Ecology well protected along Qinghai-Xizang Railway, Highway

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On June 11, amid the gentle morning light, the Z265 train from Xining, capital of northwest China’s Qinghai province to Lhasa, capital of southwest China’s Xizang autonomous region, was running on the vast expanses of Hoh Xil (known as Kekexili), a world-famous “no-man’s land.”

“Look! Tibetan antelopes!”

Upon hearing this sudden shout, passengers all rushed to the window, pulled out their phones and started taking photos of the animals in the distance.

In the cab, driver Li Yuqi quickly motioned to his apprentice, who was controlling the train, telling him to keep quiet.

Train whistles would definitely frighten the Tibetan antelopes and disrupt their migration, Li explained. As a train driver who has been working along the Qinghai-Xizang Railway for more than 30 years, Li, turning 57 this year, has almost become a wildlife expert.

As the world’s highest and longest plateau railroad, the Qinghai-Xizang Railway crosses three national nature reserves – the Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve, the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, and the Siling Lake National Nature Reserve, and various types of natural wetlands that stretch vast expanses. The primitive ecological environment along the railway is unique yet fragile.

Starting every May, Tibetan antelopes that inhabit the Sanjiangyuan region in Qinghai, Changtang in Xizang, and Altun Mountains, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, would migrate to the vicinity of Zhounai Lake, Taiyang Lake, and Hoh Xil Lake, located in the heartland of Hoh Xil, for propagation. After reproducing, they would return to their original habitats with their offspring. The migration route of Tibetan antelopes coincides with the Qinghai-Xizang Railway.

To protect the plateau ecosystem and biodiversity, a total of 1.54 billion yuan ($212.09 million) was invested in ecological conservation along the railway when its construction started. Besides, 33 dedicated passages were built to facilitate the migration of local wildlife.

“Minimizing the impact on the local ecological environment and the disturbance to wildlife has become a ‘golden rule’ of the Qinghai-Xizang Railway. Train conductors are strictly prohibited from sounding the horn when passing through the dedicated passages for wildlife migration, especially during the migration and calving seasons of Tibetan antelopes, ” said Li.

It is learned that all carriages of the passenger trains running on the Golmud-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Xizang Railway are fully enclosed. These carriages are not only equipped with oxygen generation and supply systems, but also feature waste collection systems. Any garbage produced by passengers during the journey is collected and then transferred to cleaning and sewage trucks for disposal. Additionally, multiple wastewater treatment facilities have been installed along the route. These measures are part of the ongoing effort to minimize the railway’s impact on the local ecosystem.

According to statistics, the utilization rate of the dedicated passages along the Qinghai-Xizang Railway has shown a steady increase, rising from 56.6 percent in 2004 to a consistent 100 percent since 2011.

The Qinghai-Xizang Highway is also making positive strides in biodiversity conservation. 

In a section of the National Highway 109 of the Qinghai-Xizang Highway, People’s Daily journalists encountered a herd of Tibetan antelopes ready to cross the road.

Directed by the staff of the Wudaoliang protection station of the Hoh Xil reserve administration, all approaching vehicles stopped at a distance, waiting patiently for the entire herd to cross the road and move far away before restarting their engines. The whole process was remarkably quiet.

“The Tibetan antelopes are currently at a peak of migration,” said Karma Yungphel, deputy head of the Wudaoliang protection station. “Besides our regular patrols, our main focus is ‘escorting’ the Tibetan antelopes during their migration and return.”

During the breeding and migration seasons of Tibetan antelopes, temporary traffic control, honking ban, and patrol-based rescue operations are implemented along the Qinghai-Xizang Highway to ensure safe migration.

The Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve is vast and mysterious. Along the Qinghai-Xizang Highway, there are five protection stations, each safeguarding the habitats of wild animals. 

Every month, staff from these stations conduct at least one large-scale mountain patrol, lasting from a week to over ten days.

“Most of our colleagues are at the Zhuonai Lake and Taiyang Lake these days, protecting the Tibetan antelopes during their calving season,” said Tserwon Dorje, a staff member of the Sonam Dargye protection station. “The rest of us are handling daily patrols and helping antelopes cross the Qinghai-Xizang Highway.”

According to Tserwon Dorje, the five stations have a total of over 50 staff members, with an average age under 30. “Life here may be monotonous, but it’s beyond our words to describe how we feel when we see Tibetan antelopes, wild yaks, and Tibetan foxes,” he said.

Apart from these five official protection stations, some local herders have taken the initiative to form Tibetan antelope conservation associations. These volunteers would follow the migrating herds from a distance, ensuring their safe passage across the Qinghai-Xizang Highway.

Last year, a 5G base station near the Zhuonai Lake became operational. This has allowed the staff of the protection stations to launch both 5G-enabled remote monitoring and on-site patrols, thus realizing real-time surveillance of the Tibetan antelopes.

Thanks to these collective efforts, the number of Tibetan antelopes in Hoh Xil has seen a remarkable rise, growing to over 70,000 today from less than 20,000 in the 1990s.



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