinal plants have been nearly depleted.

Lao Zhong looking at his crossbow.
Hunting tools Lao Zhong demonstrates how crossbows were used to hunt wildlife. © Paradise International Foundation

In September 2018, Lao Zhong, along with a group of former hunters, became the first patrol team in Xinyi Village. Over the past six years, they have been able to remove over 140 hunting traps and confiscated a gun. They also handled several cases of illegal activities such as medicinal herbs harvesting and fishing. Under the guidance of the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve, they installed infrared cameras and captured amazing wildlife videos, including a mother panda with her cubs and a panda fight. Today, the Xinyi patrol team covers over 2,485 miles annually, successfully deterring illegal hunting activities in the northwestern part of the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve.

A place where Lao Zhong and others can share their knowledge of the mountains.
The Hunter's Museum A place where Lao Zhong and others can share their knowledge of the mountains. © William Ma

In 2019, a group of Hong Kong Polytechnic University students were fascinated by the legendary stories of the village hunters. They helped design a museum to showcase the transformation of village hunters to wildlife protectors. This “Hunter’s Museum” was later built in Lao Zhong's courtyard.

The transformation of "Widows’ Village" is a true testament to the success of the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve's community work over the past ten years.

People-led Conservation

Since its establishment, people-led conservation has been the center of Laohegou. Building close relationships, working collaboratively and fostering awareness of the connection between conservation and livelihoods is essential to reducing conservation threats.

In 2022 alone, Laohegou patrol rangers spent a total of 4,727 hours visiting communities and wrote more than 600,000 words in their community visit logbooks. Each patrol ranger spends almost 400 hours on community work each year, averaging over an hour per day.

The success of Laohegou and Xinyi Village has led to the replication of this model and the establishment of community-protected areas and additional village patrol teams. Currently, there are three community-protected areas with an expanded network of protection from 27,182 acres at the beginning of its establishment in 2011 to nearly 61,776 acres today.

Today, the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve covers over 60,000 acres of land.
Map of Laohegou Today, the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve covers over 60,000 acres of land. © Paradise International Foundation

The Laohegou Land Trust Reserve encouraged the establishment of community village councils to jointly manage community affairs and engage villagers in sustainable ecological agriculture. This has led to the establishment of a social enterprise called the Pingwu County Laohegou Land Trust Reserve Baihua Valley Honey Industry Co., Ltd. This social enterprise support villagers to produce and sell sustainable agricultural products, such as honey and peanuts, as well as support the renovations of public service facilities and village activity centers.

In addition, the reserve also set up an education fund that has assisted 350 students and distributed a total of US $45,050 in student aid as of 2020. In 2022, the reserve began training for ecological tour guides, training 115 villagers from the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve area on behavior norms, ecological protection knowledge, safety skills and ecological tour guide skills.

Over 40 villagers completed the training and obtained ecological tour guide qualifications. The reserve also promoted shared beekeeping, allowing beekeepers to enter the reserve in an orderly manner. In 2022, 18 beekeepers in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve generated honey sales worth over US $15,000.

This is what sets the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve apart—its focus on the core of people-led conservation by the people within and in the surrounding areas.

The Disappearing Sound of Gunshot

In 2011, Liu Xiaogeng became the first director of the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve. When he first took office, the smells of the dense forest and wilderness excited him. However, during his first week of fieldwork, he heard three gunshots: someone was poaching!

Subsequent investigations revealed that poaching was not only rampant in the area, but that dishes made with poached wild animals were considered symbols of high social status in local cuisine. "This makes us firmly believe that patrolling and monitoring should be the most important work of protection," said Liu Xiaogeng. "We needed to be more familiar with this mountain than poachers, we need to walk faster than poachers, so they will definitely re-consider whether they should set traps or snares in the forests we guard."

In the crosshairs
In the crosshairs Hunting tools like this crossbow were used to hunt pandas and other large animals. © Paradise International Foundation
Panda paradise
Panda paradise The dense bamboo forests of Laohegou are prime habitats for the giant panda. © William Ma

Gan Mingdong, 28, used to be a local hunter before joining the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve in 2019. For him, going up the mountain as a patrol officer is a completely different experience. "I loved climbing mountains since I was a child. Being a patrol officer allows me to use my strengths in protecting wildlife. I feel that my life has become more valuable." Today, Gan Mingdong is very familiar with the patrol routes. "I walk 4 to 13 miles a day on the mountain roads. Wherever people can reach, we have to go."

In the mountains, Gan Mingdong encounters Tibetan antelopes, golden monkeys, wild boars and macaques. He has also seen more and more animals in the Laohegou area. The excitement of hunting has turned into a sense of achievement in seeing more and more animals, and the hunting skills have turned into sharpness in anti-poaching.

"I never thought of leaving once I started this patrol work. I hope to protect the wild animals on this land well, so that my children and more people can see them with their own eyes. This job has also earned me a lot of respect. My in-laws’ attitude towards me is completely different than from before. They used to look down on me and think that hunting is very embarrassing and that taking one step more could mean breaking the law. Now they think I'm doing a great thing. They're very proud of me!"

A babbling stream lined with lush bamboo in Laohegou.
Summertime A babbling stream lined with lush bamboo in Laohegou. © William Ma

Over the past 12 years, the footprints of the Laohegou patrol team have covered 61,776 acres of forest. The Laohegou Land Trust Reserve uses grid-based management, dividing the area into 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer management units and establishing a three-level patrol system: daily, key and special patrols. Regular patrols and monitoring activities are carried out, with each patrol member covering all 228 management units of Laohegou and the surrounding buffer zone twice a year. Each year, each patrol member covers more than 373 miles.

In 2022 alone, the Laohegou patrol team covered a cumulative total of 5,424 miles. The reserve uses infrared cameras, video surveillance systems and has developed a data analysis management platform and intelligent patrol system. Information technology is used to conduct scientific monitoring of the flora and fauna resources within the reserve.

In Laohegou, patrols are organized using a 1-by-1 km grid system with daily, key and special patrols.
Grid-based management In Laohegou, patrols are organized using a 1-by-1 km grid system with daily, key and special patrols. © Paradise International Foundation

Laohegou Land Trust Reserve's protection area has been in pilot operation for over 10 years, and the success is evident. The original poaching, overexploitation and deforestation activities have largely been eliminated. The encounter rate of wild animals has significantly increased, and the number of wildlife images captured by infrared cameras is also increasing. Over the past decade, the deployed infrared cameras have accumulated more than one million photos and over 2,000 hours of animal videos. And it is not uncommon for animals to wander into the vicinity of the protection zone's base. In 2021, a wild giant panda was spotted strolling on the road of the base, captured by CCTV. In April 2022, Laohegou recorded the first high-definition video of a golden cat hunting, which was a national first. The Eurasian otter, which had not been spotted in this area for over 20 years, also returned to the rivers of Laohegou.

Laohegou has become the easiest place in Pingwu County, Sichuan, to spot wild animals. The disappearance of gunshots and the return of wildlife has been documented through the valuable data of over 1 million photos and 12 years of conservation efforts in Laohegou Land Trust Reserve. Patrolling the area has allowed nearby villagers-turned-conservationists to become more familiar and passionate about the land they protect. This passion has led to a steady stream of new members joining the patrol team, including former hunters, local villagers and returning youth. As the seasons change, the footprints of the patrol team will continue to leave a lasting impact on the revitalization of Laohegou's forests.

A New Model of Nature Reserve Management

After the success of helping to establish The Paradise International Foundation to take over the management of Laohegou, TNC in China has developed and honed successful methods for protecting the reserve, focusing on basic skills, personal development and teamwork.

After Laohegou, The Paradise International Foundation established five land trust reserves in China, using the same three-pronged approach to training and management. More and more peers, partners and even government officials are curious about the work behind The Paradise International Foundation's conservation areas and its methodology. Our hope is that The Paradise International Foundation’s work will help to spread the replication of this management model throughout China in the future.

Misty mountains
Misty mountains Mist over mountain ridges of Laohegou Nature Reserve, Pingwu County, Sichuan Province, China. © Nick Hall
Star-filled skies
Star-filled skies Laohegou's natural beauty includes beautiful night skies. © Liang Zhi

TNC and China's Land Protection Work

Scientific research shows that global biodiversity is continuing to decline at an alarming rate, and we must achieve the goal of protecting at least 30% of the world's land, inland waters, coastal and marine areas by 2030. If not, the Earth's climate, air and food systems, health and wealth will face disastrous consequences. In order to create a world where people and nature can thrive, we must deepen our cooperation with conservation organizations, governments, policy makers and global business entities to work together to find the best solutions.

Around the world, establishing nature reserves has been an important way of conserving biodiversity. Similarly, China has established various types of nature reserves. As of 2022, the coverage of land and marine nature reserves in China has reached 18% and 4.6% respectively, but there is still a large gap away from the ambitious new targets. The existing system of nature reserves still has shortcomings, both in terms of the extent of coverage in regions with significant biodiversity conservation value and ecological service function and in terms of the effectiveness of its management.

A team meeting for Laohegou staff.
Teamwork makes the dream work A team meeting for Laohegou staff. © TNC

In June 2019, the General Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council issued "Guiding Opinions on Establishing a Nature Reserve System Dominated by National Parks," a document which laid out the exploration of public governance, community governance and joint governance protection models. This guidance provides great policy space for NGOs to participate in the construction and management of nature reserves, paving the way for replicating the model of NGO-managed nature reserves in China.

Through incubating The Paradise International Foundation to support China’s expanding land protection work, TNC brought valuable science, expertise and collaboration that is paving the future of nature reserve management. As an international organization with decades of experience in protected area management and exploration, TNC has the resources to link scientific research with implementation, providing references, ideas and guidance for China's protection work.

Spotted in the forest
Spotted in the forest Educating visitors, as well as local villagers, about the importance of Laohegou is a key element of protecting the reserve. © TNC
Golden nugget
Golden nugget Giant panda feces are collected for DNA analysis to help in studying these elusive animals. © TNC

As the host of the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, China needs to take the lead in innovating conservation concepts, adopting effective measures and exploring flexible and efficient protection mechanisms to fulfill its commitments to biodiversity conservation beyond 2020. Over the past few years, we have seen many conservation gaps being addressed, such as establishing land trust protection areas, establishing protected communities and setting up village patrols. China’s civil society is increasingly participating in natural conservation and exploring different possibilities.

 

Together, We Find a Way

No nation can solve its ecological challenges alone, and TNC believes in seeking collaboration and partnerships through cross-industry and cross-border cooperation. We need to quickly transition to a world that is beneficial to nature, and this requires more people, more organizations and more nations working together towards the same goal.

As TNC enters its 25th year of conservation work in China since being invited in 1998, many local Chinese public welfare organizations have since taken an interest in conservation and have grown rapidly with the help of TNC. As the world’s leading global conservation organization, TNC is well positioned to work closely with China to help the nation needs its development goals. We are excited to continue working together as a key conservation partner of China for years to come.

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A panda looks up at a tree.
Gentle Giants Giant pandas are classified as "vulnerable" on the global list of species at risk of extinction. © Nick Hall