For the Love of Peat and Peaks

Can the soul-inspiring beauty of the world’s wild places change how we value the wilderness?

The tarns teemed with life; nesting swans in the reeds, and tufted duck, Red-headed Pochard, Ruddy Shellduck and Great Crested Grebes on the clear waters.
Photos and Reportage by John Mackinnon

My work over the last 50 years has taken me across the length and breadth of China, but of all the places I have seen, the Altai Mountains retain a special place in my heart. They contain marvels. Their peaks soar to heights exceeding 4,300 meters and their slopes and valleys are home to huge wild sheep and goats or Ibex, the great moose and red deer, wolves, snow leopards and a wealth of other rarely seen and increasingly endangered species. Quirkily they are the only place in China where one might encounter a beaver, and are the only source of a Chinese river to reach the Arctic Ocean!

Lake Kanas fills a valley carved by an ancient glacier and derives its mysterious bright blue water from its upstream source, the Friendship Glacier. Over a million tourists come each year to see the lake, Kanas river and the unique Tuwa people - descendents of a Mongolian regiment left behind by Genghis Khan to protect this borderland nine centuries ago.

But older footprints are still visible. Dotted along the borderlands are ancient burial mounds and tombs — remains of the forgotten Pazyryk, one of the Scythian tribes which ranged across Central Asia 2,500 years ago, described by the Greek chronicler Herodotus.

One such mound excavated in 1993, only a few hundred metres from the Kanas border, revealed the frozen mummy of a 25 year old woman — termed the Altai Ice-maiden or Princess of Ukok — adorned with beautiful tattoos, wearing fine silk clothes and a tall head-dress and served by four horses buried with her. Another major mound and stone circle marks the grave of a Mongolian chieftain but smaller circles seen in the valley and on the hillsides serve as testament to millennia of sacred heritage and tradition.

The motive behind my latest visit as part of my work with a wetlands project, was to evaluate and better protect the alpine mires of Altai’s Sandao Haizi.

The views from this rugged pass were of distant ridges forming the Mongolian border and below us a stunning glacier-sculpted valley gleaming with hundreds of small lakes or ‘tarns’. The tarns teemed with life; nesting swans in the reeds, and tufted duck, red-headed pochard, ruddy shelduck and great crested grebes on the clear waters. The peat-moist valley bottom was a garden of bright flowers, orange sunflowers, yellow poppies and purple asters. No less colourful were the many smaller birds — three species of wheatear, Rose Finches, Horned Larks, Citrine and Yellow Wagtails.

It is the peat — many meters thick — that makes the existence of Sandao Haizi possible and so especially important. Not only does it constitute a huge reserve of stored carbon that, should the peat be drained for pasture creation would oxidize back into the atmosphere as CO², but it serves as a water sponge, a cradle for the tarns and all the life that depends on them.

Exciting evidence of ecosystem vitality for me was the sheer abundance of small mammals. Wherever we looked ground squirrels stood tall to watch us or scampered away in fear. There were large reddish squirrels with bushy tails and skinny yellow thinner tailed versions. Also marmots — big cousins of the ground squirrels but with majesty and swagger (and many cheeky youngsters).

The peat-moist valley bottom was a garden of bright flowers, orange sunflowers, yellow poppies and purple asters. No less colourful were the many smaller birds — three species of wheatear, Rose Finches, Horned Larks, Citrine and Yellow Wagtails.

Much of accessible Altai is so overgrazed that sightings of these mammals are now rare. But here in Sandao Haizi it is still possible to imagine what all these valleys have been like for hundreds of years. As proof of this wilderness we saw a Golden Eagle — the king of birds — circling overhead. Seeing us, or (perhaps seeing a marmot!), the bird suddenly spiraled down to the ground near the road. The eagle sat and watched me as I took a few hurried photos then lazily flapped back into the air and circled us a few times before heading on down the valley with marmot still on its mind.

We saw a Golden Eagle — the king of birds — circling overhead. Seeing us, or (perhaps seeing a marmot!), the bird suddenly spiralled down to the ground near the road.

So beautiful yet so fragile this place! An increase in herdsmen seeking summer grazing, wetland drainage for pasture conversion, peat or mineral mining, or an unregulated surge in tourist numbers could all spell quick disaster for this unique eco-system.

As I reflect on my visit, I wish I could transfer the incomparable reality of the Sandao Haizi to the decision makers who will be attending the upcoming UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris, debating the value each nation is willing to place on its wild places and green spaces in the face of climate change. Whether supporting the Global Environment Facility (GEF) or committing to strengthen Protected Area (PA) management and policy in their own country, these parties will be supporting so much more than storage units for the planet’s excess carbon. The wetlands of the Altai Mountains and around the world serve as a repository of natural history, of cultural heritage, of soul-inspiring beauty. In all the ways that matter, these wetlands mean life.

John MacKinnon is the Chief Technical Adviser for the UNDP supported GEF financed Main Streams for Life Wetland Protected Area Strengthening Programme

To find out more about UNDP’s GEF-financed wetlands project John writes about, visit http://www.asia-pacific.undp.org/

Project Title: Strengthening the Management Effectiveness of the Protected Area Landscape in Altai Mountains and Wetlands

Project Objective: To enhance the effectiveness of PA system in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to conserve globally significant biodiversity and to maintain healthy and resilient ecosystems with strategic emphasis on the regional PA wetland sub-system. It is one of the 6 child projects of the Main Streams of Life Wetland Protected Area Strengthening Programme

Duration: 2013–2018

Funding: GEF Grant 3,544,679; Co-financing: $ 22,000,000