XINING, Sept. 4 -- Lying on the snowy ground while trying to contain his bubbling excitement, Kunga pressed the shutter, capturing the coveted images of a snow leopard amidst the high mountains of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
The first-ever experience of photographing the rare and elusive big cat species five years ago remains a vivid recollection for Kunga, a 35-year-old herder driven by a profound love for photography.
The shutterbug hails from Namse Township in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province. Located in the source region of the Lancang River, Namse is a part of the Sanjiangyuan National Park nestled at an average altitude of more than 4,700 meters.
The Sanjiangyuan area is known as China's "water tower" as it contains the headwaters of the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang rivers. It is also home to nearly 70 wildlife species under state protection.
"With the improved ecology, the population of snow leopards is increasing," said Kunga. "We treat snow leopards as friends, and they are no longer frightened when they see us."
This aerial photo taken on June 18, 2023 shows a view of the Sanjiangyuan area in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province. (Xinhua/Zhang Long)
Previously, the Sanjiangyuan region experienced significant ecological degradation due to climate change and various human activities, resulting in the vanishing of numerous lakes and a steep decline in wildlife.
In recent years, however, the situation has been largely improved, thanks to concerted and unremitting efforts by governments at various levels, institutes and grassroots workers.
In 2016, China established the Sanjiangyuan National Park as a pilot project. Five years later, the park attained its official designation.
On Sept. 1, a landmark law for the protection of the fragile ecosystem of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau took effect, which is expected to help strengthen the top-level design of the ecological protection system for "the roof of the world."
"The law will help further consolidate the accomplishments in biodiversity, maintain the integrity of the ecosystems, and realize the harmonious coexistence of humans and nature," said Mu Yonghong, an official with the management bureau of the Lancang River area of the Sanjiangyuan National Park.
Gecho Chopee, an ecological ranger of Sanjiangyuan National Park, patrols at a canyon in Zadoi County, Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province, Feb. 22, 2023. (Xinhua/Fei Maohua)
Amid efforts to improve wildlife habitats and conserve the ecosystems, populations of several rare and endangered species have gradually recovered in Sanjiangyuan.
The population of Tibetan antelopes, a species under first-class national protection in China, had increased from less than 20,000 in the 1990s to over 70,000 by 2021.
Known as the "king of snow mountains," the snow leopard is under first-class national protection in China and is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Experts have estimated that the population of snow leopards in Sanjiangyuan has reached about 1,200.
According to Sun Lijun, deputy director of the Sanjiangyuan National Park management bureau, an initial framework for safeguarding and studying snow leopards has been developed, which involves government leadership, ecological rangers as the main body and extensive participation of non-governmental entities.
A management office of the Yangtze River, for example, has set up a 120-member team, which has monitored more than 70 snow leopards in the past five years.
A survey on wild animals in Sanjiangyuan, undertaken by the Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has revealed that Sanjiangyuan has ensured the conservation of extremely rich biodiversity, and the habitat integrity of most wild animals, including snow leopards, is gradually improving.
"Abundant monitoring data demonstrate the successful conservation of wild animals, including snow leopards, in the Sanjiangyuan region," said Zhao Xinquan, director of the state key laboratory of ecology and plateau agriculture and animal husbandry in Sanjiangyuan. "This is a particularly rare case under the background of global biodiversity loss and accelerated pace of extinction of species."
"The species protection in Sanjiangyuan is exemplary and will offer inspiration for China as well as the rest of the world," Zhao added.
A snow leopard is pictured in a canyon in Zadoi County of Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, northwest China's Qinghai Province, Feb. 21, 2023. (Xinhua/Zhang Hongxiang)
In addition to efforts to protect the environment and the wild animals, many counties and townships in Sanjiangyuan have begun to explore their own environmentally sustainable development models based on their respective characteristics.
Zadoi County in Yushu has long gained the reputation of being the "hometown of snow leopards" due to the frequent sightings of the big cat species.
In 2018, Namse Township under the jurisdiction of Zadoi County, piloted a franchise business model for tourism, training some herders to serve as ecological guides while hosting tourists. Yeshe's family became one of the first 22 host families.
"When I was young, I was engaged in the horse trade, and life was hard when I had to travel to faraway places," said Yeshe, now 51. "Today it's possible to earn income without leaving my hometown and by guarding the mountains and rivers while hosting friends from all over the world."
In 2018, Yeshe hosted an American visitor named David, driving him around the picturesque Namse grand canyon for days. David was lucky enough to capture the images of the snow leopard during the trip.
"He was thrilled to have captured the images of the snow leopard and created a painting of the place where he spotted the rare animal," Yeshe recalled. "He gave it to me as a gift, saying that whenever I missed him, I could look at the painting."
Currently gracing the wall of Yeshe's living room, the painting continues to hold its place as the most treasured gift given to Yeshe by a foreign friend. They are still in touch and often share photos of natural scenery through social media.
In 2022, the local government provided funding to five host families, including Yeshe's, for the construction of traditional Tibetan wooden houses, outfitted with modern amenities like flush toilets and bathrooms. This upgrade not only helped attract more visitors but also substantially boosted his income.
"Ecological tourism has played a big part in promoting community development and wildlife protection. With 45 percent of revenue going to village collectives, 45 percent to host families, and 10 percent to wildlife rescue funds, the model has truly achieved a win-win outcome for ecological conservation and helped improve the lives of the herders," said Tsewang Dorje, head of Namse Township.
To provide better services to tourists, Yeshe's second daughter chose tourism management as her major in college. "The ecological environment in my hometown has improved and the quality of our life will get better," Yeshe said.
A group of Tibetan antelopes pass through the Qinghai-Tibet Highway and head towards the Sanjiangyuan area in northwest China's Qinghai Province, July 28, 2023. (Xinhua/Zhang Hongxiang)
IN HARMONY WITH NATURE
"The harmonious coexistence between humans and nature is the core concept of building China's national parks. In essence, the concept requires us to return what we took from nature," Tian Junliang, deputy director of the management bureau of the Sanjiangyuan National Park.
To restore the ecological environment and wildlife habitats, authorities in Sanjiangyuan have initiated ecological migration programs, moving herders out of areas with fragile ecological environments and limiting grazing on grasslands to reduce the impact of human activities on the environment.
In 2004, all 407 herders from 128 households in a village located at the source of the Yangtze River responded to the call of the local authorities and moved to the southern suburb in the city of Golmud.
After the relocation of the entire village, grazing ban has been imposed on more than 5 million mu (about 333,333 hectares) of grassland. As a result, there have been improvements in the ecological environment of the Yangtze River source, with the water conservation capacity significantly enhanced and a noticeable rise in the population of wild animals.
Staff members with the Drolkar Lake protection station of the Hoh Xil management office patrol around the Drolkar Lake area in Hoh Xil, northwest China's Qinghai Province, June 17, 2023. (Xinhua/Zhang Hongxiang)
Since the construction of the Sanjiangyuan National Park, Gedun Gyatso, who hails from the vicinity of the source of the Yellow River, transitioned to having the village cooperatives oversee the rearing of all the family's cattle and sheep. This change allowed him to take on the role of a ranger on a full-time basis.
"I don't have to go up the mountain for sheep herding every day now. At the end of the year, I receive dividends from the village cooperatives for my livestock," Gedun Gyatso said. "Besides, as a ranger, I have a fixed annual income of 21,600 yuan (about 2,965 U.S. dollars)."
In Sanjiangyuan, there are more than 17,000 rangers and their duties include grassland management, ecological observation, and climate monitoring. Guarding their beautiful homeland, the rangers have become an important force in biodiversity conservation.
"I can derive a sense of fulfillment from contributing to the building of my beautiful homeland, guarding the ecology and protecting the wild animals," Gedun Gyatso said.