Xianghai National Nature Reserve in Tongyu county, Jilin province, is an important wetland for migratory birds.
As a conservationist, 27-year-old Wang Chunli knows what a rewarding yet bumpy ride the country must take before reaching its "Beautiful China" destination by the middle of the century.
For the past two years, she has been wrestling with the paradox between humanity and nature.
In December 2016, Wang paid her first visit to Xianghai National Nature Reserve in the northeastern province of Jilin. She was amazed by the rich landscapes, but shocked by the severe human disturbance in the reserve.
"I didn't expect so many people to be living in a nature reserve. There were even residents among the habitat of red-crowned cranes and in the heartlands of rare plants," she said.
The reserve, built in 1981, is an important wetland for migratory birds to reproduce and refresh themselves during their journeys. It sprawls across more than 1,000 square kilometers and 12 villages in Jilin's Tongyu county.
More than 15,000 people are still living in the reserve. Before 2015, 30 percent of the core zone, in which human activity is strictly prohibited, was farmland.
Zhang Xuejun, who was born and raised in Xianghai, has witnessed firsthand how humans have occupied the reserve.
Sheep graze at the nature reserve, damaging the local ecosystem.
"When the wetland was first built, everyone appreciated the pleasant environment. But when they saw that putting sheep out to graze was lucrative, they all rushed to grab land in the core zone," the 56-year-old said.
Initially, the local government sent out patrol teams to control illegal grazing. But the move was only partially successful because grazing was not limited to a single location.
In recent years, the provincial government has attempted to solve the puzzle with a resettlement project.
It demolished 248 houses and shacks, returned 6,711 hectares of farmland to grassland and every year the villagers are given 8,000 yuan ($1,260) as reimbursement for every hectare they have lost.
Large numbers of red-crowned cranes visit the reserve every year.
However, driven by the profit motive, people still catch rare birds and poison fish in the core zone.
"The biggest challenge is to coordinate ecological protection and community development, by which the government can cooperate with NGOs," said Wang, who has been running a pilot program since 2016.
Improving local lives
In December 2016, after two years of research and negotiations, the Paradise Foundation, an NGO in Beijing, signed a 30-year agreement with the reserve and the Jilin government to establish the Xianghai Ecological Protection Center.
The center, which covers half the reserve's core zone, is directly managed by the foundation and supervised by the local government.
When Wang was appointed as director of the center, the first thing she did was to visit a number of nearby villages to learn about the needs of local residents.
"Wang and her team always come to talk about the importance of ecological protection, so I know that wetland acts as the Earth's kidneys. Now they are looking for good ideas to improve our lives," Zhang said.
The center adopted a two-pronged approach: first, local villagers were recruited to form patrols and crack down on poachers, which created jobs; second, environmentally friendly industries were established, such as growing organic grains and breeding chickens that are native to the area.
Despite Wang's efforts, most villagers still sit on the fence, apprehensive because of their inexperience and the bleak market prospects.
Zhang was one of a small number of residents who agreed to breed the chickens.
"I believe in the concept of ecological protection. For the sake of our descendants, we need to make changes," he said.
Ecological breeding demands zero use of chemicals and fertilizers. Zhang bought 500 chicks and raised them in a 6-hectare wooded area he owns. More than 100 died because of low temperatures, disease and predators, but after careful calculation of the costs, Zhang is still optimistic regarding profits. (Source: China Daily)