About Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas

WHS#1083 | 3 Parallel Rivers | Tourist Map | Travel Guide | Photo & Video | News Update

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The Three Parallel Rivers nomination (1.7 mil.ha. in extent) consists of 15 protected areas in seven geographic clusters in the mountainous northwest of Yunnan Province. The 7 clusters are contained with a larger geographic unit of 3.4 mil. ha. administratively referred to as the Three Parallel Rivers National Park (IUCN Category VI). The northern and western boundaries of the nomination abut Tibet and Myanmar respectively. The site name relates to the inclusion of sections of the upper reaches of three of the great rivers of Asia -the Yangtze (Jinsha), Mekong (Lancang) and Salween (Nu Jiang). Here the three rivers run roughly parallel, north to south, through steep gorges which in places are 3,000 m deep. At their closest, the three gorges are only 18 and 66 km apart, and for 70 km a fourth parallel river, the Dulong Jiang, flows along the western margin before entering Myanmar as one of the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River system.

The 1.7 million hectare site consists of a large portion of the Hengduan Shan, the major arc of mountains curving into Indochina from the eastern end of the Himalayas. The extent of the site is 310km from north to south (29° to 25° 30′ N) and 180km from east to west (98° to 100° 30′ E). More than 100 peaks in the Yunling, Gaoligong, Haba, and Baimang ranges are over 5000 m, while the Meili Snow Mountains on the Tibetan AR border contain an impressive range of glaciated peaks over 6000 m.

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The highest peak is Mt Kawagebo (6740 m), from which the southernmost glacier in China, Mingyongqia, descends to an altitude of 2700 m.

The nominated area lies within an orogenic belt, where the edge of the Eurasian plate is being compressed by the underlying Indian plate as it is subducted along the line of the Lancang River fault. As the Hengduan Mountains were uplifted and intensely sheared, the pre-existing rivers continued to downcut, resulting in the extreme vertical relief of the mountains and gorges. Four types of igneous rock are evident: ultrabasic, basic, intermediate acid and alkali rock, as well as ophiolites (assemblages of igneous rocks that were once sea floor crust). The wide range of rock types throughout the site provide ample evidence of marine evolution under the Tethys seas (the shallow sea that existed during the early Mesozoic Era and separated the landmass of Laurasia in the north from Gondwanaland in the south).

The site also contains an outstanding variety of landforms, especially those in the alpine landscapes. There are more than 400 glacial lakes, each surrounded by moraines and other glacial landforms. A variety of spectacular alpine karst features include karst caves, calcareous tuff deposits and alpine karst peak clusters. There are also large areas of granite peaks and sandstone monoliths, the most impressive of the latter being the alpine Danxia landforms (old Tertiary red calcareous sandstone eroded by wind and water). Such varied terrain gives the region great scenic and geological interest.

The climate variety within the site is as outstanding as its topography, varying from subtropical in the valleys to frigid on the snow-covered mountain peaks. In the west, the south-western monsoon from the Indian Ocean brings an annual rainfall of up to 4,600 mm and creates a permanent snow-cover on peaks over 5,000m. The effect of this moist airstream drops off sharply as it moves eastwards, so that, at the other extreme, is in a rain-shadow and receives only 300 mm of rainfall annually. The Pacific Ocean monsoon affects the southeast of the site less strongly but does create humid, subtropical conditions in the valleys. Persistent fog limits human settlement above 2,500m.

The Three Parallel Rivers site is an epicentre of Chinese biodiversity. The southern part of the Hengduan Shan is considered by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to be the foremost of China’s 11 terrestrial critical regions for biodiversity conservation. It is also recognized as one of the world’s 25 major biodiversity ‘hotspots’. The reasons for the region’s outstanding biodiversity are fourfold:

> The N-S river valleys have provided a corridor for the movement of biota for a long period. The Hengduan Mountains are a boundary ‘mixing zone’ for three of the world’s major bio- geographical realms –East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Tibetan Plateau. The WWF consider this part of NW Yunnan to lie at the juncture of five of their ‘Ecoregions’.

> The remarkable altitudinal gradients within the area, with mountain summits reaching 5000-6500 m while the riverbanks in the gorges below are around 1500-2000 m.

> The monsoonal climate (wet summers) affecting most of the area

> The ice-free status of most of NW Yunnan during the Pleistocene glaciations, allowing a variety of plants and animals to remain relatively undisturbed in refugia.

The site supports the richest diversity of higher plants in China as well as a remarkable range of fungi and lichens. Over 6000 plant species are listed and distributed within 22 recognised vegetation types, which range from the savannah shrublands of the hot, dry valley floors, through both evergreen and deciduous forests, and a wide variety of coniferous forests, to alpine meadows. These diverse vegetation communities contain over 20% of China’s higher plants and 2,700 of the site’s plants are endemic to China (distributed within 45 endemic genera), while 600 of them are endemic to NW Yunnan; the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas contains the type locality for 1,500 of these plants. The history of the site has resulted in marked species differentiation from relict and primitive to highly evolved species, and 8.5% of China’s rare and endangered species have been recorded in the area.

The site contains more than 200 species of rhododendrons, over 100 species each for gentians and primulas, and many species of lily and orchid, as well as many of the most noted Chinese endemic ornamental plants: gingko, the dove tree, four species of the blue poppy and two species of Cycas. The site is famous in European plant-collecting history because of the work of the Rev. Jean Marie Delavay, George Forrest, and Frank Kingdon-Ward (among many others) who made these plants known to Western horticulturalists. The diversity of conifers is outstanding; in addition to dozens of the main mountain forest trees (Abies, Picea, Pinus, Cupressus and Larix), there are many endemic or rare conifers. There are also around 20 rare
and endangered plants which are relict species and survived the Pleistocene glaciations, including the Yunnan yew.

The area is the most outstanding region for animal diversity in China, and likely in the Northern Hemisphere. Two-thirds of the fauna within the nominated site are either endemic, or are of Himalayan-Hengduan Mountain types. The area is believed to support over 25% of China’s animal species, many being relict and endangered.

Many of China’s rare and endangered animals are within the nominated area: 80 are listed in the Red Book of Chinese animals, 20 of which are considered endangered; 79 animals are listed on the CITES 1997 appendices; 57 are listed in the IUCN Red List of the World’s Threatened Animals. Being near the boundaries of the East Asian, Southeast Asian and Tibetan biogeographic realms, the site also acts as a corridor where many species from each realm meet and reach their limits of distribution. Most of the rarer and endangered animals lie in the western part of the site, especially the long, narrow Gaoligong Shan border with Myanmar and the Yunling Mountains between the Lancang and Jinsha Rivers.

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Approximately 40% of the protected areas in the nominated site are inhabited by some 278,000 people while 36,000 inhabitants reside in the core zones (mostly engaged in subsistence agriculture).

Heritage value

According to the first point of the second item in the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, “landforms and geological structures that have prominent universal value as well as the natural habitats of endangered plant and animal species are worthy of good protection. The Three Parallel Rivers does not only have peculiar natural sceneries, but also has various kinds of landforms. Furthermore, it has a high level of natural and scientific value in its diversity of endangered wildlife, thus it fits the definition of natural heritage outlined in the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage perfectly. The phenomenon that the rivers flow parallel to each other but do not ever meet is unique and rare in the world.

Furthermore, the rivers are located at the convergence of East Asia, South Asia and the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, so there are diverse landscapes as well as animal and plant species, which is rare in China’s and even the world’s nature reserves.

Therefore, the Three Parallel Rivers is in line with the standards of natural heritage in terms of authenticity. In addition, the Three Parallel Rivers, as an independent nature reserve, has all kinds of geographic and ecologic elements, and has a relatively complete and high grade composition in terms of both quality and quantity. For thousands of years, people had seldom entered the Three Parallel Rivers, so it is extremely well-preserved. The Meili Snow Mountain for example, has been regarded as a holy mountain by the Tibetan people for thousands of years, and they have prohibited climbers from entering the mountain grounds. Therefore, the Three Parallel Rivers is in line with the standards of natural heritage in terms of completeness. Because of its special geographical location, the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas is very unique and peculiar compared to other nature reserves. Therefore, it has a high value in terms of ecology, nature, and scientific research, and should be strictly protected as precious heritage.