First Rail Line Into Tibet Opens With Environmental Warnings

LHASA, Tibet, July 6, 2006 (ENS) - With the opening of the new railway line through the Tibetan Plateau on Saturday, and the increased number of travelers expected to visit the area as a result, WWF and its wildlife trafficking monitoring arm, TRAFFIC, are calling for conservation measures to protect the world's largest and highest plateau.

Billed as the highest railway in the world, the final stretch of the Qinghai-Tibet rail line opened Saturday, running over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from central China to the Tibetan capital Lhasa. Environmental groups are concerned that the railway will threaten delicate ecosystems.

"Because of its high elevation, the ecosystem here is extremely fragile," said Dawa Tsering, who heads WWF China's Program Office in Lhasa.


Train at Golmud at the beginning of the Golmud-Lhasa railway. The sign reads, "A new starting point of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Build the Qinghai-Tibet Railway to benefit peoples of all ethnicities." (Photo courtesy International Campaign for Tibet)
With an average elevation of 4,000 meters (13,120 feet), the Tibetan Plateau is still inhabited by unique species, including the Tibetan antelope or chiru, the Tibetan gazelle, wild yak, blue sheep, snow leopard, brown bear, Bengal tiger and black-necked crane.

The plateau is the source of many of Asia's major rivers - the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong and Indus rivers.

"Once damaged, it is extremely difficult to reverse," said Tsering. "Integrating the needs of local development with conserving Tibet's biodiversity is in need of urgent attention."

Chinese scientists have suggested that within 10 years global warming may start to melt the permafrost on which the railway rests, endangering the $4.1 billion line.

On Saturday, Chinese President Hu Jintao attended the launching ceremony of the Qinghai-Tibet railway at the Golmud Railway Station in Golmud, northwest China's Qinghai Province.

A former Chinese Communist Party (CPC) chief of Tibet, Hu now serves as general secretary of the CPC's Central Committee and chairs the Central Military Commission.

Saturday marked the 85th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, and Hu emphasized the construction of this railway over difficult terrain as a major CPC accomplishment.

During his send-off speech in Golmud, President Hu stressed the importance of environmental protection of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Hu said railway workers and passengers traveling on the Qinghai-Tibet railway should "consciously treasure waters and mountains as well as grass and woods on the Plateau, and they should help conserve the ecosystem and environment along the railway."


Chinese President Hu Jintao and other officials shake hands with Chinese railway construction workers at Golmud on July 1. (Photo courtesy Government of China)
After his speech, a train carrying officials and workers on the project set out from Golmud to Lhasa where it arrived on Saturday night. Another train set out from Lhasa.

Three more trains left for Lhasa from Beijing, Chengdu and the Qinghai capital city of Xining in the evening.

The Canadian built cars are sealed, and pumped with extra oxygen to keep passengers from developing altitude sickness on the trip up to Lhasa.

The entire railway stretches from Xining to Lhasa, a distance of 1,956 kilometers (1,215 miles). The 814 kilometer (505 mile) section from Xining to Golmud began operation in 1984, and construction started on the Golmud-Lhasa section in June 2001.

Nearly half of the track is located 4,000 meters above the sea level and the highest point of the line measures 5,072 meters (16,640 feet) above sea level.

The railway is projected to help double tourism revenues by 2010 and reduce transport costs for goods by 75 percent in Tibet, officials said.

Some Tibetans and their supporters see the rail line as yet another means for China to dominate the ethnic Tibetan population. Since it marched troops into the region in 1950, Beijing has been moving millions of Han Chinese into Tibet.


A banner stating "Welcome to the July 1st Test Run of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway" in Chinese characters in one of Lhasa's old streets. Both Tibetan and Chinese are the official languages in the Tibet Autonomous Region, but during the railroad construction mostly the Chinese language appears on prominent signs, with Tibetan used either in small characters or not at all. (Photo courtesy International Campaign for Tibet)
Tibetans complain their status has been reduced to that of second-class citizens in their own land, and that their culture and religion have been systematically destroyed.

For years, Chinese and foreign tourists, along with Han migrants have traveled to Tibet on daily flights from eastern China. Tibetan independence advocates say the train, with its promises of lower fares and larger capacity, will make migration easier.

In 1980, visitors to Lhasa numbered only 1,059, and 95 percent came from abroad.

Since then tourism has surged, and in 2002, an estimated 140,000 visited Tibet, with 1.22 million arriving in 2004, an increase of over 1,000 times the 1980 level. Ninety-two percent of the visitors are Chinese tourists.

Although officials opened the route on Saturday, they have not yet decided when tourists will be allowed to use the train. For now, only those who live in Tibet or Han migrants will be able to take the rail trip to Lhasa.

In 2001, WWF China set up its Tibet Program office in Lhasa to strengthen its conservation activities in the region. The office has worked to build capacity for conservation among wildlife reserve staff.

WWF has participated in reserve management planning and biodiversity research, has worked to raise awareness of conservation issues among local communities and develop wildlife monitoring and patrolling stations to halt poaching.

WWF, TRAFFIC and their partners plan on distributing brochures to train passengers and visitors to the region, asking them to refrain from buying illegal products made from such endangered species as tigers and Tibetan antelopes. The soft underbelly fur of these antelopes is made into luxurious, fashionable shahtoosh shawls, which command high prices on the black market.

"International and local laws have guaranteed that killing wild tigers and other protected species for their parts isn't legal anywhere in the world," said Dr. Xu Hongfa from TRAFFIC's China Program. "But the killing of these animals will continue until the demand for buying them stops."

"The sale of souvenirs and other products made from endangered species is growing due to tourist consumption, and is increasing pressure on local biodiversity," Tsering said. "Tourists can make a difference simply by not purchasing these products."

Commodities brought into Tibet along the newly completed Qinghai-Tibet Railway will exceed the goods exported from the region, a railway official said in Beijing on June 29.

Zhu Zhensheng, a vice-director of the Ministry of Railways office in charge of the new line, told the state news agency Xinhua that two freight trains will run daily from Xining to Lhasa.

He said the trains would carry grain crops, construction materials and production machinery into Tibet, while handicrafts and agricultural products would travel out.

Zhu said three passenger trains would depart daily from each end point, with each train carrying up to 900 passengers.