Conservation in Sanjiangyuan Area: Threats and Issues

May 21, 2021Zihao Yu


Sanjiangyuan (Three-River Source) is an area of the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province, China. This region contains the headwaters of three great rivers of Asia: the Yellow River, the Yangtze River, and the Mekong River (Lancang River). The name “Sanjiangyuan” means “Source of three rivers.” The Yangtze River is 6,380 km long, the Yellow River is 5,464 km long, and the Mekong River is 4,350 km long. These rivers are three of the longest rivers in Asia and the world. The river length calculation method is not uniform, so the length rankings vary among sources. These three rivers are important to the countries of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

"Tibetan Snowcock (Tetraogallus tibetanus)" by gilgit2 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Sanjiangyuan Area, National Nature Reserve, and National Park

The Sanjiangyuan Area covers the southern and eastern parts of Qinghai Province, China, and has an area of about 363,000 km2, 50.4% of Qinghai Province. It is the largest natural reserve in China and the most biodiversity concentrated in the world's high-altitude areas.


The Yangtze River and the Yellow River are the most important rivers in China and the Mekong River is the most important river in South East Asia.25% of the total water of the Yangtze River, 49% of the total water of the Yellow River and 15% of the total water of the Mekong River come from the Sanjiangyuan area, which makes it an important water source for China and even Asia. It is known as the "river source," "China water tower" and "Asia water tower."


Parts of the Sanjinagyuan Area is protected as the National Nature Reserve (Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve or Three Rivers Nature Reserve) since 2003. The National Nature Reserve covers an area of about 152,300 km2, 21% of Qinghai, 42% of the Sanjiangyuan Area. The Nature Reserve was founded in 2001 at the Province level and changed to National Level in 2005. This National Nature Reserve includes 18 subareas, including 8 for wetland conservation, 3 for wildlife conservation, and 7 for shrubland or forest conservation.


In 2016, the Pilot Project for Sanjiangyuan National Park started as the first Pilot Project of National Park in China and aimed to formally set up the National Park within 5 years. The Pilot Program finished at the end of 2017. The National Development and Reform Commission announced the "Master Plan of Sanjiangyuan National Park" in 2018, and the Sanjiangyuan National Park Research Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences set up in September 2018. According to the official source in May 2020, the National Park would be formally established at the end of 2020. However, no source is found that announces the formal establishment of the National Park up to May 21, 2021.

"File:Tibetan gazelle.jpg" by Aditya Laghate is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Animals in Sanjiangyuan Area

The Tibetan Plateau is among the last wild places in the world, it supports the greatest species richness of terrestrial megafauna in the world after Africa. The high average elevation (~4500 m) of the region results in cold temperatures, low oxygen concentration, and high ultraviolet radiation, which has led to the evolution of cold-adapted mammalian faunas. Animals in Sanjiangyuan Area include snow leopard (Panthera uncia), gray wolf (Canis lupus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul), Tibetan fox (Vulpes ferrilata), blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), argali (Ovis ammon), kiang (Equus kiang), Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), Tibetan gazelle (Procapra picticaudata), wild yak (Bos mutus), and plateau pika (Ochotona curzoniae).


The animal composition is an eco-geographic animal group dominated by mountain forest grassland, meadow grassland, and cold desert animals. The population ratio is huge in the number of mammals and birds, while the composition of amphibians and reptiles is simple, and the population is relatively small. According to one official report in 2014, there are 85 species of mammals; 237 species of birds; 48 species of amphibians and reptiles; 378 species of insects in the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. There are 69 species of national key protected animals, including 16 species of national first-class key protected animals such as Tibetan antelope, yak, and snow leopard, and 53 species of national second-class key protected animals include rock sheep and Tibetan gazelle.


According to one report, Sanjiangyuan Area has become threatened by infrastructure construction, growing human activities, and a rapidly changing climate although this high elevation region has a limited human settlement. 20% of mammals with geographic ranges primarily on the Tibetan plateau are listed as Threatened by IUCN (2016), and wetlands have been greatly diminished.

"Snow Leopard" by @KevinCase is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Issues to Sanjiangyuan Area

Ecological degradation

According to the report, after long-term ecological protection, the degradation trend of the three-river source ecosystem has been initially alleviated, but the overall degradation trend of the regional ecological environment has not been fundamentally curbed. The problems of grassland degradation, land desertification, soil erosion, and ice and snow melting are still very prominent.


The degradation is caused by infrastructure construction, illegal mining, and growing human activities of poaching, and overgrazing. The ecosystem in Sanjiangyuan is fragile and very sensitive to climate change.


Multiple administrations and plans

Under the Regulations of the People's Republic of China on Nature Reserves (2017 Revision), the State shall institute a system that combines integrated management with separate departmental management, for the management of nature reserves. (Article 8.1) The competent department of environmental protection under the State Council is responsible for the integrated management of the nature reserves throughout the country, and the competent departments of forestry, agriculture, geology and mineral resources, water conservancy, and marine affairs, and other departments concerned are respectively responsible for relevant nature reserves under their jurisdiction. (Article 8.2-3)


According to the report, the problems of multiple management and multiple administrations of ecological protection are still serious. Various types of protected areas are repeatedly set up, involving the departments of land, agriculture and animal husbandry, forestry, environmental protection, water conservancy, tourism. and others. Policies, regulations, and standard systems are complex and even contradictory.


In Sanjiangyuan Area, there are a variety of plans, programs, schemes, and projects from different departments at different levels. These plans are set for different goals and they have differences in regional boundaries, protection objectives, and control/management measures.


This issue might be solved by the upcoming regulation for the national park. Up to now, there are several binding documents for the national park system, including the Overall Plan for Establishing National Park System (2017), Guiding Opinions on Establishing a Natural Reserve System with National Parks as the Main Body (2019), National Park Establishment Regulations (2020), and Technical Specifications for National Park Master Planning (2020).


Underdeveloped economy and society

The economy and society of the Sanjiangyuan Area are underdeveloped. Traditional animal husbandry is still the main industry, which makes it harder to change the economic development model for the conservation goals.


The territory is vast and sparsely populated, which makes it difficult to supervise violations of laws and regulations such as illegal mining or poaching.


The main population of this area is Tibetan, and the protection of local minority customs, history, and culture is also very important. Read more here.


Snow leopard

Snow leopards are protected as iconic animals. As a predator, the distribution of snow leopards is very scattered, and monitoring the distribution of snow leopards helps to understand the overall ecological protection status of the local area. It is worth noting that the protection of other animals will be ignored to varying degrees compared to snow leopards, which may cause the result of exacerbating the reduction of other species.

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