WildChina > Destinations > Qinghai > Sanjiangyuan: China’s Largest National Park

By Laurence Coulton  

In China’s remote western interior, sublime mountains rise from the landscape with dizzying verticality, puncturing the sky above the Tibetan Plateau. Crystal blue rivers weave through impossibly green meadows, carrying glacial meltwater to the heartlands of Asia a thousand miles below.  

It is the kind of scenery that defies belief. If it were a painting or a photograph you’d be sure that a certain degree of creative license had taken place. But it hasn’t. It’s all real. This is Sanjiangyuan, the largest in China’s new system of national parks. 

Sanjiangyuan is part of an ambitious plan to create an immense network of parks across China by 2030, with the primary objective to protect the country’s iconic, and in many cases endangered, species.  

Sanjiangyuan: China's Largest National Park

This is a country that has long sought to safeguard its celebrated landscapes and rich biodiversity, with tens of thousands of protected areas nationwide. Anyone who has been to China has likely encountered at least one of these forest parks, scenic areas or nature reserves, but a fragmented approach has hampered conservation through the years.  

In a piece for National Geographic, WildChina explorer Kyle Obermann explains that “by uniting hundreds of protected areas managed by various municipalities and provinces, the new system’s goal is to streamline and strengthen conservation under the central authority of the new National Forestry and Grassland Administration.” 

This is good news for China’s wildlife. The plan, which began in 2015 with ten pilot parks, will cover 2.3% of China’s land area, combining formerly disparate reserves to create larger protected habitats for the country’s most at risk creatures. Originally set for completion in 2020, pandemic delays have pushed opening back to later this year.

The source of three rivers

High on the Tibetan Plateau, Sanjiangyuan covers an area approximately the size of England in the south of Qinghai province. The topography of this vast, untamed region is mind-bogglingly diverse, ranging from alpine mountains to high-altitude wetlands, lakes and grassland. 

The Chinese name for the park refers to the headwaters of three major rivers – the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong – all of which originate here. These waterways provide freshwater to a billion people across Asia, as well as the ecosystems upon which the region’s non-human residents rely. 

According to the Paulson Institute – a think-tank that worked alongside the Chinese government on the pilot parks project – the Tibetan Plateau is second only to Africa in terms of the diversity of its terrestrial megafauna. This cast of characters makes for impressive reading. Brown bears and gray wolves, Tibetan foxes and the Eurasian lynx. Wild yak, Tibetan antelope; plateau pika and argali, the world’s largest living sheep. This is the Serengeti on the roof of the world. 

Yet there is one resident of Sanjiangyuan that reigns supreme in the human imagination; this is the largest uninterrupted snow leopard habitat anywhere in the world. Perfectly adapted for the region’s alpine slopes, snow leopards are true Tibetan nomads, with each individual roaming up to 1,000km² in search of prey. It is this itinerant existence that makes them so vulnerable to ecological destruction.  

Sanjiangyuan: China's Largest National Park
Photo courtesy of Shan Shui Conservation Center

Snow leopard conservationist and expert Dr. Justine Shanti Alexander stresses that while the shape of threats vary across China, overarching danger to snow leopards from climate change and habitat encroachment by unregulated mining and development is ever-present.  

“The snow leopard’s world is changing fast,” Alexander says, “protecting a single population requires action over several thousand square kilometers.” 

The Snow Leopard Trust estimates that between 3,500 and 7,000 of these apparitional cats remain in the wild, with up to 60% in China. But their elusive nature makes accurate data difficult to ascertain, and these troubling statistics could be lower still.  

Community conservation

The creation of Sanjiangyuan is a direct effort to protect endemic species like the snow leopard, with a system of zones in place to curtail destructive human practices.  

In core zones activity such as mining and grazing is either restricted or prohibited altogether, while traditional use zones carefully monitor and limit their extent. But rather than exclude people altogether, the government wants local communities to become invested in conservation.  

Sanjiangyuan - China's Largest National Park
Sanjiangyuan: China's Largest National Park

According to officials, the recruitment of 17,000 rangers from villages in the area is seen as one way of doing this. Ecotourism is another, which, if done right, can ensure that local people see tangible benefits from efforts to protect the region’s ecology. 

Perhaps the best example of tourism that benefits both people and wildlife is taking place in Angsai, a village in the poetically named Valley of the Cats. Although situated in the core protected zone of the park, a special arrangement means that small groups of visitors are able to stay with local families and see the area’s dazzling array of wildlife, including snow leopards. 

Terry Townshend, a Beijing-based wildlife conservationist involved in setting up the project, explains that 45% of tourist income goes to host families, 45% to a community fund for public welfare issues such as health insurance, and 10% to snow leopard conservation projects in the area. Since the program began in 2017, it has raised more than one million yuan, all of which has stayed in the community.  

“The Valley of the Cats project demonstrates how, if managed effectively, it is possible to conduct tourism in environmentally sensitive areas and improve the livelihoods of local people without lasting negative impacts,” Townshend says. “Conservation is sustainable only if it involves, and benefits, the local community.” 

Future focused

China’s new national parks, including Sanjiangyuan, are a move by the government to safeguard the country’s most at risk animals and ecosystems. Exploration in the mode associated with America’s parks is a secondary consideration, and official guidelines on tourism within these areas are yet to be made public.

We may have more information when the national park system is formally launched later this year, but for now, the goal of parks like Sanjiangyuan is to ensure that, with the help of its people, China’s most precious landscapes and animals survive for the next generation, and for many generations to come. 

Cover image credit: Marc Foggin/Shutterstock.com

Learn About Snow Leopard Conservation in China

On July 16th, join us as we chat with leading snow leopard conservation experts, Dr. Justine Shanti Alexander and Terry Townshend, to hear about the ongoing efforts in China to save these endangered cats.

Related Journeys with WildChina

1 Response