The Chinese strategy for a new natural parks system

Written by Bianca Thiglia

China has announced the project for a natural park that would span over a territory 60% larger than the Yellowstone. It will be bordering with Russia and North Korea, in the north-east part of the country, and dedicated to the conservation of the critically endangered Amur tiger and Amur leopard. The new protected area will so be 14,600 square kilometres wide and integrated in the 2020 strategy that would see the piloting of 9 parks throughout the national territory. Chinese biodiversity is one of the greatest on the planet and this new policy of “ecological civilization” –stewarded by president Xi Jinping himself- could be the first structured attempt at preserving it. The park system would indeed allow for ecological corridors, connecting old and new reserves and allowing wildlife to thrive and roam. 

The western concept of natural parks is new to China. It was pioneered by the US as a model that then spread throughout the continents. Chinese officials are not hiding their taking inspiration by the Yellowstone case itself, building a consulting and management team that highly relies on American experts. This new system will integrate the current one based on a myriad of protected areas where mismanaged law enforcement does not prevent high rates of exploitation and poaching. 

A grim example is the park of Zhangjiajie, one of the most popular of the country. The beauty of its stunning and unique karst canyons inspired the setting of the movie “Avatar”. But its popularity marked its transformation into a trap for tourists, where busses come and go from early morning to sunset and crowds of visitors queue in front of the gates of the most renowned photographic spots. There even is a McDonald on the main peak, plastic Avatar creatures posing for selfies, glass elevators ease tourists’ hiking and dozens of people are constantly heard screaming from one mountaintop to another. Not exactly a safeguarded shelter for wildlife. 

It is to be seen which orientation, with their unprecedented management structure, the new parks will take. Whether still tourist-oriented or naturalistic, the initiative surely represents a massive step, potentially carrying a leadership status of China in conservation of critical species. And public officials are determined to lead the process with cold efficiency. Residents communities are planned to be relocated to clear the newly protected areas. Some will still be allowed to live within their borders, offered park-related employment such as rangers or guides. 

Human-wildlife conflicts (HWC) are another aspect not to be neglected. They are emerging with the recovery of big cats’ populations, farmers seeing their livestock falling victim of occasional preying. Every loss is supposed to be reimbursed by the government but examples from all over the world –including Italy and its uncertain management of wolves’ comeback- show the insufficiency of this measure. Coexistence between human communities and wildlife is possible but only with a concentrated effort based on prevention, education and institutional support. Where farmers have been abandoned, retaliation skyrocketed, resulting into hostility and the poaching that was one the leading causes that brought predators on the brink of extinction. 
To effectively implement its ambitious parks system, China might need to further leverage on the western not-so-successful experience on HWC mediation. Without a strong institutional response to rural communities’ needs, the overcoming of the challenges of conservation will be out of reach. 

[Photo n.2 credit: Ronnie Macdonald - Amur Tiger,]