Sanya increases efforts to restore "forests at sea"

China Plus Published: 2019-09-10 15:27:15
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The Sanya River mangrove reserve sits in the urban center of Sanya against a backdrop of high-rise buildings. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

The Sanya River mangrove reserve sits in the urban center of Sanya against a backdrop of high-rise buildings. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Written by Yin Xiuqi, narrated by Wu Jia.

We are now taking a tour of the Sanya River to see mangrove trees close-up on both banks of the southward river running through the city center.

As we travel along the waterway, lush mangrove thickets are eye-catching and shining after the Sun comes out following a whole morning's downpour.

The trees, like two huge green belts, stretch along the river banks against a backdrop of high-rise buildings in the city.

Tao Lieping, head of the Sanya Wildlife Protection Center, says local people began to plant the trees along the river in the 1980s to prevent the erosion of the river banks.

After decades of planting and development, the area covered by the trees along the river banks amounts to about 50 hectares, including both the naturally grown mangroves and those planted by people.

Since 1992, the larger mangrove nature reserve along the river has been put under city-level protection according to the Sanya Wildlife Protection Center.

Tao Lieping takes pride in the fact that the reserve is in the city center, making it unique:

"Why is it attractive? Because it is the only tropical mangrove reserve along a river running through any city center in the world. The forest has formed as a result of artificial planting years ago.

“After the government designated it a nature reserve, conflicts emerged between preserving the reserve and building urban public works. After an area is classified as a nature reserve, you are not allowed to carry out any construction work which might affect it."

Though urban construction around the reserve is forbidden, the mangrove reserve still faces other kinds of threats, which requires daily attention from the rangers.

Tao Lieping's subordinate Fu Ruiqi says rangers are currently focusing their efforts on keeping the forests in good shape:

"In recent years, the main work of protecting the Sanya River mangrove eco-system was cleaning rubbish on the river. Only three kinds of boats can move in the river. They are our wildlife center's patrol boats as well as cleaning boats and some tourist ships. All the sewage draining exits along the river have been closed. Only those discharge exits dealing with urban flooding are left."

During our hour-long tour of the river, we have come across only two other boats—one for cleaning the river, the other with tourists.

Such low-level of human activity has left the river largely tranquil.

Cutting into the motor sounds of our boat, some fish jump out of the water, making a cracking sound.

Fu says fish and other aquatic lives have been rehabilitated thanks to their protection work and the mangrove trees.

While our boat cruises, we're impressed by the sprawling foliage of the seemingly endless mangrove trees, except for one section, where a noticeable gap catches our attention.

Fu Ruiqi tells us this is where saplings were planted in 2015. And the saplings are yet to grow into tall trees.

Besides planting trees at any gaps along the river, the deeply-tanned forestry worker says he and his colleagues monitor the reserve daily:

"We patrol along different sections of the river every day. If we find people fishing, we'll drive them away. All kinds of fishing activities are forbidden in the reserve. We'll stop any kind of activity that damages the reserve."

As we talk in our boat, Fu Ruiqi and his colleague spot a person fishing in the muddy swamp.

Fu and his colleague yell "stop fishing, go away!"

Fu tells us that despite sporadic fishing, there are almost no other damaging activities in the reserve.

But do the average residents of Sanya really understand how important it is to protect these trees?

To answer this question, we come to a riverside park just beside the reserve.

In the park, shaded by high coconut and other trees, children are playing while adults wander or rest in the shade.

Fifteen-year-old Chen Yijie is playing table tennis with his father as we approach.

Stopping for a break, the senior high school student tells us what he knows about the trees:

"It's red inside once you remove the bark. This kind of trees is good for the sea and flood prevention. Though I'm not able to plant this kind of trees, if I see anyone harming them I'll stop him or her."

Mangroves are called Hongshu in Chinese, which literally means red tree. The name has been adopted because red dye can be extracted from the trees.

As we mingle and ask others in the crowd, a middle-aged woman sitting on the floor smiles to us.

Identified only as Ms. Wang, she tells us she has been working in the park as a member of the maintenance staff.

From her close observation, Wang has seen a year-on-year improvement in the overall environment in the mangrove reserve and its nearby areas.

"In the past, some people might have come here to cut the trees. Also litter could be found in the river and the woods. But in recent years, this reserve has been well-protected. Now you seldom see litter here. The environmental protection awareness of our residents has improved. Here in this park, you can see egrets in the morning. Right now, they are hiding in the woods as it's too hot," says Wang.

Since August 2017, the Sanya city government has stepped up its efforts to protect the overall natural environment after a central government environmental inspection tour.

To create an even better habitat for the mangroves, local environmental protection officials say the estuary of the Sanya River will be de-silted to allow a smoother exchange of fresh and sea water in the river.

While the Sanya River mangrove reserve is well protected, the tropical trees have faced grave threats in some other parts of Sanya. It's only in the most recent years that the city has determined to reverse a destruction trend.

Naturally grown mangrove trees were once destroyed to make room for commercial aqua-farms in the Tielu Port of Sanya. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Naturally grown mangrove trees were once destroyed to make room for commercial aqua-farms in the Tielu Port of Sanya. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

One hour's drive from the city center of Sanya, the Tielu Port is a huge, complex water system—crisscrossed by various creeks and dotted with small islets.

In total, the port area has a water surface of about 750 hectares while its coastline amounts to more than 22 kilometers.

Upon arrival, we spot a sharp contrast between this area and the well-preserved Sanya River mangrove reserve.

Here, the Tielu Port looks like a construction site with bulldozers destroying the banks of manmade ponds.

From afar, the isolated plots of low mangroves and saplings are almost invisible.

Fu Ruiqi from the Sanya Wildlife Protection Center explains that the habitat of the trees had been damaged by commercial activities:

"The trees have strong vitality. They will grow naturally without artificial intervention after their seeds fall on a suitable growing area. But in recent years, the intertidal zone of the Tielu Port has had a lot of damage. As a result, their habitat was destroyed and the trees become fewer and fewer."

As early as 1999, a winding area of around 10 to 20 meters off the Tielu Port coastline was designated by the Sanya city authorities as a nature reserve.

The reserve amounts to almost 300 hectares, more than a third of the total water surface of the Tielu Port.

But local officials admit that for a period of time, the reserve had not been well managed.

Local residents occupied much of the reserve and cut down the mangroves to cultivate commercial fish, shrimps and crabs in the swamps.

In total, such commercial aqua-farms had occupied about half of the nature reserve.

Work to restore the reserve has only been enhanced since 2017 after a central government environmental inspection team called local forestry officials' attention to the problem.

The destruction of the aqua-farms began in April 2018. Since then, local forestry officials have also improved their monitoring of the reserve.

They have marked out the reserve with new fences and more obvious boundary markers.

According to the Forestry Bureau of Sanya, the city government has earmarked an investment of about 19 million yuan for restoration.

Meanwhile, the city is making plans to do the planting.

"The Forestry Academy of Sanya is conducting a survey into which areas are suitable for planting mangrove trees and which are not. We have to base our work on this survey and try to make a well-planned and well-managed mangrove nature reserve in the Tielu Port," says Tao Lieping.

At present, only 3.6 hectares of the port is covered with naturally grown mangrove trees.

Ultimately, the stock of trees will be increased by some 20 times to 66.7 hectares, according to a local government plan.

Mangrove saplings have been planted in the swamps of the Tielu Port. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

Mangrove saplings have been planted in the swamps of the Tielu Port. [Photo: Chinaplus/Yin Xiuqi]

To implement the plan, forestry authorities have divided the tasks and contracted them out to private firms and individuals.

Twenty-five-year-old Dong Baojun is one of the contractors commissioned to plant mangrove saplings at the port.

"I am responsible for more than 300 mu of swamp. Right now we are still working to destroy the aquatic farms. Then we'll transplant mangrove saplings here. You know, the saplings have to grow in the tidal water. According to our contract, we have to finish destroying the farms and plant saplings within a year. Then, we'll have to look after the trees we grow here for three years," says Dong.

Mu is a traditional Chinese measurement for size. Three-hundred mu equals 20 hectares.

Hectare after hectare, the planting of the saplings is expected to finally transform the Tielu Port into a mangrove paradise like the Sanya River reserve.

The city of Sanya has a coastline of 209 kilometers. Its 2,500 hectare intertidal zones have provided an ideal habitat for the mangroves.

Currently, there are four concentrated areas of mangrove trees in Sanya— the Sanya River, the Tielu Port, and two other locations. Three of them have been designated as city-level nature reserves.

The work to preserve and expand the mangroves in Sanya is a tiny part of the overall tree planting work being carried out across China.

According to government figures, the country planted about seven million hectares of trees—an area nearly as large as Scotland—in 2018. The country's forestry workers have planned to add almost the same amount of forest coverage in 2019.

Under a long-term afforestation plan, the country expects to increase its forest coverage rate from the current 23 percent to 26 percent within 15 years.

This kind of effort has been recognized by a U.S. study using data from NASA satellites.

Published in February 2019, the study by Boston University says China and India have been leading the increase in land greening on earth over the past two decades.

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