Sept. 25, 2023
Yellow River Decade (18) Wish we could remove all the chain link fence

Author: Wang  lina
Photo: Wang  Yongchen

Our trip began from Maduo county on August 29, 2010. It was after eight o’clock in the evening and raining, when we arrived in Xining. The members of Yellow River Decade expedition couldn’t wait to have supper, so we went immediately to the Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology. There we met with Wu Yuhu, a researcher from Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology, who has just rushed back from the Three Rivers Origin area.

Wu Yuhu mainly works on plant classification. He has led several scientific expeditions to the headwaters in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the Kunlun Mountain area, as well as to Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, and other provinces. As a result, he has collected a great deal of firsthand research data from these field studies and science adventures. We had lots of questions to ask this prairie biologist. As we approached him from our yurt several media journalists and several people from the Yellow River Decade began to ask him questions one by one as the dust settled from our long journey.

Wang Yongchen: Climate change has recently become a hot topic. Moreover, the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is one of the areas most affected by climatic change. What are your thoughts on this?
Wu Yuhu: I worked in Maduo County from 1976 to 1985. In a manner of speaking, I went to every township, every production team in Maduo county, and every mountain trench. I have been away from there for twenty years, but I still go visit every two or three years. My viewpoints may no longer fit quite well with prevailing opinion. I can’t speak for other places, but in these years the conditions in Maduo County, compared with the conditions that I had observed previously, are not shockingly different. As the people there have said, “the changes are part of nature’s periodic change.” The elevation of Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is over 4000m, its ecosystems grasslands, and climate often vary.


The source of the Yellow River

Grassland in Yellow River source area


The Yellow River source geographical indicator in 2010

The Yellow River source geographical indicator in 2009

Wang: But we actually witnessed the melting of the glacier, the disappearance of many lakes, and the Yellow River source has dried up as well.

Wu: Yes, this is true. We have seen the drying of lakes, emerging sand dunes, grass deterioration, and deforestation, but these changes are part of the natural cycle of climate change. Nature’s regulation works on a scale of thousands of years, and cannot be observed effectively in one or two decades or even one or two hundred years. Humans have no doubt contributed to these changes in climate but nonetheless no one has the evidence to prove that these trends will last forever.

Wang: Can you provide examples to explain your previous statement?

Wu: The water level in Qinghai Lake’s was continuously dropping several decades ago. As a result some predicted that Qinghai Lake would dry up completely in one or two hundred years but today, in fact, the water level of Qinghai Lake is rising.


Eling Lake

Zhaling Lake

Niutou Stele

Wang: Most people have accepted that climate change has caused the melting of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau glacier. This should result in a rise in river water levels but we see many rivers many rivers actually drying up. What are your thoughts on this?

The Xingxiuhai is disappearing.

In the past there was a lake here, but now it does not exist.

Wu: Let’s look at Maduo County for example. The rivers there are mostly ephemeral streams. These rivers are intermittent during the months of June, July, and August, when the temperature and rainwater are at their seasonal highs, while they remain mostly dry throughout the other nine months.
Wang: We saw some herdsmen riding motorbikes to temples to pray for rain while were conducting interviews in Suojia County last year. The herdsman told us that there was not a lack of water in the past, but now they rely on the Buddhist to pray for rain.
Wu: Some places are like that, but it is all part of nature’s plan. As the old saying goes, “time brings great change to the world.” This is to say that the influence of climate change can be extreme. As for the effects on the grasslands and the whole Yellow River source area, annual changes are very obvious after all.

Grassland degradation

Today’s Yellow River source area

Wang: In your opinion, what has been the impact of human activity on the meadow?
Wu: Some people say that the changes in the meadow are man-made, but I don’t agree with this. Humans believe that their power is very great, however humans do not have the power to significantly change nature and are actually helpless to combat natural changes.
Wang: I personally think that one of the values of scientific investigation is the hope that it will influence the decision-making process for the betterment of the world. What do you think of that link fence in the plateau?
Wu: In terms of link fence, it is a good thing for herdsmen and provided by the government. Its original intention was good, but I think the results are not so good. I cannot remember who it was that said, “I wish I could remove all the link fence in the Three Rivers origin area within one night.” 



Wang: What’s the harm of link fence?

Wu: First I will speak about the advantages. Several herdsmen have told me that the link fences are beneficial. According to them the fences provide a clear boundary for every meadow prevent quarrels over land. Furthermore herding sheep is difficult work and with the fences in place the herdsman to not have to keep a careful eye on the sheep all day. These are the only benefits. For instance, it is said in Qinghai Lake, one of the only places on earth where the Procapra przewalskii, or Przewalski’s gazelle, exist, the fences are endangering the gazelles. After a fence is built, the Gazelles are trapped and become easy prey for wolves. It is suspected that there are only a few hundred gazelles left in the Qinghai Lake area. We preach the protection of our biological diversity; protection of wild animals, protection of every tree and bush in the Three Rivers origin area, but the habitat, migration, and ultimately the survival of wild animals compromised by the link fences. In comparison, the Procapra picticaudata, or Tibetan gazelle is able to move freely in Hoh Xil, where the population is more sparse, but it encounters problems when it arrives at the Qinghai-Tibetan Highway. 

          Procapra picticaudata

             Running gazelles

Wang: The relationship between the grass and animals is symbiotic, but now many animals cannot move freely through the meadow because of the many link fences. Do you think this is good for meadow?

Wu: The grasslands are a natural pasture for the gazelle. Without access to the pasture the gazelle lack food and the grass becomes unhealthy. We interviewed herdsmen in 2007. The herdsmen took me to borders of their lands told me that the link fence had been built only two years ago. The height of grass outside the fence was already 6 cm and the tallest grass inside was 4 cm. After pushing aside withered grass outside of the fence, we found a scattering of other plants that are not present when the grass is healthy. Grass that was 3 cm high could be divided into three parts, the upper part is yellow, in the middle part is rotten and black, and the bottom part is green. The rot proved that the grass was not healthy. After two years without grazing the grass had deteriorated and will never grow again. The old grass, yellow grass, and withered grass shut out sunshine, so the grass sprout below cannot find the sunshine. When it rains the grass becomes waterlogged and when weather gets hot the grass rots away and dies. If we don’t allow domestic animals to graze then we should at least ensure the wild animals access to the pasture. No grazing is absolutely not good because without it the grasslands will disappear.
Wang: Then why are the fences still being built?

Wu: We all want to protect the grasslands but the tough part is how to best protect them. Lots of people who manage pastures do not actually know much about the ecology of the meadow.
Wang: Although you have such clear cognition, why it is still difficult for us to influence the decisions of some scientists like yourself?

Wu: The responsibility of scientific researchers stimulates us but of course the decision doesn’t just depend on us. Right now what I am worried about is the protection of a rare forest of wild and old Chinese tamarisk (cedar).

 Old Chinese tamarisk (cedar)


 Four hundred years’ record

Wang Jian: Do you think there is a problem with overgrazing in three-river source area?
Wu: People’s view on this matter is very complex. When I worked in Maduo County, where the population density is 0.4 people per square kilometer, any effects of overgrazing are not apparent. So in my opinion overgrazing is not a major problem. In terms of grassland degradation, we can say the influence of people is negligible with respect to climate change. As for the changes in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, I think nature is dominant and human activity can be totally ignored. I will describe the effects of human activity in this area. The first is the creation of settlements. Around the settlements, cattle and sheep have a big impact on grassland degradation. The second is repairs to the highway. In the early years, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, people did not pay attention to ecology protection. Often they burned the vegetation to make room for the roads. Third many people mined gold in the 1970s and 1980s and now there is very little gold left in this area.

Wang: That is incorrect. Currently a company from Canada is digging for gold in Maduo Township under an official government permit. The local herdsman feel that it is unfair to damage the meadow with open mines across large tracts of land. But what about the damage from herding sheep?

Wu: If this situation really exists, the damage to the meadow is very serious. But I still think human influence is really very small compare to the natural processes.

You Lianyuan: Do you think the influence of global change on the meadow is good or not?

Wu: This question’s premise relies on a common acceptance of what is good or not good. Who is the judge? Nature has its own cycle of change that is neither good nor bad. The good or bad that we create is skewed by human perception.

         The lake on the Plateau

     The Yellow River source

Wang: On our journey here we discussed whether or not the Yellow River is an evil river one or good one. Some people believe it is an evil river. It is said that people are still planning to build dozens of hydropower stations downstream of Longyangxia. What is your opinion?

Wu: The naturalist view is that power stations should not be repaired and maintained. However the societal view is that the well being of humans should come first. This is really a question of balance. Most of the time nature provides what we need but when we need more our lack of understanding with respect to nature can cause problems. Although we have good intentions human actions can destroy natural processes. The Datong River, which connects Qinghai to Gansu, should flow through the most beautiful landscape in Qinghai province. Presently however, one can find power stations every five or ten steps, similar to tomatoes on a vine. Clear lakes lie upstream while dry riverbeds are found downstream. We provide electricity and earn money at the cost of destroying the ecology. If it goes on like this the beautiful landscape will definitely disappear or change from how it naturally occured.

    A large dam built in the middle of the River

   A gorge can even be cut through by a dam

Wang: What do you think about the human oriented problems?

Wu: Sometimes, decision makers give more consideration to human oriented issues. But as a matter of fact, they later find that many of these decisions turn out to be wrong. Some of the ecological problems we evoke may be repaired by spending money, while others cannot be restored no matter how much money is spent. For example the Tamarix chinensis (cedar), found in Tongde County, carries a special message, one that once the tree has been destroyed can never be recovered.  During periods of abnormal global climate change and frequently occurring natural calamities, certain biological characteristics of the Tamarix chinensis enable it to retain information from hundreds of years of these events. This is invaluable material for the research of life phenomena and global changes. These Tamarix chinensis not only records valuable information about climatic variation hundreds of years before human civilization but will also be record this information in the years the years to come. This will enable environmental change information to be compared with climate data from actual measurements. These trees are such a precious part of our natural heritage that we should show our gratitude through protection programs give thanks for this inspiring view of nature.

Trees recording history (cameraman: Wu Yuhu)

It not only records ecology, but also climate changes (cameraman: Wu Yuhu)

The extremely precious Tamarix chinensis are now in danger of being flooded. A water power station is being planned in this area and once it is built the Tamarix chinensis will be flooded and eventually rot, along with all its unique genes and climate change information .The place where the water power station is being built is actually within the Three Rivers Natural Reserve Area, which has a mission to protect all grasslands and trees. If the woods are flooded, then we humans will be the sinners who cut off natural history.

Josh: Just now you said that there has been no change in the grassland, What evidence do you have to support this statement?

Wu: I have worked for ten years in Maduo County and I have been studying the grasslands twice a year. There has been no big change between the present condition of the grasslands and that of the previous ones.

Josh: How have the changes at the source of the Yellow River influenced the Plateau?

Wu: If all the changes in climate such as the rising temperatures, the melting glacier, grassland degradation, the river’s increasing evaporative capacity and the shrinking lakes continue, our Yellow River will probably die. However, the change will not last forever because nature is continuously beginning new cycles.

Wang Yongchen: As a scientist who works on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, what would you most like to share with us?

Wu: Well, I think it would be best to remove the link fence and make use of all the unused grasslands. The link fence disrupts the activity of wild animals as well as the normal succession of the grassland. During our interview researcher Wu Yuhu was always emphasizing that human beings are weak compared to the powers of nature. Such an opinion seemingly goes against the opinion anthropologist Luo Kanglong, who maintains that we should not ignore the influence human beings can have on nature. These two ideas are contradictory because they come from different perspective of observation. Wu sees the question from a wider perspective and he believes that nature has its own rules that supersede human actions. Luo Kanglong views the world from a local perspective and he believes that human beings do have a great influence over nature. When it comes to the ecological degeneration of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and the question of how much influence human activities have had on the ecology here, there is a need for more research and interviews. Regardless whether of not human influence on ecology is strong or weak, we have good reasons to record all the changes here objectively and we also expect that we can gain a better understanding of the changes in grasslands through the Yellow River Decade expedition.
Tomorrow we will end the ongoing report on the Yellow River Decade while observing our trip from the perspective of an anthropologist.

The mountains that surround the Yellow River

He-Qing Huang

The source of the Yellow River .

Translator: Peng Yuanyuan
Proofreader: Annie Geratowski