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New railway line threatens Tibetan Plateau


30 Jun 2006, Beijing, China – With the opening of a new railway line through the Tibetan Plateau, and the increased number of travellers who will visit the area as a result of it, WWF and TRAFFIC are calling for conservation measures to protect the world’s largest and highest plateau.

Billed as the highest railway in the world, the Qinghai-Tibet line will run over 1,000km from central China to the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. Environmental groups, including WWF, are concerned that the railway will threaten fragile ecosystems.

With an average elevation of 4,000m and covering an area of 2.5 million km2, the Tibetan Plateau shelters a wide array of unique species, including the Tibetan antelope, Tibetan gazelle, wild yak, blue sheep, snow leopard, brown bear, Bengal tiger and black-necked crane. The plateau is also the source of almost all of Asia’s major rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong and Indus.

“Because of its high elevation, the ecosystem here is extremely fragile,” said Dawa Tsering, Head of WWF China’s Program Office in Lhasa.

“Once damaged, it is extremely difficult to reverse. Integrating the needs of local development with conserving Tibet’s biodiversity is in need of urgent attention.”

With the completion of the new line scheduled for 1 July, WWF and TRAFFIC plan on distributing brochures to train passengers and visitors to the region (in English and Chinese), asking them to refrain from buying products made from such endangered species as tigers and Tibetan antelopes.

“The sale of souvenirs and other products made from endangered species is growing due to tourist consumption, and is increasing pressure on local biodiversity,” Tsering added.

“Tourists can make a difference simply by not purchasing these products.”

The Tibetan Plateau remained fairly “untouched” by travellers from outside the region before the 1980s, when tourism first began. In 1980, visitors numbered 1,059, of which 95 per cent came from abroad. However, the past few years have seen a surging increase of tourists, numbering 140,000 in 2002 and 1.22 million in 2004,. This represents an increase of over 1,000 times the 1980 level. At present, 92 per cent are domestic tourists.

“International and local laws have guaranteed that killing wild tigers and other protected species for their parts isn’t legal anywhere in the world,” added Dr Xu Hongfa from TRAFFIC’s China Programme.

”But the killing of these animals will continue until the demand for buying them stops.”

• WWF China’s Tibet Programme office in Lhasa was set up in 2001 to strengthen conservation activities in the region. The office has played an effective and active role in capacity building for reserve staff and reserve management planning, undertaking biodiversity research, raising awareness of conservation issues among local communities and developing wildlife monitoring and patrolling stations to halt poaching.

• The WWF-TRAFFIC conservation brochure was published in collaboration with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, the Tibetan Autonomous Region Forestry Bureau, and the Endangered Species Import & Export Management Office of China.

• TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, is a joint programme of WWF and IUCN-the World Conservation Union.


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