Before you read, remember this: Independent editorial isn’t free. If you enjoy this article, please consider our message at the end of this article and support our journalism so we can keep going.
Kyle Obermann is an American environmental photographer and conservationist based in Chengdu China. After learning Mandarin and studying environmental science at Peking University, Obermann has spent the past five years exploring China’s natural beauty and working with local park rangers to spread the word about conservation efforts in China’s national parks.
“We need more dialogue with China on global climate change. And we need more cultural understanding. We are never going to get there if people don’t speak the language. Langue is so important for bridging cultures and establishing long-term friendships and trust.”
“China is the 3rd most biodiverse country in the entire world,” said Obermann. “From snow leopards to pandas to dolphins, seals, and tropical rainforests. It spans all sorts of biomes. It’s also the world’s most populous country where you have this incredible juxtaposition of all these biomes and ecosystems that meet 1.4 billion people.”
From habitat encroachment to wildlife degradation to overpopulation pollution to melting glaciers, China faces a host of environmental issues. It is also a country relatively new to wealth and a middle class. Conservation is somewhat new on the priority list.
Xi Jinping recently said at the 2020 United Nations Summit for Biodiversity that China would now stress conservation. This, paired with “a government,” Obermann describes, “which if they decide they want to do something, they can be very top-down heavy and get it done” has created a national parks system to improve upon the previous nature reserve system.
“It’s the Hallmark question of our time: can we live sustainably on this planet? Are we actually going to make it? It’s not about how big your business can be. It’s about can we do that and balance our future?”
The national parks system will unite many of the nature reserves together to increase habitat restoration and wildlife protection. It will also work on adding educational elements to become a destination for schools. Most importantly, it will work to establish national standards such as park rangers.
It will not, however, be rushing to establish backcountry permits. “There is a nervousness,” Obermann explains, “about what would happen if we turned people loose. You are at 5,000 M. You don’t get that anywhere in the continental United States.” China recently cracked down on adventure racing after the Gansu ultramarathon disaster in May of 2020.
Read next on TOJ: Climbing for a Cause: Returning to Kilimanjaro for Elephant Conservation
“I don’t know that there is the awareness of Leave No Trace,” said Kyle. He talks about how the population is eager to get outside but there has to be education first. With a population of 1.4 billion, that is a lot of education that will take time. However, Obermann remarks, “People don’t question global warming. It is very refreshing.”
Education will come as more and more schools and travelers visit the national parks and interact with park rangers. Park rangers in China look very different from the western conception of badges and uniforms. In China, the park rangers are mostly locals living on the land.
Roughly 600,000 people live inside these national parks. Only a fraction are being relocated. The ones who remain have started using eco-tourism as a livelihood and way to educate and respect their ancestral, nutritious land. People have become rangers, guides, and inn-keepers. This is a much more desirable life than being forced to poach the rare animals local to you.
The park system will employ rangers that reduce animal poaching twofold: it turns the poachers into rangers who have awareness of local trails and animals, and now creates rangers to catch other poachers.
Obermann’s humanizing conservation efforts focus on park rangers, which has been extremely well received in pushing conservation efforts to the forefront of the conversation. He encourages others to do the same by first creating personal connections to others and finding out why conservation is important to them and then using their talents, whatever they are, to affect change.
Read next on TOJ: Kayakers Become Conservationists to Save Hemlock Trees
See more content from Kyle: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrvPOhgzeHUcu4sX7SKoBpQ
Read his latest piece: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/pandas-are-off-chinas-endangered-list-but-threats-persist?fbclid=IwAR3SHgUtUDuoJ1twTVLIWWI6MEh0_wdoAY1QDqdP7EkoeBQuBFdwCa1kPRc
Follow Kyle Obermann on social media: