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Nature conservation: econet and protected areas
Ecological Network Development : The Amur-Heilong Green Belt
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i. What is an ecological network?

An ecological network is a network of natural and impacted areas that are connected functionally and spatially and are subject to special conservation regulations designed to fulfill the following key functions:
-long-term in-situ conservation of biological diversity;
-sustaining ecological balance and ecosystem processes in large areas;
-conservation and regeneration of a variety of useable biological resources (including genetic resources);
-provision of essential ecosystem services at different spatial scales;
-minimization of natural ecosystem fragmentation;
-promotion of sustainable use of biological resources/ecosystem services and just distribution and sharing of  benefits coming from it;
-preservation and dissemination of indigenous knowledge, practices and culture; and
ensuring compatibility and preventing conflicts between  socio-economic development (plans and policies) and long-term biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of biological resources.

An ecological network also:

-includes representative species, ecosystems, and natural processes;
-fulfills key ecological functions;
-considers spatial and functional interconnections that allow species populations and natural processes to persist;
-is designed to ensure long-term viability, taking into account climate change and other anticipated human and natural impacts;
-embraces management policies that are compatible with socio-economic infrastructure and land-use patterns of the region;
-includes various stakeholder groups during the design and implementation phase;
-is designed with financial sustainability principles. 


ii.The Benefits from an ECONET Approach in the Amur-Heilong River Basin

An ecological network is needed in the basin to establish the largest scale possible for protected areas but also to link biodiversity conservation with economic development and policy planning.  Considering the role of such a transboundary network of protected areas in the context of regional development has several significant benefits:

=The values of the shared transboundary ecosystem would finally receive proper recognition and their conservation would be subject to cooperative, transboundary management;
=Large expanses of globally important habitats would receive consistent protection across borders;
=China would ensure greater influx of threatened wildlife species from similar ecosystems in Russia, without which long-term survival of many species in more fragmented and pressured ecosystems of rural China is doubtful;
=Russia and Mongolia would add a strong conservation component to their border policies;
=Russia, Mongolia and China would establish a “green buffer” zone that would prevent most and mitigate other environmentally damaging activities, thereby reducing mutual recrimination over harmful land-use practices;
=Better control over poaching and other illegal activities would ensure greater abundance of wildlife in border areas;
=Protection of fish habitat would create preconditions for re-establishment of harvestable stocks of economically valuable fishes, and the basin would recover its former fame and economic importance as a “River of Caviar”;
=Joint activities in organizing eco-tourism in world-class natural landscapes (Amur-Heilong and Ussuri-Wusuli valleys, Xingkaihu-Khanka lakeshores, Daurian Steppe) would bring multiple benefits to local communities;
=Additional control would be exercised over smuggling, including traffic of timber and other biological resources;
=Border protection authorities would receive greater attention of government and society, their budgets would increase and their agencies would become more accountable after being assigned additional responsibilities for nature conservation.
=The ecological network would encourage development of productive relationships between provincial governments, conservation agencies, research communities, and NGOs of neighboring countries, while building common awareness of a wide spectrum of environmental issues, thereby preparing grounds for even more beneficial cooperation in environmental protection.
=Capacity and professional performance of conservation and nature resource management agencies will improve in the course of international cooperation


iii. Amur-Heilong Green Belt

The idea of an ecological network for the Amur-Heilong exists – it is called the Amur-Heilong Green Belt – and it aims to protect priority wetlands, grasslands, and forest habitats throughout the basin but focuses on ecosystems along international borders.

In contrast to other issues affecting the transboundary environment, such as pollution or dam building, cooperation to develop a trans-boundary protected area network is promising and should be more fluid because it is largely unaffected by controversy.  All basin countries recognize the value of biodiversity and have recently made significant contributions to its protection.  At high political levels basin countries have signed key conventions and agreements to achieve nature conservation and restoration.  These provide a solid foundation for sustainable management of the basin as a whole through transboundary protected area cooperation.

To date, the Green Belt approach to transboundary cooperation on PAs networks has been implemented using three approaches:

1. bilateral agreements for biodiversity conservation and nature protection:  these are often paper agreements that achieve little of the original intent;
2. multi-lateral agreements for international PAs:  These have been partly successful at the bi-lateral Xingkai-Khanka Lake on the Heilongjiang-Primorsky border (Russia and China) and the tri-lateral Dauria International Protected Area (DIPA) on the Mongolia-Chita-Inner Mongolia border (involving all three basin countries);
3. international funding for the establishment or management of international PAs:  Examples are WWF and GEF’s funding at Dauria and Xingkai-Khanka reserves, WCS and WWF funding at Hunchun and at China’s Wandashan Range, and the Crane Site Network supported in part by Wetlands International and the Wild Bird Society of Japan. 

Moving forward, the Amur-Heilong Green Belt must take this initial progress on transboundary protected area cooperation and begin to focus on:
a)developing a consensus-driven transboundary ecological network of protected areas based on supporting legislation and policies at international, national, and provincial levels;
b)developing the institutional capacity within individual protected areas and among system-wide staff to work cooperatively on ecological network establishment in river basin provinces;
c)developing and gaining official recognition for a Amur-Heilong basin-wide and scientifically valid management plan for the ecological network;
d)stimulating institutional support for the establishment of new PAs to fill gaps in habitat representation and species needs and creating essential links between existing PAs;
e)developing and implementing management plans for model transboundary areas with a focus on strengthening institutional, technical, and management capacities across national boundaries and building public support and participation mechanisms;
f)supporting policies integrating ecological networks into socio-economic development and designing mechanisms to achieve long-term social, financial, political sustainability of the protected areas;
g)developing effective communication tools to promote ecological networks to target groups (local communities, municipal authorities, provincial agencies, national governments, international donors, among others) that demonstrate the ecological value and economic viability of these protected landscapes;
h)developing a common understanding of regional biodiversity, land-use, and institutional capacity to use and improve this database in planning and management processes.


iv. Tasks ahead:

Several steps need to be taken in order to transform the idea of the Amur-Heilong Greenbelt Ecological Network into reality:

1. Existing international agreements must be improved,
2. Data must be collected jointly and shared openly,
3. The existing network of protected areas must be reassessed,
4. Protected areas must be resilient in the face of a changing climate,
5. Collaboration must take place in the Amur-Heilong network of protected areas,
6. The Ramsar Convention must be used in a regional context.

Several steps need to be taken in order to transform the idea of the Amur-Heilong Greenbelt Ecological Network into reality.


1. Existing international agreements must be improved to allow for better transboundary cooperation

Improvement in the framework of bilateral and multilateral agreements would be the first step in securing a transboundary ecological network.  Even limited additions to existing agreements and implementation mechanisms would make a world of difference.  The following simple scenario describes a scenario for modifying such an existing agreement to allow for the unimpeded planning and establishment of an ecological network throughout the basin. 

The Upper Amur-Heilong River basin already has the makings for a full-scale transboundary Ecological network by amending the trilateral agreement on the Dauria International Protected Area (DIPA) to cover the entire Daurian Global 200 Eco-region.  The agreement was already agreed to in principle in March 2006 (see case study on DIPA), and represents a solid framework for developing a conservation plan for the entire area west of the main ridge of the Greater Hinggan Mountains.  If implemented, the plan would simultaneously cover all ecological network development issues between China and Mongolia, and between Mongolia and Russia within the western part of the Amur-Heilong Basin and its immediate vicinity.

Russia-China relationships in transboundary conservation issues need to be strengthened by an additional bi-lateral agreement on transboundary ecosystem conservation that focuses on protected area planning and management, wildlife habitat management, and wetland conservation in the common border area of the Amur-Heilong basin.  The State Environmental Protection Agency  and State Forestry Agency  of China and the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia are the most appropriate coordinating agencies for reaching such an agreement.  Activities supported under such an agreement must include the establishment of joint research and monitoring programs, the coordinated planning of PAs, joint training and exchanges of PA staff and relevant agencies, and the development of joint databases and information centers.  The agreement must also address issues such as enforcement of wildlife conservation laws in transboundary areas and harmonization of nature-resource use policies along the border.

The Sino-Russian interagency Sub-Commission on Environmental Cooperation formed in 2006 has already establish Biodiversity and Transboundary Protected Areas working group (task force) in 2007 and has included planning of transboundary network of protected areas and transboundary wetland conservation strategy into its workplan.


2.  Data must be collected jointly and shared openly

High conservation value forests (HCVFs), natural grasslands, important wetland, and riparian areas must be mapped and prioritized for protection throughout the tri-national region.  Such assessments (for HCVFs and other high-value habitats) must identify, map, and characterize key habitats for important species.  For example, characterization and identification of critical spawning, rearing, and migration habitats for migratory fish need special attention.  Population studies should be undertaken for all species of special concern.  For instance, accurate estimates of important fish stocks and the impact of fisheries (including illegal catch) should help guide scientifically-based management decisions for quotas and other harvest limits.

Specific data exchanges on wide ranging mammal species like Mongolian gazelle and migratory bird species must receive specific attention from the three basin countries.  And, across all species assemblages, their needs to be standardized methodologies for data collection.  Some important progress has been made on this front where transboundary tiger monitoring in Russia and China is concerned.

Even incompatible national listings of endangered species cause confusion due to incomplete transboundary information.  For instance, Russia still lists as critically endangered a good number of aquatic species considered staple food items by people in neighboring China even though such species are caught in the same waters.  The harmonization of data would also benefit the conservation of species by emphasizing trade restrictions on species common in Russia but already on the brink of disappearance from the opposite river bank in China.


3.The existing network of protected areas must be reassessed

The establishment of PAs provides a legal basis for conservation actions that are not achievable by other means.  However, the effectiveness of protection depends on many legal, social, and institutional factors, the most important of which have been discussed above.  Although the extent of PA coverage of the basin as a whole is impressive, important questions remain:

What types and areas of priority ecosystems and which globally threatened species are protected within the PAs?
How much of the protected acreage has been or is now degraded by human influence and what does this mean for biodiversity conservation in future?
What level of protection is legally afforded each type of PA in each country?
How many of these PAs (especially regional and local PAs) have no funding, infrastructure, personnel, or management?
Which parts of the total protected acreage are managed for biodiversity conservation by capable management units?
What is the mode of PA management in each country and what are the consequences for biodiversity values?
Are PAs actually protecting biological resources?

While for individual countries we can qualitatively answer most of these questions, we cannot yet draw a basin-wide picture showing how transboundary ecosystem conservation is served by the existing PAs.  The planning alone involved in the creation of a tri-national ecological network would inspire much needed quantitative data.


4.Protected areas must be resilient in the face of a changing climate

Anticipated effects of climate change should be taken into consideration in any design of PAs or corridors.  WWF-RFE has already encountered this problem in ecological network planning.  A preliminary assessment carried out by the Environment Research Center of the University of Durham (May 1998) showed that under the most probable scenarios of global warming the effectiveness of the existing and planned PAs could decline substantially because of habitat fragmentation due to the northward progression of warmer winter temperatures.  The following list of possible consequences of climate change should be incorporated into planning for ecological network design:

Potential changes in species distribution and migration should be taken into account when planning borders of future PAs.  In some cases additional temporary elements such as buffer zones should be established to accommodate uncertainties associated with different climate change scenarios and their effects on biota.
Possible unavoidable deterioration of biodiversity values in some existing PAs should be taken into account and sufficient compensatory replacement for them envisioned in planning.
PA management might be increasingly affected by wildfires as farming in China progressively expands northward into Russia.
Carbon sequestration might become an important conservation option with respect to emission reduction units under the Kyoto protocol.  Transfer or trade of carbon units may be an additional source of funding for PAs.  This opportunity should be studied in detail to raise the profile of conservation while raising funding.


5.Collaboration must take place in the Amur-Heilong network of protected areas

By 2006 there were nearly 40 large Russian PAs of national and provincial status established along the Chinese and Mongolian borders.  In China the number and acreage of comparable PAs is the same.  In Mongolia, 12 PAs have been established in transboundary ecoregions.  In many cases, political borders cross natural ecosystems or migrating wildlife cross political borders.  Ecosystem processes such as periodic floods shape habitats on both banks of boundary rivers and their disruption on one side affects both banks.  Often populations of endangered species occupy both sides of a border zone and threats and impacts are similar and often interdependent on both sides.  For all these reasons the management of these PAs would greatly benefit from transboundary cooperation.  This was acknowledged early in modern relationships of Amur-Heilong basin countries.

In addition to the cooperative activities already undertaken at  the transboundary and international NRs, there is a need for increased communication and networking between nature reserve professionals in the Amur-Heilong River basin that includes not only cooperation with one immediately adjacent sister-reserve, but access to region-wide expertise and related resources.

Such Green Belt network may organize many essential activities and processes to strengthen many Pas at once and facilitate most useful ties:
workshops to discuss common management issues;
personnel exchanges to transfer and develop technologies;
field training courses using best management practices or recent advances in research;
joint research projects on species and ecosystems of common concern
joint public communication and community outreach programs;
environmentally benign economic activities at model sites, including tourism;
joint projects on reserve management at sister-reserves (e.g. Xingkai/Khanka, Sanjiang/Bolshekhekzirsky/ Zabelovsky);
transfer of good policies and standardizing policies and practices along borders;
enhancement of conservation law enforcement in transboundary areas;
cooperative regional land-use planning and local land use planning in model transboundary wetlands
joint programs for expansion or establishment of new NRs and transboundary networks;
transboundary conservation management planning at 2-3 model wetlands or forests; and
transboundary assessment of threats and species or habitat recovery.

Table lists selected NRs in transboundary ecoregions and outlines prospects for future transboundary cooperation.  Activities required to make these initiatives more effective include:


6. The Ramsar Convention must be used in a regional context

A sixth step toward the development of a regional system of PAs involves a more effective use of the Ramsar Convention Bureau’s Regional Initiative Program.  This is ideally suited to the Amur-Heilong basin because all three basin countries are signatories to the Ramsar Convention.

All 12 of the basin's Ramsar wetlands are connected hydrologically or, alternatively, by the movement or migration of wildlife.  Protection of these wetlands, therefore, could be enhanced by a coordinated effort under the Ramsar Convention.  The current approach of Ramsar, which lists wetlands on a site-by-site basis, could well be supplemented and improved by a corridor approach that would list wetlands along rivers and borders such as the Wusuli-Ussuri floodplain or Argun-Erguna Midflow floodplain.  Because of the immediate threats from economic development it is critical to hasten Ramsar listing of wetlands that are essential parts of the transboundary ecological network and coordinate planning and management on both sides in transboundary river valleys.

Table "Major Wetland Regions of AHRB" lists examples of Ramsar Wetlands and wetlands meeting Ramsar criteria, emphasizing their current status and the need for transboundary conservation when appropriate.  From the regional wetland clusters presented in Table, only two would be effectively protected in the absence of strong transboundary cooperation.  The existing 12 Ramsar sites cover just 15 percent of important wetland areas that meet the Ramsar Convention criteria.  Except for Daurian Steppe and Khanka-Xingkai Lake, all other sites have no international management arrangements.  This discrepancy obviously calls for more systematic, basin-wide wetland assessments and application of Ramsar conservation tools.  The Ramsar Convention also provides a strong framework for developing an ecological network because it emphasizes integrated management of all types of habitats in important river basins.

An appropriate implementation model is the Ramsar Mediterranean Initiative in which 11 countries participate to conserve wetland habitats and biodiversity in the Mediterranean region.  An advantage of the Ramsar regional initiative program is that the initiative establishes a secretariat, which serves as an implementation office and a clearinghouse for project funding and regional activities.

A Ramsar Amur-Heilong regional initiative would help catalyze a basin wide ecological network by helping:
-identify and fill information gaps;
-establish archives of Amur-Heilong River basin information;
-enhance institutional capacity to implement policy, legislation and regulations at all levels;
-establish new PAs to fill conservation gaps and link ecoregions;
-enhance institutional capacity to work cooperatively on nature conservation;
-develop and gain official recognition for a scientifically valid strategic conservation plan;
-develop and implement model transboundary interventions to strengthen institutional, technical and management capacities and build public support and participation;
-support policies integrating conservation into socio-economic development
-achieve ecological, social, financial, political sustainability; and
-develop communication tools to promote ecological networks.

The greatest value of the Ramsar Convention initiative with respect to the Green Belt concept is that the Convention covers important habitats and natural processes not only by means of establishing traditional PAs.  Rather, all land-use policy issues would receive systematic attention within the realm of ecological network development.  Spatial planning, land-use policies for forested watersheds, water utilization and water infrastructure policies, fisheries and game management are all subject to close analysis and evaluation when it comes to protection of freshwater ecosystem of a large river basin. 


Protected areas of Eurasia

Protected areas and human footprint

Protected areas of Amur-Heilong (all)

Major protected areas of Amur-Heilong

Vegetation map

Terrrestrial ecoregions

Global 200 Ecoregions

Freshwater ecoregions

Upper Ussury –Lake Khanka.

Khanka Lake international nature reserve

Small Hinggan transboundary area (Manchurian forests ecoregion)

Dauria Steppe Global 200 ecoregion

Detailed hydrography of Amur River basin

Wetlands of Amur

Human footprint and ecoregions of Amur

Threats to biodiversity in Southern Russian Far East



Protected areas in Russia

Protected areas in China

Protected areas in Mongolia

Three gorges of the dragon river

Introductory tour of Amur basin

Way to the Ocean.Okhotsk - Manchurian Taiga

Da Hinggan - Dzhagdy forest ecoregion in Russia

Stanovoi Range: taiga and tundra

Ussury forests

Small Hinggan


Daurian steppe

Song-Nen plain

Amur meadows and wetlands – Amur midflow

Khanka Lake and Upper Ussury Wetlands

Lower Amur Wetlands


GIS: Ecological network


Transboundary wetlands and steppe of Dauria. Argun/Erguna River Valley. (Photo by Oleg Goroshko)

Also look:

Protected areas in Amur-Heilong River basin:

Protected areas coverage in Amur River Basin

Protected areas types in Russia, Mongolia, China

Russian protected areas

Mongolian protected areas

China nature reserves

Protected areas planning

Cooperation between nature reserves


Econet-ecological networks:

WWF Vision for Amur-Heilong Conservation

Conservation along the border

Wetland conservation

Grassland conservation and migratory wildlife

Selected Amur-Heilong protected areass and proposed fields of cooperation (Table)

Major wetland regions of the Amur-Heilong River basin ( Table )


Model areas for transboundary conservation:

Dauria international Protected Area-DIPA

Middle Amur –Sanjiang wetlands

Khanka –Ussury wetlands and forests

Small Hinggan Mountains-Three Gorges of Dragon River

Land of the Leopard


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