Xihu National Nature Preserve (西湖国家级自然保护区) sits in between Dunhuang (敦煌), Gansu’s oasis town, and China’s sixth largest desert, the Kum-tagh (库姆塔格). The 660,000-hectare region is the only green belt that shields lands to the east from marching sands coming out of the west. Wetlands in the preserve are shrinking, the result of dropping water tables and decreasing water supply from glaciers on Qilian and Altun (阿尔金) mountains. The region’s Shule (疏勒河) and Dang (党河) Rivers have gone nearly dry in laces, reducing above-ground water supplies to both Dunhuang and Xihu. The expansion of agriculture around Dunhuang and a boom in logging of Euphrates poplar forests (胡杨林) for construction have made the water shortage worse.
Duan Hailin (段海林), a Dunhuang farmer in his 70s and a frequent traveler to the Xihu preserve, recalled the region’s several rivers in the 1950s. In those years, he said, the area was filled with lush reeds and trees and sometimes herds of wolves, making a lone visit very scary. Now, bushes are gone and the land is dry. The variety and quantity of wildlife have also fallen dramatically.
Now there’s a bigger, man-made problem. A stone in the desert, called wind-polished rock (风凌石), has become a sought-after commodity amongst rare rock collectors. The number of dealers in these rocks has skyrocketed in recent of years in Dunhuang as well as in several cities in Xinjiang, including Hami (哈密) and Urumqi (乌鲁木齐). These dealers, who sneak into the preserve to dig out the rocks, sometimes fight among themselves and have been known to also beat up law enforcement officers. The preserve staff, consisting of only 25 full time employees and 80 interim guards, is hugely overwhelmed. The rock poachers not only disrupt the sandy soil, but also cut down trees for firewood while camping out in the preserve. [Full Text in Chinese]
[Images: Kum-tagh Desert and poplar forests, via www.gxta.gov.cn]