This story was originally published in Thepaper.cn on June 9, 2015.
In the north-east of the Junggar Basin in China’s western Xinjiang province, Yang Weikang, a zoologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, once watched herd after herd of Mongolian wild asses (also known as Khulan), goitered gazelles and other hoofed mammals. They were once commonplace in a region that is hemmed in by the Kalamely (Kalamali) Mountains deserts and hills.
And while humans struggle to survive here, it is a paradise for those animals. So in 1982 the Xinjiang Kalamely Mountains Ungulate Wildlife Reserve was formed.
But over the last 10 years the size of the reserve has shrunk to accommodate mining and other development. Weikang recently learned from the Xinjiang forestry and environmental authorities that a sixth reduction was approved by the Xinjiang government on April 17. The reserve, originally 18,908 square kilometres in size, has shrunk by almost one third over the years.
Since the first adjustment in 2005, a major coal mining project has got underway in the reserve at a section called Zhundong. Multiple pieces of research have shown that as that development has proceeded, many species have disappeared.
Environmentalists worry that the new industrial zone to be built after this sixth reduction will further fragment animal habitats, opening up the entire reserve to mining, much in the way Zhundong has been.
Mining rules the roost
The Kalamely Reserve stands at a crossroads.
Between February 16 and 25 last year – over the Chinese New Year holiday – the Xinjiang environmental authorities published the proposal for the further reduction of its reserve.
Despite repeated questioning from academics, environmental groups and volunteers, the Xinjiang government approved the plan on April 17 – although that news was not updated on its official website.
At a place known as Wucaiwan, a highway runs out of the Gobi Desert between the reserve to the north and the factory buildings and cooling towers of the Zhundong Development Zone.
Passageways have been built every few kilometres under the highway to allow animals to cross safely. But one Xinjiang zoologist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that in many years of observation he’d almost never seen animals use those routes – there’s just too much human activity on the south side of the road.
Around a decade ago, Zhundong was desolate and uninhabited, the very southern end of the Kalamely reserve. Originally rectangular in shape, the reserve was reduced in size in 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and most recently in April 2015.
The southern section is rich in coal and is now a major mining centre, while three sections have been carved out of the reserve further north, where more coal, gold and granite are to be extracted.
The Kalamely Mountains, from which the reserve is named, are low-lying and run across the centre of the reserve.
The east of the reserve is a stony desert, the west connects with the sands of the Gurbantünggüt, China’s second largest desert.
The large herds of gazelles and other animals are a symbol of the reserve, and anyone who lives nearby knows how easy they are to spot. The Scientific Survey of the Kalamely Reserve lists 14 Schedule I protected mammals, including the snow leopard, Przewalski's horse, the Mongolian wild ass, the Saiga antelope and the Alpine ibex; along with 39 Schedule II protected animals such as the goitered gazelle and argali. Nine of these are included in China’s red list of endangered species, with two being extinct in the wild, four endangered, and three at risk.
Zoologists and campaigners have been strongly critical of the permits issued to industrial areas within the reserve and the reduction of habitats.
Yang Weikang, head of the committee put together by the environmental authorities to evaluate the proposals, said in his findings that after the change “the reserve will create three voids in the reserve, going against the principle on which the reserve was founded and severely impacting its functioning.”
Ten years ago in Zhundong, Yang and his research team “saw over 100 large and small herds of goitered gazelles over three days, but after 2009 (development in Zhundong started in 2006) we only saw two or three at the same time of year.” Yang became disappointed by excessive human interference left, and he moved his research elsewhere.
China National Geography once described Kalamely as a paradise for wildlife watchers. The G216 highway runs from what used to be the south-western corner of the reserve to the north-east, and without much effort, tourists can sometimes spot huge herds of animals.
Research carried out at the reserve’s Aleitai Observation Post found that in winter the animals crossed the Kalamely Mountains to spend the colder months in Zhundong, while in summer they would move east and west depending on where water could be found.
But today Zhundong is strewn with open-cast mines and piles of coal tall as buildings. Trucks drive back and forth day and night, and the dust is as thick as a sandstorm, turning the desert black.
To get a sense of what Zhundong once looked like, you have to go to similar areas elsewhere, if you are to have any chance of picturing its former appearance. To the north is a stretch of desert vegetation, yellow, green and red, scattered with animal bones scratched by the teeth of predators.
In 2015 Wang Huxian and others from the Xinjiang Academy of Environmental Protection Sciences published a report on changes in the Kalamely habitats, finding that the impact of roads, mines and industry had resulted in a 45% reduction in suitable habitats since 2000, with the drop particularly pronounced after 2007.
The Scientific Survey of the Kalamely Reserve also reported that despite years of observations, hoofed mammals were no longer found in the Zhundong area.
According to Yang Weikang, the area removed from the reserve on this occasion, which lies mainly to the east of the G216 highway, is another important winter habitat. “The temperatures here are warmer than elsewhere, and it’s sheltered from the north wind. Removing this will just add to the damage already done in Zhundong.”
Ma Ming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography, studies birds of prey in the reserve and has drawn attention to the harmful impacts of extractive industries on habitats.
“Don’t forget the reserve is home to many golden eagles and vultures – these are affected by mining and quarrying as well as poaching.” Those two birds are Schedule I and Schedule II protected species respectively.
In his research, Ma found that golden eagle numbers in the reserve started falling in 2004, and by 2012 all the nests were empty. At a committee meeting on the impacts of mining, he became aware that government body originally meant to oversee and manage the reserve was now speaking on behalf of the developers. Ma responded by thumping the table with anger.
The Scientific Survey of the Kalamely Reserve, which was referred to in making the decision, says that as wild animals are widely distributed within the Junggar Basin, the changes wouldn’t make much difference to the populations within the reserve.
Development on the quiet
But even before the changes, prospecting and quarrying were underway.
On March 29 last year, the Xinjiang forestry authorities published licences for a number of gold prospecting studies to be carried out within the reserve, for the Kalamely No. 1 Gold Mine. That gold mine is to be sited on land to be removed from the reserve under the most recent changes.
In late May 2015, Thepaper.cn visited the site and found that workers’ accommodation and some infrastructure has already been built. One man, who said he was the deputy mine boss, told us that work had started in 2014.
At another location, also formerly part of the reserve, blocks of granite are being stacked up next to a quarry dug dozens of metres into the ground.
Yang Weikang says that even if it is necessary for major energy projects to take priority over conservation, he said he still couldn’t understand why the granite quarry is needed. “You can find granite all over Xinjiang, why do they have to take over part of the reserve?”
State rules on nature reserves forbid mining or quarrying – but other laws or regulations can override this ban. In a letter responding to questions from Let Migratory Birds Fly, an environmental group, as to whether quarrying had gone ahead prior to obtaining approvals, staff from the Aleitai Conservation Post said that some quarrying had been approved by the industrial authorities, and was therefore in accordance with the law.
However, staff from the conservation post added that there had been quarrying which was illegal under nature reserve regulations prior to the adjustment of the boundaries.
In the Xinjiang environmental authority’s submission to the Xinjiang government on the changes to the reserve, it was revealed that 36 mining licenses had been issued in the area affected between 2008 and 2015, with 120 million yuan (US$18.3 million) spent on prospecting and development by investors, including the Shandong Zhaojin Group and Zhaoyuan Changlin Industries.
That document took the rather cynical view that “mining and prospecting rights already exist in this area, it is no longer a suitable habitat and has no further conservation purpose.”
Ma Zhicheng, a former environmental science teacher who was also on the evaluation committee for resourced projects, said “the changes were just a matter of making it legal.”
He submitted 19 written opinions to the environmental authorities, saying that the changes were overall unsuitable. But as development was already a reality and a new area was to be added to the reserve in the north, which would be the animals’ only refuge if development continued in the south, he voted in favour of changes to the reserve.
Experts called into question
Yet again the struggle between economic growth and conservation is playing out, this time at Kalamely Reserve. Conservationists worry that as was the case with Zhundong, animals will be forced from their habitats.
“I don’t think there’s one other reserve in China which has been reduced in size by six times,” said Ma Ming. The reserve lies in the Changji and Aleitai areas of Xinjiang, but the parts of the reserve affected by the most recent changes lie mainly in Fuyun county in Aleitai.
It was the local government that was the main proponent of the changes. In a letter to the forestry authorities, the county said the reduction at the south of the reserve would be compensated for with an expansion in the north.
Thepaper.cn also learned that a government official told the evaluation committee that “there’s only one source of economic growth in Aleitai [referring to mining], so we need to make reasonable use of these resources for local economic development.”
Once the plan was given the nod by the forestry authorities, it was passed on to the expert committee put together by the environmental authorities in February 2015. Only 4 of the 32 experts opposed it, with all others voting in favour.
But even some of those on the committee questioned its make-up. Ma Ming pointed out most came from government – the forestry authorities, the environmental authorities, the development and reform commissions, the land and resources authorities, and the construction authorities. One expert who did not wish to be named sent a text message saying experts were just there to provide cover for a government decision. Ma added that previous changes to the reserve were made without reference to any experts.
Tian Yangyang of Let Migratory Birds Fly is sceptical about the changes and complains of a lack of public participation – the whole process took two years but was only publicised at the last minute, over the Chinese New Year holiday, when many people are unlikely to have seen it?
Chang Jiwen, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Law, said in an interview that it is inevitable a committee chosen by local government will take the side of local government, and that public participation is essential as a counterweight. “The weak economy means there are signs that environmental protection is being put in second place, which we should be wary of.”
Editor's Note: Thepaper.cn journalist Shi Yi filed a series of reports on this issue, bringing the case to the attention of central government. A subsequent memo from Xi Jinping resulted in an undercover visit by Party Central Committee investigators, as well as a public visit by Zhang Chunxian, Xinjiang Party Secretary, during which plans for the most recent reduction of the reserve were halted. At the end of 2015 the plans were scrapped for good.