It is strange that the Amur-Heilong River is still unknown to the modern world, being one of the ten largest rivers on Earth. Even its name conveys mystique and legend from historic times. European world maps use the name Amur, whereas China uses the name Heilongjiang, or “Black Dragon”, for the same river. Russians believe the name “Black Dragon” has negative connotation related to its often unpredictable tendency to flood, but for Chinese the Black Dragon is an important and positive symbol, a “good critter”! In Russia, the name “Amur” is used only downstream from the confluence of the Shilka and Argun Rivers, after these main tributaries have covered about ¼ of the overall river length. From this confluence the Amur flows under its controversial name and unimpeded by dams several thousand kilometers to the Tatar Strait. Each of these two main tributary rivers has its own mystery. The northern source of the Amur, the Shilka River, starts from Sokhondo Ridge on the Great Continental Divide. From this one ridge, the rivers flow either northward to the Arctic Ocean through Lake Baikal, or eastward to the Sea of Japan. While the southern source, the Argun River, collects its flows from endless steppe of Genghis Khan’s motherland.
In fact, the Amur is the only river in Siberia which runs not from south to north, but from west to east. Thus it forms the natural border between the severe boreal taiga and broadleaf temperate forests. Moreover, the river basin delimits the northern border of forest-steppe and steppe ecosystems that support the unique migrations of Mongolian gazelle. The floodplains of the Amur and its tributaries create the belt of wetlands, without which the millions of migratory ducks and geese could not reach their breeding grounds on the tundra at the Arctic shores. And where else in the world can you one find the Kaluga sturgeon – the king of freshwater fish, reaching 1000 kg? Even today millions of salmons still rush upstream to spawning areas in mountainous tributaries through the un-dammed main river channel!
But if you study a satellite image of the transboundary ecosystem, you will see that the Russian side of the basin remains green with dense forests and expanses of grassland. In contrast, the China side is mostly fields and settlements. The human population in northeast China has redoubled during last three decades. Finally, the color of the steppe zone in the upper basin is scorched to yellow, indicating desertification caused by climate change and overuse by people and their livestock. This contrast represents both the threat and the challenge. How can we use some of the world’s successful examples to shift rapid development toward sustainability? How can we combine the experience of China, Mongolia and Russia to save nature and benefit people? The time has come. We must create a platform for international cooperation, to implement the Amur Green Belt as the system of protected areas linked by buffer zones and corridors, and to keep the Amur-Heilong as one of the world’s last free-flowing rivers! Mongolia, Russia and China can only solve the many problems facing the Amur-Heilong basin by working together and adopting an integrated river basin management approach.
Please, explore with us this enormous basin, its wonders, problems and help to find solutions.
Amur Branch WWF-Russia
China -Russia border along Ussury-Wusuli River near Bikin river mouth