Editor's note: "Manufacturing Shangri-La" is a three-part series on a Tibetan hamlet turned tourist-trap. Read Part 1: China attempts to manufacture “Shangri-La”; Part 3: China’s Shangri-La for minorities.
SHANGRI-LA, China — This village’s efforts to remake itself in the image of James Hilton’s mythical "Lost Horizon" paradise may have yielded a tacky tourist trap. But this Yunnan province outpost genuinely resembles its namesake in one key way: its natural setting is stunning.
At least for the moment.
Surrounded on three sides by verdant Himalayan foothills, and situated in one of the most biologically rich regions of the world, Shangri-La is picturesque, dramatic and relatively unspoiled — China’s closest equivalent to Yosemite or Yellowstone.
Among its treasures: the 11,000-foot-deep Shangri-La Gorge, which spans six different climatic zones, from subtropical to alpine. A handful of major world rivers surge down from the Himalayas through Yunnan, providing water to over a billion people in southern China, India and Southeast Asia.
The area is also ground zero for environmental efforts in China; what exactly conservation entails is a source of discord between the locals and Western organizations striving to protect this natural gem.
The conservation efforts have been manifold. In 2001, UNESCO declared the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan — which includes much of Shangri-La county — a World Heritage Site. The country’s first national park, Pudacuo National Park, was established here in 2007. And the Nature Conservancy has worked extensively with the government, helping to pioneer eco-tourism and protect the snow-capped mountain Meili Xueshan. By 2020, the Nature Conservancy aims to help create nine new parks in Yunnan province.
“There is no province that has gone as far as Yunnan” in conservation, says Ed Grumbine, a visiting senior scholar with the Chinese Academy of Sciences at the Kunming Institute of Botany in southern Yunnan.
Yet the extraordinary environment of Shangri-La is under threat from the same forces pressuring all of China’s natural sites: rampaging development, spotty enforcement of laws, and a tourist invasion.
Pudacuo is beautiful, and a just source of pride for those living in Shangri-La. But it is also fundamentally different from American public parks.
For starters, it charges a $30 entrance fee. That’s steep by any standards, but especially pricey in a province where the average monthly income is about $380. And because of its success — Pudacuo generated over $30 million in revenue by the end 2009, attracting 1.4 million visitors — local officials have prioritized tourist revenue over conservation, disappointing the local and foreign environmentalists who helped to create the park in the first place.
Instead of being a model for eco-tourism, Pudacuo has become “a revenue engine that puts conservation second and sidelines communities,” says John Zinda of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an academic study of the park.
Furthermore, locals say that mines have sprung up on what should be protected land. Across Shangri-La, copper mining and hydropower remain the region’s economic lifeblood, and budding conservation has done little to stop it. In 2007, the Zijin Mining Group, one of China’s largest, founded a Shangri-La subsidiary, investing in two major copper mines in Shangri-La country. Locals report that copper mines have turned a nearby lake toxic.
“Despite efforts of the central government, local government incentives are still built around increasing the GDP growth of the political unit, so if a mine can make more money than a park, then the mine will almost certainly go in, it’s as simple as that,” says Grumbine.
The tragedy is that Shangri-La is the heartland of biological diversity in China, a country better known in modern times for toxic lakes, cancer villages, and smog-shrouded megalopolises than for its mega fauna.
Many outsiders don’t realize that China still possesses some of the most extraordinary natural endowments in the world, with more mammal, bird and plant species than the United States.
Shangri-La alone, which UNESCO has said “may harbor the richest biodiversity among the temperate areas of the world,” contains more than 7,000 known plant species, and is home to roughly one third of China’s mammal and bird species.
The region hosts black-necked cranes, the Yunnan golden monkey, and the Chinese screw mole. Twelve percent of the animal and fish species in Shangri-La county are found nowhere else in the world.
Yet because Yunnan is one of the poorest provinces in China, the pressure to grow rich and fast often sways local officials to ignore conservation laws they find inconvenient.
“What is unique to China is the disconnect between different levels of policy implementation,” says Grumbine. “It’s very common for local governments not to want to do something they’re supposed to do, and because oftentimes the central government does not have the capability to force local actors to act.”
As a result, Pudacuo has turned less into a Yellowstone of China than “a profitable state-run enterprise” benefiting the government, Zinda writes. One Shangri-La official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said she opposed the way the area was developing, but felt helpless to do anything about it.
“Mining and hydropower are the main economic drivers here. Tourism can never be as big as that,” she said. “I can’t control the big picture.”
Kevin Skalsky, a native of Snohomish, Wash., has lived in Shangri-La — previously called Zhongdian — for 13 years. He now runs a tour company that leads treks into the surrounding countryside. At first the only foreigners in town, he and his wife raised four children here.
Over several plates of yak meat at a Zhongdian restaurant, he lamented the rabid development that shows no signs of stopping.
“It’s been unrelenting since 2005,” he says. “Everyone here pretends to be doing eco-tourism. But it’s just green-washing. You put a water boiler on your roof, and suddenly you’re an eco-lodge.”
As experts point out, conservation in China contradicts some deep cultural habits.
While traditional Chinese art, poetry and painting revered the natural world, conservation is still a new concept. Mandarin lacks a word for "wilderness," Grumbine observes, and historically China does not have a tradition of placing value on untouched land. He compares the current state of Chinese conservation to the state of America during the creation of Yellowstone in the 1870s.
Nobody can deny that Shangri-La has, like the rest of China, made immense progress very quickly. What is unclear, however, is whether time is running out for some of the biggest and rarest animals. The Yunnan golden monkey, screw mole, musk deer and black necked crane are found nowhere else in the world. But most recent province-level surveys of Yunnan animals date to the late 1990s, and anecdotal evidence points to a potentially steep decline in animal populations.
"I’ve hiked hundreds of miles in Yunnan, and I have never seen a mammal larger than a deer, and that rarely,” says Grumbine. “[Yunnan] certainly was a hotspot, but if you don’t do a survey in terms of how populations are doing, you can just coast on old data while the animals disappear."
Asked if he is optimistic about the environment in Shangri-La and Yunnan, the botanist waxes philosophical.
“Is the glass full, or empty? Is progress being made?" he asked.
"It depends on whether you look at the starting point or the ending point.”
Read part one in this series: China attempts to manufacture “Shangri-La”
Read part three in this series: China’s Shangri-La for minorities