AMUR-HEILONG RIVER BASIN

 

All chapters:

Introduction

Climate

Waters and water management

Ecosystems and ecoregions

Species diversity and use of biological resources

Nature conservation: econet and protected areas

Countries & cultures

Economy

Land use

International policy

Nature conservation: econet and protected areas
Hinggan Gorge –the Heart of Amur-Heilong
Related maps, pictures, links

The site where the Amur-Heilong River enters a narrow gorge as it flows through the Small Hinggan (Xiao Xing’anling) ridge is renowned as the most important corridor for fauna migration and most scenic stretch of the great river.  This is a bottleneck connecting Mongol-Daurian grasslands and the wetlands of the Upper Amur with the vast wetland plains and lowland forests of the middle reach.  Here Daurian grasslands converge with riverine meadows, and Siberian boreal forests converge with temperate broadleaf forests.  Both in geologic times and recent history this has been an important corridor linking forest ecosystem biodiversity of the larger portion of the Xiao Xing’anling ridge in China with the vast forests on the Amur-Heilong’s left bank.  On the Russian bank the broadleaf-coniferous Manchurian forest ecoregion covers several low mountain ranges (Malyi Khingan, Sutarsky, Pompeevsky) to converge with boreal forests of the Bureinsky Ridge 100 kilometers to the north-east.  The Amur-Heilong is itself an important divide where all characteristics of the upper river ecosystem undergo abrupt change.  Animals and plants of Manchurian, east-Siberian and Okhotsko-Kamchatka zonal complexes coexist here on opposing banks of the river. (See Map: Sattelite view and PAs of Small Hinggan transboundary area )
The area is known for outstanding plant and animal diversity and still contains large tracks of pristine forests, including mixed Korean pine and broadleaf forests.  The best preserved forest ecosystems on the Russia side are confined to basins of the Dichun and Pompeevka tributaries, while on the Chinese bank the best examples are found in the Jiayin River basin and adjacent watersheds.  The area supports large numbers of endangered and relic species of vascular plants and birds and mammals (scaly-sided Merganser, Asiatic black bear, Mandarin duck, Blakinston’s fish owl, osprey and others).  The narrow floodplain in the gorge has unique characteristics and is very vulnerable to human encroachment due to its small size and accessibility..  The area is a primary habitat for Asiatic Black Bear (probably the best in northeast China), and seasonal migration of bear, deer, wild pig and other wildlife across the Amur-Heilong River is a prominent feature of the ecosystem.  Some large mammals recently disappeared from the area: leopard was last taken here in 1936, goral was last recorded in the 1970s, Siberian Tiger last bred here in the 1990s, and reintroduction of these species is still possible.  Chum salmon still spawn in Pompeevka and other right bank tributaries which is presently,probably, the Amur-Heilong’s most remote salmon run from the Pacific Ocean.
The human population is sparse on both sides of the river and depends heavily on local biological resources (non-timber forest products, hunting, and fishing).  Major potential economic value of the region lies with its outstanding scenery and preserved nature.  Boat trips through Hinggan Gorges (also called Three Gorges of the  Dragon River in Chinese) with tours to both sides of the river could become a viable tourism feature with relatively light impact on the environment.  No major development has occurred in the area to date, but if agreement is reached on the Khingansky-Taipinggou Hydropower Dam , the ecosystem would be severely threatened and its integrity destroyed.  Studies in the 1990s showed that construction of this dam in the main channel of the Amur-Heilong would lead to a drastic ecological change throughout the whole basin and would affect sedimentation patterns, the hydrological regime, the area and distribution of wetlands, the migration of animals, and the abundance of fish. (fro detail see Joint Scheme for Amur and Argun  in water management section).

Local history and economy

Beginning in the 18th Century Hinggan Gorge was an important gold mining area, and many local Chinese families are descendants of those who came to mine gold.  In the 19th Century the gorge became an important travel route for steam-boats.  During these times, firewood was cut along the river’s banks but no large-scale forestry disturbed the region. Fisheries also became  big busines during the 19th century.  Sturgeon is still the symbol of the Luobei County  seat, and some towns in Jiayin County  were founded on the mouths of salmon rivers.  Russian and Chinese settlements in the region date back at least 100 years.  According to local lore, organized, large scale forestry in China riverbank was introduced by Japanese during the occupation prior to WWII, and immediately after that logging was widely practiced on the Russia side.  By 1965 a system of forest management based on maximum output of timber at all costs (following the Soviet "Lespromkhoz" or forest industry bureaus model) was firmly established on both sides of the river.  This corresponded with the abrupt decline and local extinction of the Siberian tiger.  Then Russia-China relations were frozen, and for the next 25 years there were no major changes except for the slow and steady depletion of the natural resource base.
In the Russia section of the Small Hinggan Mountains, stretching from the easternmost corner of Amurskaya Oblast (Arkhara District) to the Western part of Evreiskaya Autonomous Province (Jewish Autonomy:Obluchensky and Oktyabrsky Districts) the human population is very sparse and local economies are linked closely to Chinese markets.  A wide stretch of forests along the river has been closed for decades to visitors due to strict Soviet border policies.  Access was allowed only in selected settlements.  Amurzet ( center of Oktyabrsky district opposite to Mingshan) and Pashkovo (opposite to Jiayin) are two border trade points with intensive traffic of roundwood and other goods, and very limited traffic of tourists.  Other than a surprisingly successful livestock breeding enterprise in Radde village near Pashkovo, hardly anything economically important exists within this border area.  The inland zone is open to logging and mining and presently at least 40 percent of these activities are undertaken by Chinese companies and their affiliates, based in small towns on the opposite river bank.  Forests are managed by forest management units (leskhoz) and leased to Russian and Chinese logging companies.  There are also a small number of Russian professional hunting associations. each leasing large hunting plots.  In general, the intensity of land-use is fairly low, and any increase in economic activity is due mainly to Chinese companies from Heilongjiang Province in China.
On the China bank, the management of forests is fragmented between Heilongjiang Forest Department(Bureau) (HFD) represented locally by  the Luobei/Jiayin District Forestry Bureaus controlling the strip along the river bank, and Heilongjiang Forest Industry Department (HFID) represented by Hegang and Yichun District forest management bureaus controlling the larger forests further afield. Although clearcutting has been banned and the total volume of logging has declined, current logging practices still cause a steady decline in the most ecologically valuable stands, especially  Korean pine.  This results in loss of critical shelters for endangered wildlife.  Examples are the thick tree trunks necessary for bear dens or merganser nesting hollows.  Wildlife law enforcement  has a lot of room for improvement, and populations of deer, wild pig and other game animals are under considerable pressure from trapping, snaring and poisoning by local poachers.  Some populations of medicinal and edible plants are also largely depleted.
Locals find it increasingly difficult to find long-term employment, so they rely more on fishing, poaching, plant collection, and short-term employment opportunities.  Land suitable for planting crops is sparse and unproductive, and the growing season is short.  Human migration in and out of the area is more intensive than 10 years ago.  Many businessmen moved out, and the economically active segment of the population seeks to sell houses and migrate to areas closer to the Luobei County seat.  The population of the rural area along the river is about 2,000, with a population density less than one person/km2.  Income per capita in 2004 was less than 4,000 yuan ($500).
The population of the more distant mountains is governed by Forest Industry Groups and is concentrated in the logging bases near the Xiao Xing’an foothills.  Hebei, a settlement of 10,000 people with much smaller villages in the mountains, is a good example, and seems to have similar population density and dynamics.  Areas adjacent to the Hinggan Gorge in Jiayin County appear to be slightly more populated due to the greater availability of arable land in the wider river valleys.
The local economy and land management system is undergoing an abrupt transition from a heavy reliance on timber products and logging to a more diverse mix of forest products, secondary processing, the service industry, and government subsidies for natural forest conservation.  Divisions of the forestry district are leading economic innovation in areas adjacent to the river by developing bee-keeping, frog farming, processing of wood and NTFPs, and marketing edible plants and mushrooms.
In the past, gold-mining was a major local industry that resulted in the destruction of local river valley ecosystems on all tributaries..  These impacts are widely recognized by local government and public opinion.  Gold mining is banned in Luobei and all surrounding counties save for Jiayin County on the main channel of the Jiayin River.  During the early 2000s the mining bureau which previously operated in Luobei obtained gold mining rights on the Tulovchikha and Beresovaya Rivers in the Evreyskaya (Jewish) Autonomous Province.  It operates there using the same mining technology that demolished stream ecosystems of the right bank.  Mining companies enjoy strong support from the Hegang Prefecture Government, which uses special "sister" relations with the Jewish Autonomy to promote the expansion of mining operations in Russia.  The community of Amurzet, backed by conservation agencies and NGOs, strongly opposes such devastating use of resources, but has little capacity to stop mining.  Tensions are escalating over mining throughout the region.  Despite their short history of work on the Russian bank, two gold-mining companies have been the targets of numerous field inspections by government agencies, during which many violations were cited, fines were levied, and mining operations were stopped and re-started several times.  Rivers selected for placer mining still harbor small numbers of spawning salmon, and their basins are the most important breeding area for game pursued by local hunters.  These local tributaries are also probable nesting habitat of scaly-sided merganser, which will inevitably disappear if riparian vegetation and old-growth timber are lost.  Overall, ecological, economic, and social losses from gold mining far exceed the value of gold mined, and the small share of taxes that might trickle into local budgets.  However, gold mining conforms to the current mode of development, where Russian border communities cover their social expenses from tax money received from Chinese companies that exploit natural resources.  Despite negative experiences with its first two mining companies, in 2005 the Jewish Autonomy auctioned several new rivers for placer mining and in 2006 leased out a nearby deposit of manganese to Chinese developers. 
Steady depletion of forest resources and increasingly strict logging regulations in China have led to the establishment of an active trade in timber and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) across Mingshan-Amurzet and Jiayin-Pashkov border crossings).  Hebei forest industry bureau has formed special companies (Senhe, Longsen) to log in the Jewish Autonomous Province, and many small scale operators are trading medicinal and edible plants, frogs, and pine nuts across the border.
Tourism development pursued by Luobei and Jiayin Counties also emphasizes advantages of international travel from Harbin to Russia's Jewish Autonomy and Khabarovsky Province.  However, the greatest opportunities lie with the development of nature tourism by boat through beautiful Hinggan Gorge from Mingshan to Jiayin and back, with the village of Taipinggou between them being a stop-over site with a rich history dating back 300 years.
Jiayin County, where depletion of natural resources is more evident, already officially positions itself as a "nature tourism area" and participates in relevant nation-wide eco-development programs.  To catch up, the Luobei County Government tasked its Forest Bureau to develop multifaceted programs that target forestry and tourism opportunities.  Mingshan Island, complete with relic groves of Manchurian nut and a Buddhist temple, became a tourist theme park and harbor for boats.  An agreement was reached with the Jiayin government upstream on the joint development of tourist routes through the Gorge.  Several tourist attractions were built in Taipinggou, including a Taoist Temple of Eight Saints, the Palace of QiXi Empress, and a Gold Mining Museum. 
In January 2005 the old Taipinggou Forestry Unit office burned to ashes.  This was immediately followed by an investment of more than 3,000,000 Yuan to build a new three story building accommodating a new office and a hotel, and additional investment is being made for the improvement of roads, building a pier, and other facilities.  The estimated budget is about $800,000.  Such investment could be interpreted as a choice made by the local government between a dam development scenario and a more sustainable development scenario, since most of the recent investment would be submerged if the dam were to be built.  Altogether this new development project could soon develop fairly useful infrastructure for domestic Chinese tourists traveling to and across the border, for Russian tourists traveling to China, and for various international nature tourists. 
However, two factors work against making Taipinggou an international eco-tourism destination.  First, many other border towns are pursuing similar development strategies creating tremendous competition for customers.  Second, and more important, Hinggan Gorge remains far from becoming a famous nature tourism brand name.  Its tremendous natural and scenic values are poorly known in the world and even in China and Russia. 

Conservation efforts

In this part of the Amur-Heilong basin, the Manchurian coniferous-broadleaf mixed forest ecoregion is unevenly divided with the greater area in the Xiaoxing’an Mountains of China (approximately three million hectares of moderately fragmented forest), and the smaller area in the Malyi Khingan and adjacent mountains of Russia (up to 1.5 million hectares with much less fragmentation).  Conservation of the Hinggan Gorge ecosystem can be achieved only by concerted effort of Russia and China because key habitats for viable populations of endangered wildlife are divided by the national border and because the exploitation of forest resources and local economic development is already transboundary.We might speculate that local extinctions of tiger, leopard and some other large mammals were in part due to limited habitat remaining on each side.
Protected areas in the Russian part of the Small Hinggan Mountains have a long history and all lie in the immediate vicinity of Hinggan Gorge (within 100 km).  Data on Russian protected areas are summarized in Table below.

Table. Summary of protected areas in the Russian Federation near Hinggan Gorge*


Protected
area

Year
gazetted

Area
(ha)

Protected ecosystem/feature

Important
species

Khingansky Zapovednik (Strict scientific national nature reserve, Ramsar site)

1963

97,231

Floodplain wetlands and grasslands, Broadleaf-coniferous forests.

Red-crowned and White-naped Cranes, Oriental Stork, Red deer, Black and Brown Bear, Lynx

Khinggano-Arkharinsky Zakaznik (national wildlife refuge)

1958

48,800

Broadleaf-coniferous forests, Mountain larch forests.

Korean pine old growth; Red deer, Black and Brown Bear, Lynx, Moose

Dichun forest reserve (provincial)

1998

49,400

Broadleaf-coniferous forests, salmon river watershed

Korean pine old growth; Red deer, Black and Brown Bear, Lynx

Zhuralviny provincial  zakaznik (Crane reserve )

1992

50,000

Floodplain wetlands and grasslands, Broadleaf-coniferous forests.

Japanese and white-naped cranes, Oriental white stork, Red deer, Black and Brown Bear, Lynx

Mandzhurka nature monument

2003

23

Floodplain lakes

Rare water plants and rare orchids, steppe vegetation

Bear Cliff nature provincial monument

2000

140

Rock ecosystem

Great owl, wild pigeon, rare plants

Fillipova Mountain – provincial nature monument

1999

160

Daurian steppe community

Feathergrass, orchids, other steppe species

2 protected caves – local nature monuments

1979

n/a

cave communities

bats

3 mineral springs – local nature monuments

1979

>5,000

n/a

n/a

 

All these protected areas are gazetted, but only some are regularly patrolled by rangers.  Only two have field management units .
In addition to these areas, one should note that the left bank of the Amur-Heilong River is strictly protected by Soviet frontier guards, and only limited access is allowed into a five to 20 kilometer-wide “border zone.”  As a result, a large belt of relatively intact habitat has survived on the Russian side of the river.  However, this form of protection has been weakening over the last decades and now abundant natural resources of the area are under pressure from border guards and their “invited guests.”
In 2003-2004 a "water protection zone" was planned along the Amur-Heilong left bank in the Jewish Autonomous Province, and results of this planning could be used for future ecosystem conservation efforts.
Since the early 1990s there have been numerous proposals for the establishment of a National Park on one or both sides of the river.  These initiatives have not progressed because the valley as a whole has yet to be properly surveyed for its conservation values as a precursor to delineating prospective protected areas.

In 2003, WWF-RFE commissioned a study of the protected area system for the purposes of forming an ecological network in the Jewish Autonomous Province.  Results were incorporated in the provincial planning documents.  As a consequence of that study, in 2004, the Jewish Autonomous Province started planning a national nature reserve in the Pompeevka and Starikova River valleys adjacent to Dichun Nature Reserve.  The objective was to establish more effective protection of a broadleaf-coniferous forest ecosystem and a salmon river.  The current plan is to subordinate the new nature reserve or the entire left-bank nature reserve network to one of the existing zapovedniks (strict scientific national nature reserves).( So far these efforts have not fully succeeded, since PA establishment would limit ability of local district authorities to make money from leasing out various local resources (forest, gold, hunting grounds, etc.)On the China bank, conservation efforts started in the more developed local forest industry bureaus of Yichun Forest Industry Group that occupies large areas in the Xing’an Mountains north and west of Jiayin River.  Thus in 2002 the neighboring Xin Qing Forest Industry Bureau, that occupies the headwaters of Tangwang, Jiayin, and Wulaga Rivers supported gazettal of the provincial Xin Qing Moose Reserve on 68,000 ha in the Wulaga River watershed.  In 2006, nesting of hooded crane (Grus monacha) was discovered by Dr. Guo Yumin of Capital Teacher's University. In 2006 the Xin Qing NR reserve was in the redesign process looking to incorporate crane conservation and pursue upgrading to national level.      Further from the gorge and in the mountains, Wuying is the largest forest NNR, with total area over 100,000 ha of the best Korean Pine groves in China, and nearly every local forest industry bureau already has at least one provincial level nature reserve. By 2003 a National Forest Park "Three Gorges of Dragon River” was established along the riverbank in Luobei County to promote tourism development, but it did not have a major influence on current patterns of resource exploitation.  Another National Forest Park of 11,000 hectares was established in 2005 in the Lianying forestry unit of the Hebei Forest Industry Group with a similar purpose.  This park includes one of best preserved Korean pine stands in the region, since for many years it was protected from large-scale logging as a pine-nut production zone.
Under the Sino-Russian Agreement on Fisheries and Amur-Ussuri International Fishing Rules, a system of protected sections of the river was declared with permanent and/or seasonal restrictions on fishing.  One of these sections lies in Luobei County and is primarily intended for protection of the northernmost large spawning area of Amur and Kaluga Sturgeons.  Whether this regulation is presently enforced is unclear.
In 2004 the Heilongjiang Provincial government with support from WWF began planning Taipinggou Provincial Nature Reserve in Taipinggou and Jingmantun forestry units of Luobei Forestry Bureau.  The target year for gazettal was 2006 with an area of 22,000 hectares, primarily in forests along the river that already have some degree of protection.  This area was intensively logged 40-50 years ago and has many hectares of naturally recovering young broadleaf-coniferous forests.  The site is known for its abundance of black bears and other charismatic megafauna. High density of animals observed in Taipinggou area is likely due to its role as a migration corridor   between  Dichun and Pompeevka on Amur left bank and rich forest ecosystem higher in the mountains that is  managed by Hebei Forest Industry Bureau.
There is an explicit understanding between WWF and the Heilongjiang Forest Bureau that a future step toward more comprehensive conservation would include enlarging and upgrading the network of protected areas and developing an internationally recognized conservation area in Hinggan Gorge.  A similar understanding is shared by WWF and national conservation agencies of the Russian Federation, although these steps are not yet written into national conservation plans or work plans under international agreements.
During the Heilongjiang Forest Industry Bureau reform in 2004, the Hebei Forest Industry Group was divided into the Forest Industry Group (enterprise) and the Department of Natural Resources DNR (quazi-government agency).  The DNR includes a Wildlife Protection Division, a new institution that needs guidance and support for developing an appropriate framework and capacity for its wildlife conservation work.
According to the 2005-2010 plan for nature reserve development, the Heilongjiang government plans to establish only one more nature reserve in Jiayin District.  This would be on the Amur-Heilong River bank across from Khinggansky Nature Reserve, reportedly to protect the floodplain wetlands.  However, this plan does not take into consideration lands managed by the Heilongjiang Forest Industry Bureau, which make up more than 70 percent of the area in question (Hejiang and Yichun Forest Industry Sub-bureaus within 100 kilometer vicinity of the Hinggan Gorge).  The Forest Industry Bureau manages much richer forests that are more threatened by current logging operations.

Hinggan gorge -tasks ahead

The objective for future work in this area is to safeguard this most threatened reach of the Amur-Heilong valley by promoting ecosystem conservation and sustainable development, and improving global recognition of resource and site values.
An international ecological network of protected areas, or an international conservation area in Hinggan Gorge, must be designed and established to ensure long-term conservation of the Small Hinggan Forest Ecosystem. First of all this means that just adding to the list of already existing PAs under fragmented management is unlikely to be the best way to proceed further. Larger-scale conservation planning for transboundary Small Hinggan ecosystem is needed, that explicitly takes into account role of various protection measures in ensuring connectivity and viability within larger remnant mixed-broadleaf forest ecosystem. Special attention should be paid to migration patterns of large mammal populations and long-term availability of breeding areas for endangered species. Critical link between forest tracks adjacent to riverbanks and those up in the mountains should be explored and addressed in this design. Future management, if not fully unified, should be still guided by commonly designed scheme for conservation of entire landscape, rather than on partial objectives related to particular small sites.

To improve protection of endangered flora and fauna (brown bear, scaly-sided merganser, Korean pine,  salmon) technical and financial assistance should be provided to local governments and forest industry bureaus for upgrading management and enforcement capacities.
Effective conservation is impossible without introducing more sustainable approaches to natural resource  utilization and cross-border commerce (including tourism).  Placer-mining should be banned on the left bank of Amur, as it is already banned in China, and replaced by more sustainable land-uses.  The local Russian population should be trained to use beneficial economic cooperation opportunities, and to rely less on rent from exploitation and export of nature resources by Chinese companies.  Protected areas will not do the job and largely will remain on paper, unless right incentives are created to improve local resource-use policies and practices in Small Hingan transboundary area. Although there are many important specific aspects to be improved, the overarching objective is to put ecologically sustainable development sufficiently high on local agenda of transboundary cooperation. Replacing transboundary gold mining with international tourism is an example of change that should be achieved.
Hinggan Gorge is virtually unknown and it is important to promote values of the site nationally and internationally by means of mass-media, organizing high-profile events and campaigns, supporting world-class eco-tourism program, promoting site to international nominations, making Hinggan Gorge a world-renowned conservation site.  The importance of these activities encompasses more than conservation and development in Hinggan Gorge.  It serves the broader goal of promoting the shared conservation value of the Amur-Heilong River by using the most accessible and spectaclular reach as a symbol of conservation objectives that China and Russia can pursue together.  Given the highest importance of the area both for conservation of freshwater ecosystems and broadleaf-coniferous forests, the site can be used as a representative for promotion of all important values to be protected in the Amur-Heilong basin.

Maps:

Small Hinggan transboundary area (Manchurian forests ecoregion)

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

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

 

Photo:

Small Hinggan

Three gorges of the Dragon river

Protected areas in Russia

Protected areas in China

Protected areas in Mongolia

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

Changbaishan

Daurian steppe

Song-Nen plain

Amur meadows and wetlands – Amur midflow

Khanka Lake and Upper Ussury Wetlands

Lower Amur Wetlands

 

GIS: Ecological network

 

Tourist boat at Taipinggou village (Photo by E.Simonov)

 

Black bear legally protected in China and hunted in Russia (Photo by D.Kuchma)

 

Roe deer crossing the river (Photo by V.Solkin)

 

Pine nut collectors camp at Taipinggou (Photo by E.Simonov)

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 )

Ecological Network for Amur: The Amur-Heilong Green Belt Concept

 

Model areas for transboundary conservation:

Dauria international Protected Area-DIPA

Middle Amur –Sanjiang wetlands

Khanka –Ussury wetlands and forests

Land of the Leopard

 

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