Continuous snow in NW China poses threat to wildlife, but worst yet to come
Updated 22:42, 21-Feb-2019
By Xing Fangyu

‍Since the beginning of February, continuous snowstorms have lashed Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province, threatening wildlife at the Sanjiangyuan area.

Zadoi County, known as "Home of snow leopards," is one of the worst-hit areas.

With up to 45cm of snow, herbivores are finding it excessively hard to graze. Himalayan blue sheep, Thorold's deer and goa have been found dead.

Some 200 wild animals have been confirmed dead, according to Jiu Xie, the director of Ecological Protection department of the Three-River-Resources National Park, but the number could be higher.

A deer lies dead on the snow. /Photo via the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR)

A deer lies dead on the snow. /Photo via the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR)

Rescue work underway

Early and uninterrupted snow has endangered both livestock and wildlife, prompting government departments, NGOs and locals to join hands and help animals get through the bout of cold weather.

Organizations like the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR), the first environmental NGO in Qinghai Province, are providing fodder for herdsmen, who are dealing with a short supply of forage for their livestock, and dispatching teams on the ground to check up on wildlife.

"The NGOs and individuals have been working closely with (the government), raising money and providing food for the animals, and playing an important role in the rescue work," Jiu noted.

Wildlife lies dead on the snow. /Photo via the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR)

Wildlife lies dead on the snow. /Photo via the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR)

Taxing task

Grass-fed animals are the most vulnerable in snowy conditions as finding food becomes nearly impossible.

But distributing feed is not an easy task, due to weather conditions and the challenging topography of some of the storm-hit areas.

Heavy snow and ice have hindered the delivery of relief supplies by trucks. In areas inaccessible by cars because of the rough terrain, rescuers have to trek in the snow.

The head of SGR, Dhontrup Chompel told CGTN that he and his team are staying up overnight to deliver supplies, with their missions ending around 5:00 in the morning.

Challenging terrains and snow are making it hard for rescuers to deliver feed. /Photo via the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR)

Challenging terrains and snow are making it hard for rescuers to deliver feed. /Photo via the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR)

"Through our field survey, we found that most of the casualties were among weak and old animals," Jiu told CGTN. The Three-River-Resource National Park has allocated 300,000 yuan for the rescue operations. The Amity Foundation raised donations and entrusted the money to the SGR to conduct the rescuing work. And the SEE Conservation has also provided funding and materials for the front rescuers and local environmentalists to distribute feed for both wildlife and livestock. 

"We had helped wildlife, but no mission is as big as this year's," Jiu stated. "First, it's because the whole society is paying more attention to (the situation). Second, people's awareness has greatly improved in terms of protecting wildlife."

Should wildlife in danger be helped?

While the public expressing concern about the rescue operation and gratitude to the volunteers, there have been voices on social media wondering whether rescue work could influence the animals' ability to adapt to their natural surroundings.

Zhao Xiang, director of the Sanjiangyuan project at the Beijing Shanshui Conservation Center, believes that tough times separate the weak from the strong in nature.

Human intervention might help animals survive the adverse natural event, but it comes with consequences.

"After natural selection, the strongest will survive and contribute to the formation of a healthy population. Human intervention may break the balance," Zhao told CGTN.

"Help will increase the reliance of wild animals on humans and decrease their independence."

It's important to keep human involvement to its minimal. Help is warranted once assessment proves that the natural event would have a destructive impact on the species or its population, he indicated.

"Due to lack of basic data in the Sanjiangyuan area, we cannot judge whether the snowstorm will have a devastating impact on the wildlife population," Zhao noted, adding, "So, scientifically and rationally speaking, it is recommended to monitor the number of deaths so that we can assess the impact of the (natural disaster) on the (wildlife) population." 

Animals search for food amid snow. /Photo via the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR)

Animals search for food amid snow. /Photo via the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association (SGR)

Despite Zhao calling for minimal intervention, he still paid visits to the snowy areas to provide support for wildlife.

However, he warned that the worst is yet to come.

"The grass growing season in Sanjiangyuan area is in May, so the famine in the following months could be a more urgent issue."

(Top image: A deer searches for food in the snowstorm. /Photo via the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association)