Cranes return to the Xianghai wetlands in northeast China’s Jilin Province (FRANCISCO LITTLE)
Early morning mist hangs over the water with ghost-like eeriness. It has 50 shades of grey and is very still. Even breathing disturbs the silence. A small cluster of trees break the water's surface, spindly branches forlorn in their empty surroundings. The tranquil setting is the scene of 1,000 Chinese ink paintings.
Welcome to the wetlands of Baicheng City in northeast China's Jilin Province, an area that is taking major steps to promote its environmental protection efforts and restore one of the seven major wetland areas in the country.
According to the Jilin Government, Baicheng, bordering Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, heeded the call from Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this year to accelerate the efforts for safeguarding the environment and fragile eco-systems. Jilin has launched a project to restore farmlands to wetlands. This followed after many wetlands, most notably around Baicheng, had dried up because of severe drought.
These were then reclaimed by farmers to cultivate crops. However in 2013, the process was reversed and farmlands were returned to wetlands by the city channeling massive volumes of water back to the affected areas. The project involved an impressive water management effort that saw the government linking up rivers, lakes and all the major water conservancy operations in a network of channels. According to Jilin Government figures, Baicheng's surrounding wetlands take up a total area of 785,000 hectares.
The latest environmental efforts in Baicheng have seen wetlands in the Momoge National Nature Reserve and the Xianghai National Nature Reserve restored to their former glory. While the reserves attract visitors, environmental concerns rather than tourism were behind the efforts.
Both reserves are important for breeding birdlife and returning the large numbers of swans, wild geese, ducks and other waterfowl that live and breed there. Most notably, the city's unofficial mascot, the majestic crane, has returned to its natural habitat. The quality of wetlands relies heavily on the quantity of birdlife, whose interaction maintains the fragile eco-system. The region is also busy with wild goose farming now.
Watching thousands of these raucous birds being fed daily by the farmers is quite spectacular. The now pristine Xianghai reserve is characterized by grasslands, wetlands and lakes. It is also a popular site for visitors, who have a chance to get up close and personal with the cranes in captivity making up part of the breeding program. It is difficult to decide who is more curious about whom, as these tall white creatures are not shy to interact with visitors.
A two-hour drive from Baicheng, in neighboring Songyuan City, lies the largest inland lake in Jilin and the seventh largest freshwater lake in China. Chagan Lake forms part of the protected wetland promotion project and is rich in reed marshes and birdlife. As a popular venue for visitors, the lake has initiated development of a string of restaurants and entertainment venues along its shores, which although in need of an upgrade, have much potential. These attractions reside against a backdrop of the majestic Miaoyin Buddhist Temple, which is a hive of pilgrim activity, emitting clouds of fragrant smoke from giant incense sticks.
The buildings around the lake are all built in the unique Mongolian yurt style and it's not surprising, given its close proximity to Inner Mongolia. The city is home to a small but influential ethnic Mongolian population. An official of the Jilin Government, himself of Mongolian heritage, said he believes that the wetlands form the base of Mongolian culture. He said there has been an effort to promote the culture through Mongolian traditional dance troupes and the impressive Mongolian throat-singing folk groups. The official said the environment and this ancient culture are intrinsically linked and protecting one preserves the other.
It's this kind of symbiotic relationship that is often not readily seen in China's major metropolises. Conservation efforts of such a magnitude buck the China stereotype of a nation damaging the environment for economic development at any cost.
The author is a South African living in Beijing
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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