Rapid Biological Inventories: Results from the Field: China 04

07: China: Yunnan Southern Gaoligongshan

Report at a glance | Downloadable files | Acknowledgements

Report at a glance

Dates of field work
Biological inventory: 17 - 26 June 2002; social inventory: 1-14 July 2002

Region surveyed
Three areas in Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve, at the southern end of the Gaoligongshan range (Baoshan District, Yunnan Province, China) at the border with Myanmar: (1) the Baihualing Station on the eastern slope of the Gaoligong mountains, along the Southern Silk Road, from 1,500 m to 3,100 m at the pass; (2) Datang, on the western slope, between 1,850 m and 2,700 m; and (3) Nankang, a pass at the south end of the reserve, between 2,000 m and 2,200 m (figure 3).

Human communities surveyed
Eight hamlets in the Baihualing village: Hanlong, Dayutang (Upper, Lower), Bangwai-Guxingzhai, Taoyuan, Laomengzhai-Baihualing-Malishan, Manggang, Manghuang. These hamlets directly abut the perimeter of the Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve and form the primary gateway for access to the reserve from the east (figure 3).

Organisms surveyed
Vascular plants, macrofungi, amphibians and reptiles, birds, large mammals

Highlight of results
The Gaoligongshan region is ecologically unique; a major crossroads of north and south, east and west, temperate and subtropical. The continuous belt of forest from east to west and over the crest of the mountains provides an unparalleled opportunity to conserve the spectacular mix of ecological communities and also to maintain conditions that both create new species (mountain ranges separated by deep valleys) and prevent the extinction of old ones (e.g., absence of drought). In nine days in the field, the biological team found an extremely rich fauna and flora, with several new records for the reserve. Outside the reserve, the forest is almost gone.

The human communities living at the foothills reflect the enormous cultural diversity in Yunnan. In 14 days in the field, the anthropological team identified resources and capacities in the hamlets immediately adjacent to the reserve on the eastern slope. These assets will serve as entry points for working with the communities to develop economic activities, such as ecotourism, that are compatible with the local ecology and culture. We summarize the highlights of our results below.

Social resources and capacities: Our brief survey, the first of its kind in the area, focused on Baihualing village, one of the 109 villages documented in Gaoligongshan (Baoshan Management Bureau, 2002). We estimate that 2,100 people and more than 450 families live in Baihualing. Six ethnic groups are represented: Han, Lisu, Bai, Dai, Yi, and Hui. As a whole, Yunnan province has 25 out of the 55 ethnic minority groups recognized in China (Population Census Office of Yunnan, 1992). Expression of ethnic identity through native dress, Our brief survey, the first of its kind in the area, focused on Baihualing village, one of the 109 villages documented in Gaoligongshan (Baoshan Management Bureau, 2002). We estimate that 2,100 people and more than 450 families live in Baihualing. Six ethnic groups are represented: Han, Lisu, Bai, Dai, Yi, and Hui. As a whole, Yunnan province has 25 out of the 55 ethnic minority groups recognized in China (Population Census Office of Yunnan, 1992). Expression of ethnic identity through native dress,

Vegetation and flora: The botany team identified ca. 1000 species of plants during the nine-day field survey, collected about 300 species, and photographed 250 (figure 4). About ten percent of the flora is endemic, i.e., it occurs only in Gaoligongshan. The variation in flora among sites is substantial. Datang, on the geologically distinct west slope, has a remarkably different flora. We found at least three species new to science (two Araliaceae, one Vitaceae). The diversity of ferns (pteridophytes) is also high (Appendix 2); we recorded a number of new species and genera for Gaoligongshan.

Macrofungi: The mycology team observed over 200 species of macrofungi (between 1,500 m – 2,400 m) and collected vouchers of about 150 (Appendix 1). Only 22 of the 200 species had been recorded previously in Gaoligongshan. We found a number of north temperate species mixed in with species from tropical Asia and species endemic to China. And we found species with disjunct distributions in eastern North America and eastern Asia. Macrofungi, crucial for the maintenance of high-quality natural communities, are also an important component of the local diet and the local market.

Amphibians and reptiles: The herpetology team found seven species of snakes, four species of lizards, one species of salamander and 15 to 21 species of frogs (pending confirmation of identifications; see figure 5; Appendix 3). Among these findings, three species of snakes and two of frogs were new records for the region, and one high-elevation frog is endemic to Gaoligongshan. We found the abundance of common amphibians to be 2-10 times higher in the reserve than in the rice patties near Datang (figure 3D). The use of chemicals in agricultural areas around the reserve has a severe detrimental impact on frogs.

Birds: The ornithology team found 179 species of birds (Appendix 4) during the nine-day survey, of which 23 were new records for the region. Gaoligongshan has a rich forest avifauna, especially below 2,400 m. The elevation turnover of individual species is extensive, but we found no sharp differences in communities across elevation. We registered 43 species (25% of our total) with restricted ranges, including species representing two distinct endemic bird areas (EBA), the Yunnan Mountain and Eastern Himalayan EBAs. The reserve’s current bird list includes at least 19 species that are threatened or near-threatened with extinction.

Large mammals: The mammalogy team registered 42 species (Appendix 5) through direct sightings and indirect evidence (tracks, scat, local interviews). Of these, 13 are nationally protected species, including four primates and the lesser panda. One of our significant findings was evidence of lesser pandas down to 2,000 m, well below the 3,000 m level to which they are typically thought to be restricted.

Main threats
The primary direct threats to Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve are (i) 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); (ii) continued expansion of crop, pasturelands, and grazing into the reserve; and (iii) 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 ecotourism 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.

Current status
Gaoligong Mountain 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 (figure 3). 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 (figures 2B, 2E, 3C, 3E). In 1994, the Chinese Ministry of Forestry allotted 8,550 hectares in the Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve (6.8% of the total; all outside the core area) for tourism development.

Principal recommendations for protection and management

Extend conservation management beyond the Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve, from river to river (figure 3). Expand the limits of the reserve, as possible, down the mountains to reach the lower slopes (figures 2B, 2C, 3D). Here an enormous array of plants and animals will face extinction with the continued conversion of remaining pockets of unprotected forests to agriculture. Beyond the reserve, collaborative programs with neighboring villages for ecologically compatible economic activities would stretch the effective area of conservation from the Nujiang to the Longchuanjiang Rivers, protecting both lower-slopes and highland communities.


Keep the core of the reserve untouchable, with a few areas open to researchers; extend the core area to lower elevations where possible. Because of the strong human pressure all around the reserve, we recommend that a significant portion of the reserve (the “core” area, see figure 3) remain completely off-limits, as it is now, and that the core be extended to cover lower elevations wherever possible.


Restore and protect remaining lower-slope forests at the base of the reserve; extend currently isolated forest patches eventually to link one to the other and to form conservation corridors among the larger protected areas. For the long-term survival of global biological treasures in the lower-slope forests, we recommend developing collaborative programs with the neighboring villages (figure 3B) to restore degraded patches of forest and to reforest (with native species) denuded stretches surrounding forest islands to increase and connect available habitat.


Strengthen Baihualing village’s infrastructure and capacity. One opportunity to ensure that local residents are involved in planning and benefit from tourism activities would be to establish a vigorous village ecotourism association (in the fashion of the Farmers’ Biodiversity and Conservation Association) representing the eight hamlets. This association would work with the existing village committee to discuss and implement plans and policies related to tourism. To be successful, this tourism association would function at a larger scale than the existing small committee in Dayutang, and would represent all hamlets.


Research and implement less ecologically damaging agricultural practices in the valleys and seek opportunities for ecological restoration. Increase options for farmers to diversify crops and to reduce use of polluting fertilizers and pesticides (which are also extremely expensive).


Increase affordable options for fuel. Currently, wood is the primary source of fuel. Tourism will increase pressure on the forests by increasing demand for fuel. Local villagers are unable to afford alternatives such as methane.

Principal recommendations for ecotourism

Ensure that revenues from ecotourism activities directly benefit the reserve and the neighboring villages.


Research carrying capacity for visitors in the reserve and carefully manage visitor loads accordingly (see Appendix 8).


Design ecotourism activities and infrastructure to minimize impact on the sensitive biological communities and to strengthen neighboring villages; keep infrastructure outside the reserve. Create a Gateway Lodge and Visitor Center— which builds on existing infrastructure and is compatible with local design traditions—as the headquarters for strictly managed tourism (see Appendix 8).


Limit and monitor activities that can damage biological communities. Principal measures include (i) proper disposal of waste, (ii) no use of firewood for cooking and heating, (iii) restriction of activities to well designed trails (which are managed for minimal erosion), (iv) minimal use of pack animals, (v) limited overnight trips.


Approach the Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve as one of a constellation of tourism destinations within this part of Yunnan Province. This will reduce pressure on the reserve and will create a rich visitor experience, while strengthening communities and preserving indigenous cultures and landscapes.

Long-term conservation benefits

A globally important nature reserve—from the lower slopes up to the rugged crests at 4,000 m—protecting a unique mixture of biological communities.


Restored habitat for a remarkable diversity of lowland plants and animals—many of them restricted to the region—that are currently at risk; sustained management of locally valuable natural resources.


A replicable model for successful ecotourism that is ecologically and culturally sensitive, brings direct income to the local villages and to the nature reserve, is a collaborative project managed by the local villages, and introduces Chinese and foreign visitors to the biological and cultural riches of the region.


Integrated management between the reserve and the surrounding villages to implement practices that protect the watersheds and reduce the use of damaging chemicals.

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