Botanist Yang Heng during a field trip. Photo: SMP

Environmentalists raise awareness of Nanling National Forest Park

Environmentalists even force a developer to help fund an education programme and adopt an eco-friendly approach in Guangdong reserve

When nature lovers found some virgin forest in Guangdong's Nanling National Forest Park destroyed, they confronted a developer, winning an admission of culpability. The environmentalists maintained their PR momentum by recruiting the Nanling Discoverers to raise awareness. Yang Heng, a 26-year-old botanist, explains a nature education programme that the developer now helps fund.

Most are university students or graduates who love nature. The programme includes field trips to the reserve to catalogue the area's biodiversity. Botanical researchers provide briefings for the amateur nature lovers and professional photographers who document the flora and fauna of Nanling. So far, over 200 discoverers have joined field trips since the programme was launched last summer. There are also free public lectures.

Nanling refers to the mountains that border Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. The range forms a natural barrier to shield southern China from the cold northern winters. Guangdong's second largest water catchment is in the reserve. Until the 1980s, it was home to the South China tiger and leopards, but they're all gone due to destruction of habitats. The area is now a protected reserve but there are few large animals, although insects and small mammals are abundant.

The contractor failed to remove many rocks and sand properly, dumping material and destroying parts of the forest. The developer - Dongyangguang - blamed the contractor. Under pressure, the company admitted it failed to supervise the construction. It provided funds for restoration and replanting of trees. However, as the original rich topsoil was removed, many tree seedlings have already died. Restoration of this kind takes a long time. After criticism from NGOs and media, the company now agrees that protecting the environment is important for their business.

Yes, the company was invited by the Ruyuan county forestry bureau to develop ecotourism businesses - actually illegal according to laws covering commercial operations within national-level nature reserves. But such practices are not uncommon on the mainland, as forestry bureaus and local governments always complain that they don't have enough funding to protect the reserves. A five-star hotel has already been built by Dongyangguang. The company said it had learned lessons from the road project and would see to it that their business is eco-friendly.

At times I've felt ambivalent, to be honest. Nanling Discoverers receive about 200,000 yuan (HK$252,000) a year from Dongyangguang. There are questions about whether the programme helps greenwash the company, but the programme has also raised awareness among many city folk. I also want to use these resources to support research by university students. In my opinion, it is more like an experiment to find common ground with the public, the developer and the conservationists.

Some living in Nanling work for the forestry bureau or are park rangers. Some sell local products such as fruit and nuts to tourists. They're concerned about the impact of large-scale commercial businesses on their way of life, although more tourists bring more income. I think the company and local government need to spell out their development plans to local people.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Nature lovers try to raise awareness of national park