China / Cover Story

Taking a leaf out of the book of nature

By Peng Yining and Huang Yiming (China Daily) Updated: 2014-06-16 08:05

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of special reports in which our reporters will travel the length of China's 18,000-km-long coastline to detail the lives of the people whose existence is dominated, and often facilitated, by the waters that stretch from Bohai Bay in the north to the Zengmu shoal in the south.

Taking a leaf out of the book of nature
Visitors can spot both birds and crabs while using the wooden walkway in the Dongzhaigang Mangrove Forest Reserve in Hainan. [Photo by Huang Yimin / China Daily]

Hainan province is one of China's most popular tourist destinations, but the authorities are facing a dilemma as they try to safeguard the mangrove forest that protects the island's fragile coastal ecosystem, as Peng Yining and Huang Yiming reports.

During the past year, Chen Song, deputy director of the Dongzhaigang Mangrove Forest Reserve in Hainan province, has devoted himself to improving public awareness of mangrove forests and shrubs, and the protection of endangered coastal flora. The problem is that Chen has been a little too successful, and the nature reserve now faces the prospect of turning visitors away.

Taking a leaf out of the book of nature

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Hainan's mangrove forest attracted national attention when Premier Li Keqiang visited the reserve during a trip to the island province in April, and praised it a "precious resource".

Since then, visitor numbers have mushroomed from dozens per day to 6,000, with tourists coming from both Hainan and other parts of China. During the three-day Labor Day holiday in May, 20,000 people visited the park, which is about half the size of Manhattan Island.

"During the (Labor Day) holiday, the line of cars on the road in front of the reserve stretched 3 kilometers. I used to be concerned that so few people knew about us, but now we face the prospect of too many tourists," Chen said.

Located on Hainan's northeast coast, the reserve was founded in 1980 as China's first protected area for mangrove forests.

Cruising along the park's mazy waterways, visitors can see hundreds of birds flying over the forest, and a 1,000-meter-long wooden walkway has been constructed along the bank so tourists can see where mudskippers and crabs dig their holes.

"The park has the capacity for a maximum of 10,000 people at any one time. At one point, we had so many visitors that the wooden walkway was squeaking like crazy," Chen said, adding that too many tourists would impose a huge strain on the reserve's infrastructure, including the parking lot and sewage system. "Before, we didn't charge an entry fee because we didn't have many visitors. But in the future, we'll have to charge for admission to limit visitor numbers."

Huang Hongyuan, a former fishermen who lives close to the park, said the reserve has changed his life, but not for the better. "To make it easier to catch large numbers of crabs, we used to cut back the forest," he said. "But now, we are forbidden to work in the protected area."

When Li visited Huang Hongyuan's village, the 71-year-old gave the premier his paddle, the most important tool of his trade for the past for 20 years, as a gift and a public declaration of his intention to give up fishing and protect the forest. A framed photo of him presenting the paddle to Li now has a place of honor on the wall of Huang Hongyuan's living room, but his decision to quit fishing has resulted in a decline in his standard of living. He could earn 200 yuan ($32) a day by fishing for crabs, but he now makes far less by laying pipes for his neighbors - he said most of the local fishermen have given up fishing, but many are unhappy with the way events have unfolded. "If the tourists are coming here and destroying the local environment, why did we give up our livelihoods in the first place?" he asked.

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