The Gaoligongshan region, at the border with Myanmar (Burma), is ecologically unique – forest, mountains and deep valleys allow a complete transition from temperate to tropical forests that is unparalleled in the world. The continuous belt of forest from east to west over the crest of the Gaoligong mountains provides pathways for an extraordinary mix of flora and fauna from the Himalayas, the Palearctic, and the tropical elements of the Oriental realm of southeastern Asia.
Gaoligongshan is an equally dynamic crossroads of culture and history. The valleys of the major north-south flowing rivers, the Nujiang and Longchuanjiang, have been farmed since ancient times. The Southern Silk Road, which crosses the southern portion of the mountain range, has connected India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan with central China since the 4th century B.C., serving as a conduit for commerce, trade, and culture. Today, approximately 450 families live in the eight hamlets that comprise Baihualing village, which is adjacent to the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve. These villages reflect the remarkable cultural diversity of Yunnan, including the Han, Bai, Lisu, Yi, Hui, and Dai ethnic cultures.
Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve protects 405,549 hectares of the higher (upper and mid) slopes in the southern range of Gaoligongshan. The lower edge of the reserve varies from 1,500 to 2,500 m. The highest areas have been designated as an inviolate core, with no visitors allowed. The exception is along the Southern Silk Road, which has been placed outside of the core area and allows visitor access to the highest elevations in the reserve. Land below the reserve boundary receives no formal protection and is a mixture of small-scale croplands, pastures, and disturbed forests.
Although designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in October 2000, and a National Nature Reserve by the State Council of China, the spectacular environment of the Gaoligong range continues to suffer intense pressure. The unprotected lower slopes of the mountains contain great biological diversity, which is increasingly threatened as the forest cover rapidly disappears. In 1994, the Chinese Ministry of Forestry allotted just over 21,000 acres in the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve (6.8% of the total; all outside the core area) for tourism development.
The primary direct threats to Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve are:
- Agricultural activities—including the use of chemical fertilizers—along the lower edge of the reserve (with associated disruption of streams and rivers and drift of pollutants)
- Continued expansion of crop, pasturelands, and grazing into the reserve, and
- Local needs for fuel given the few affordable alternatives to burning wood.
Lack of basic information on environmentally safe alternatives to current farming practices threatens to extend these damaging activities into the future. Deforestation of the lower slopes places an enormous diversity of plants and animals—many of them restricted to the region—at risk of extinction. Eventual disappearance of these lower-elevation species would affect the dynamics of higher-elevation communities protected inside the reserve. Finally, the introduction of eco-tourism in the region, while a tremendous opportunity, will threaten the reserve’s integrity if not developed and managed carefully, with strict attention to the vulnerability of both natural and human communities.
In June and July, 2002 a team led by the Field Museum in Chicago conducted a Rapid Biological Inventory and social asset mapping of three regions and eight hamlets around the perimeter of the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve. This was a Yunnan Initiative Demonstration Project of the Center for United States-China Arts Exchange. Other partners in this project included Southwest Forestry College in Kunming, China; Gaolingongshan National Nature Reserve Baoshan Management Bureau; Openlands in Chicago; and the Yunnan Provincial Association for Cultural Exchanges with Foreign Countries. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill volunteered their services and produced a conceptual design for an eco-lodge and gateway complex for the Baihualing area of Gaoligongshan. The Field Museum Report made principle recommendations in three areas—Protection and Management, Ecotourism, and Long-term Conservation Benefits. Click here to review the 2002 report titled, Rapid Biological Inventories: China: Yunnan Southern Gaoligongshan.