The Double Life of Dali Lake

Every spring, migratory birds start arriving at Dali Lake in Inner Mongolia just as the fish-breeding season gets under way. This has been the time—at least until recently—when herders living around the lake have heard the sounds of firecrackers going off. You might think setting off small explosions was against the rules in a designated sanctuary for migratory flocks, and that reserve staff would be battling to stop them. In fact, the people trying to frighten away the birds appear to be the same charged with their protection.

Such jarring tales are not uncommon in China’s reserves, where conservation needs frequently do battle with economic priorities. Dali Lake Nature Reserve is meant to provide a safe space for more than 100 kinds of birds, from swans and white-naped cranes to the great bustard. But protection efforts are hampered by the agenda of the business next door: the reserve runs in parallel with a fishery, operated by the same staff, though under a different name.

To protect harvests and maximize profits, the reserve-cum-fishery operates a dam that blocks fish from their natural spawning grounds. Meanwhile, workers have been spotted scaring away the birds coming to feed off the precious fish stocks.

Locals say they didn't hear the firecrackers this year. No one I spoke to knew the reason for the pause, but in any case it appears the damage has been done; bird numbers have plummeted. Like many other reserves in China, Dali is torn between its conservation duties and the pursuit of profit. Now, as fish and birds both face crisis, the falseness of this choice is clearer than ever.

Dali means vast or limitless in Mongolian. The lake lies on the fertile grasslands in the west of Hexigten Banner and is a resting place for migratory birds. It was made a county-level nature reserve in 1986, and upgraded to a national reserve in 1997.

Every April and May, birds heading north for the summer stop at the lake to rest and feed in the bordering wetlands. This is also when the lake’s most important fish, the Amur ide, spawns. Thousands upon thousands of them head upstream from Dali’s relatively saline waters into the fresher flows of the Gongge’er River, to reproduce. The river rises in the south of the Greater Khingan Mountains before snaking across the Gongge’er grasslands for 100 kilometers and finally flowing into Dali Lake. Before the dam was built, the fish would follow its course for long distances, getting as far as 100 kilometers from the lake as the crow flies.

A herder named Baoyin said the Gongge’er would get so packed at this time of year that fish sometimes jumped out of the water and onto the bank. Herons in particular liked to sit back and wait for these easy pickings; locals call them the “long-necked waiters.” And so, for birds stopping off on their migratory journey, the river was a larder. In the spring, birds and quiet cattle stood side by side on the riverside, creating an idyllic scene. Baoyin told me that, as a child, he would be beaten for killing a bird or a fish, which are respected in traditional herding culture.

In the 1950s, a state-run fishery was set up on the lake and became an important source of extra food during winter, when it makes large scale catches. Then, in the 1970s, a dam was built across the Gongge’er. Blocked from their spawning grounds, the fish were left with less than 20 kilometers of river in which to reproduce. Instead, many have been forced to spawn in the Shali River, which is around 10 kilometers long and connects Dali to the freshwater Ganggeng lake.

Reserve staff maintain that the dam was built to protect fish stocks and reduce the loss of roe to the river’s flow. Outside observers say it was erected to block off migratory routes and prevent fish from swimming too far away. Either way, the dam was designed to preserve yields. But has it worked? The signs suggest not. Monitoring data indicates that water in the lake has been getting steadily saltier and is now almost as saline as the fish can tolerate; dams are associated with risk of increased salinity. For the Amur ide, which spawns in fresh water, the change poses a threat to survival.

The birds are also grappling with dangers, as their feeding grounds have shrunk. Baoyin lives by a stretch of the Gongge’er River, which he said had been empty of fish since the dam was built. A bird the herders knew as the jahlai has also vanished, he said.

Chang Qing, from Beijing-based NGO Green Beagle, has long monitored the lake. He explained that, in recent years, birds that rely on fish for food have been forced to eat and rest within a smaller area. They gather along the Shali River, where herders have seen people scaring away the birds. Chang told chinadialogue he has also seen tents set up in the area during the migratory season and workers setting off firecrackers to put off the arriving birds.

The Amur ide and its succulent flesh is meanwhile getting better known among China’s diners. Even in the nearby city of Chifeng, demand now outstrips supply. Locals explained that, to get your hands on a fish these days, you need to order in advance—you can’t just turn up at the market. And the price has risen to 30 yuan a jin (half a kilogram). The fish population and catches are declining, however, and so—to protect their profits—the fishery is using artificial insemination to try to boost the shortfall.

Now both the fish harvests and bird populations are falling. The reserve mangers admitted that “these two years, the number of local birds has dropped off, as has the number of species.” The reserve’s own monitoring data shows that red-crowned cranes and grey cranes—spotted here as recently as 2008—no longer make an appearance.

At the office building on the north bank of the lake, signs for the “Hexigten Dali Lake Fishery” and “Dali Lake National Nature Reserve” hang side by side. In 1997, the reserve set up a management office, and the post of head of the reserve was filled by the director of the fishery.

Many other positions too are occupied by fishery employees, with only a small number of professional staff employed from outside. This means that the same personnel work on both conservation and fishery management. As the staff say, it’s “one set of employees, two employers.” This is not uncommon in Chinese nature reserves—according to staff here, the director of the Hexigten Baiyin Aobao National Reserve also heads up Baiyin Aobao Forest.

A member of the Chinese National Committee for the UN’s Man and the Biosphere program, who asked not to be named, told chinadialogue that many of China’s nature reserves were set up in the same places as state-owned fisheries or forests, creating a struggle between conservation and profit that has dogged them to date.

The reserves are given government money, he explained, but only enough to fund the work of reserve staff, not the larger fisheries teams. But because the two entities are run through an overlapping system, this causes problems when it comes to distributing benefits, and puts financial pressure on the whole operation.

In addition, those calling the shots are state-owned companies who often prioritize profit over conservation. This drives support for economic activity within China’s reserves, and tourism, agriculture, and fishing are common choices.

In late April, spawning and migration season arrived once again at Dali lake. Fish gathered below the dam, hoping vainly to swim upstream, while birds—fewer now than in the past—circled overhead.

Zhou Wei is assistant editor in chinadialogue’s Beijing office.