Peaks reach toward the sky in Angsai, an area inside the Sanjiangyuan region in western China’s Qinghai province. (AP)

Peaks reach toward the sky in Angsai, an area inside the Sanjiangyuan region in western China’s Qinghai province. (AP)

A Tibetan youth sits at the base of a natural cave formation in Angsai in western China’s Qinghai province. (AP)

A Tibetan youth sits at the base of a natural cave formation in Angsai in western China’s Qinghai province. (AP)

A Glover’s Pika surveys its surroundings in western China’s Qinghai province. (AP)

A Glover’s Pika surveys its surroundings in western China’s Qinghai province. (AP)

Clouds hover over the mountainous landscape in Angsai, an area inside the Sanjiangyuan region in western China’s Qinghai province. (AP)

Clouds hover over the mountainous landscape in Angsai, an area inside the Sanjiangyuan region in western China’s Qinghai province. (AP)

Tibetan prayer flags are seen during a clear day in Angsai. (AP)

Tibetan prayer flags are seen during a clear day in Angsai. (AP)

China’s Yellowstone

Posted: January 1, 2020

“DON’T build!”

That’s what Chinese officials say to people in Qinghai. Qinghai is a vast region where exotic animals like snow leopards and Chinese mountain cats slink. Asia’s three great waterways—the Yangtze, the Yellow River, and the Mekong—all begin in Qinghai. What will happen to this remote place?

It will become a national park.

“This is one of the most special regions in China, in the world,” says Lu Zhi, a biologist.

Qinghai is on the Tibetan Plateau. People sometimes call this spot “the rooftop of the world.” The planet’s tallest mountain ranges surround it. Workers busily build in other parts of the Tibetan Plateau. But construction in Qinghai stops. No building means the pristine ecosystems stay as they have always been. People will be able to enjoy them for years to come.

Still, a question hangs in the air. Can Chinese officials make a national park work for everyone? The new park must protect land and animals. It must bring tourists in. And it must allow people who live nearby to go on with their lives. About 128,000 people live in or near the park area. Many of those people are Tibetan.

Some compare the new park plan to Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Yellowstone was created in 1872. And U.S. officials had the same problem Chinese officials have now. People lived in the place they want to make a park. What did they do about it? The U.S. government forced Native Americans who lived in the area to move. Will Chinese officials do the same to Tibetans?

The Chinese government is giving some of them jobs instead. Some Tibetans are paid to stay and work their land. The “One Family, One Ranger” program hires one person per family. These rangers earn 1,800 yuan a month ($255). They collect trash and watch for poachers.

Kunchok Jangtse is a Tibetan herder. He raises livestock and collects caterpillar fungus to make folk medicines. This earns him just $2,830 a year. But now he also earns through the program. He cleans up garbage. He maintains motion-activated camera traps, which help scientists keep track of endangered species in Qinghai. For now, the extra money helps. But Mr. Kunchok watches. He waits. Will he have to leave eventually too?