The Nomination of Achen Gangyab

July 7, 2017

“I now declare the decision 41 COM 8B.4 adopted.”[1]

It was late afternoon, 7th July 2017. Delegations from 118 State Parties, the Advisory bodies of World Heritage Committee, World Heritage Center, nature experts, culture experts, interpreters, NGOs and civil society had gathered for the 41st session of World Heritage Committee in Krakow, Poland. They discussed the management of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the nomination of new sites proposed by the State Parties in accordance with the World Heritage Convention established in 1972[2]. The power to decide, however, rests only with the committee formed by 21 State Parties for a four-year term. One of the most important global conservation instruments depends ultimately on the wor(l)ds of these nations and states.

Clapping ensued as enthusiastic photographers gathered in front of the Chinese delegates who were smiling. They were seated in the first two rows; in front of all the State observers and right behind the Committee and interpreters. Firm handshakes were exchanged as other delegations joined in to congratulate. Amidst the two thousand ascending red seats of the International Congress Center, I watched the celebration on the floor, thinking about the Tibetan nomads and wildlife whom this land belongs.

From the stage, the chairman continued, “Allow me, please, to congratulate China on behalf of the entire committee for the inscription of this property on the World Heritage List. China, you have the floor for a brief two-minute statement. It is a challenge. Thank you, and congratulations”. The live-streaming screen then zoomed in on the Chinese Delegation.

Tsongon Achen GangyabThe property now inscribed as UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site is called Qinghai Hoh Xil; Qinghai being the sinicized term for the traditional Amdo Province of North Eastern Tibet, and Hoh Xil being Mongolian for beautiful young woman- translated as Kěkěxīlǐ in Chinese. But this area of 37356.32 square kilometers –approximately the size of Belgium (30528 km2)- is called Tsongön Achen-Gangyab in Tibetan; Tsongön meaning Blue Lake which is found in Amdo, and Achen Gangyab for being located beyond the Amnye Machen Snow Mountains, both of which are sacred to Tibetans. In this vast area-which comprises the highest concentration of lakes, lake basins, inland lacustrine, alpine mountains and steppe systems, endemic flora and fauna-thousands of pregnant tsö (Tibetan Antelope) migrate westward from Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve to their birthing grounds in Hoh Xil National Nature Reserve.

These characteristics supported Achen Gangyab’s nomination as a Natural site, under criteria (vii) and (x)[3]:

(vii) to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance

(x) to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

There is no denying these two criteria. However, the evaluation report[4] of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) detailed many serious concerns. One of them is the presence of 156 herders in 35 households in the nominated area, and 985 herders in 222 households, along with 220 ‘other residents’ in the buffer zone. The accuracy of these numbers is as questionable as they are fluid. For these Tibetan nomads whose lives, culture and belief intimately weave with the land, its lakes and mountains, what is the difference between the nominated area, and the buffer area? Haven’t they, throughout history, migrated across this newly designated boundary? What are their meaning of nature, heritage, and site? What then does this nomination signify for them?

In order to understand these questions, and answer them, we must return to the past. We could go back as far as the 14th century when King Gesar was believed to have buried ghosts there, and from where Ada Lhamo, the Tibetan ogress hailed. Or we could examine the turbulence and upheaval of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward campaign (1958-1962) and Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when grasslands were appropriated from Amdo to Central Tibet to bring economic prosperity, and the “Four Olds”-old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas- were brutally suppressed.  Instead, I will turn to the life and death of Sonam Dhargye[5] (1954-1994) whose efforts to protect wildlife became legendary in China as well as Tibet, and whose solitary struggle came to symbolize the relationship of Tibetans with their land.

The mainstream narrative of Hoh Xil is the story of Tibetan antelopes and heartless poachers. But its prelude is the poverty of East Qinghai minorities and the lure of gold mines. It is also a story of Sonam Dhargye voluntarily moving from Drido County to Suojia County – which borders the east of Hoh Xil – to recover the Tibetan nomads from one of the deadliest blizzards which claimed the death of 220,000 yaks and sheep on October 17, 1985. Tibetan nomadic pastoralism – which was already struggling with newly introduced systems of collectivized herds and communist cadres – was now hit with the terrible disaster. By then Sonam Dhargye had graduated from Qinghai Nationalities University and returned to serve his town people in different capacities: as middle school teacher, Deputy Director of the county education bureau and Party secretary of Drido County. Although a staunch atheist – as a result of his communist upbringing – he cared deeply about the welfare of nomads and herds. Once he reported angrily to Shi Guoshu, Party Secretary of Yushu Prefecture, that false data about herds and their survival rate were being provided by some village cadres.

Following the blizzard, from 1987 onwards, Sonam Dargye volunteered to be the Party Secretary of Suojia County. Making bold, unauthorized decisions of tax exemptions for the poor nomads, he quietly worked in Suojia, 265 kilometers away from his hometown of Drido – the headwaters of Drichu (Yangtse River) in the east. Little did he know that he would be going further away to the west in Hoh Xil until one day – while accompanying a group of Chinese Geologists – he learned about maps, and how to locate and identify minerals. They instilled him with hopes of development, poverty alleviation through gold, and he began to hope.

However, the gold rush had already begun in Hoh Xil. As the swarm of miner-hunters paid off the guards, Sonam Dhargye’s proposal for setting up Western Working Commission (WWC) got approved and established in three counties in 1991. He led Western Working Commission of Suojia County with the mission to develop these minerals and financially contribute to the county by its third year. He sent a recruitment notice and assembled a small group of volunteers:

Tashi Dorje- His student from Drido Middle school

Jin Yanzu-Teacher at Drido Middle School

Han Weilin- Ethnic Salar guide

TseTashi- Tibetan driver

And finally, he drove into Hoh Xil with the Handbook of Industrial Minerals, to witness with much shock and sadness the bleeding, skinned Tibetan antelopes and crisscross of wheel tracks over wheel tracks. Then he met Shu Guoshu again and set up Gold Mining Management Commission, Office of Wildlife Protection and Office of Mountain Grassland Protection under WWC. He was pioneering grassroots protection mechanisms under the legal framework to guard what he called ‘no-laws land’. This was the beginning of Hoh Xil’s protection. In spite of food shortage, poor funding, cold and the growing groups of bandits and gangsters, the small tight-knit group borrowed guns, patrolled together, seized rifles, poachers, thousands of pelts, and enforced law one drive after another. Regulation of gold mining license provided by the local government was not able to tackle the illegal permits. Concurrently, after learning that tsö are the source of Shahtoosh shawl on a visit to a poacher’s tent, George Schaller, a renowned wildlife conservationist, warned the western fashion industries of the mass killings[6]. Consumers felt trapped in guilt. Wildlife Trust of India[7]  took actions to not only curb the illegal trade but also helped the traditional shawl weavers in Kashmir, North India to transition towards Pashmina[8] weaving. The WWC patrol continued driving slowly on the soft permafrost for longer days and nights. Finally, Sonam Dhargye gave up his government office and patrolled reading The List of Endangered Species. On 18 January 1994, after nine difficult days of inspection, he was gunned down by poachers in the same manner as tsö; headlights on the target, showered in bullets.

Sonam DhargyeFrom this heartbreaking moment, as his body laid frozen and alone, far from everyone and everything, he captured the minds and hearts of humanity. Perhaps, this is the language of conservation. It goes beyond who holds the gun and who dies at it. Beyond who makes the law and who breaks it. Because this shows our ability to feel- not just for his brutal death, but rather- what he felt before it. Perhaps this is what echoes in the first lines of UNESCO’s constitution: “That since wars begin in the minds of man, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed. That ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war”.

And this language is much needed now at every echelon of environmental conservation- the language of our heart and mind, the language of the local people. In the then poorest county of the poorest prefecture of Qinghai province, Tashi Dorje, Sonam Dhargye’s student and patrol partner said, “Wild ass and Marmot are our specialties. We’ve got no minerals and no caterpillar fungus. Our cattle can’t be shipped out. Therefore in Suojia—including Kekexili—our only specialty is wild animals. We can establish wild animal zoos here just like in Africa. Our country may not care for us but may care for the animals. When it’s time to care for the animals, they will have to care for us. If we successfully protect Suojia, they will invest to solve our livelihood issues when the government establishes nature reserves. Party Secretary Sonam was sacrificed for the protection of Tibetan antelopes. We’ll continue his work.”[9]

As the patrol group got reorganized, the involvement of Chinese conservationists, NGOs, journalists, and citizens reinforced it. Yang Xin, who first came to Drichu (Yangtse river) for rafting competition, set up an environmental NGO, Green River, in 1995 and Sonam Dhargye Nature Reserve Station in 1997[10]. Tashi Dorje, after graduating from Qinghai Nationalities University, returned to Suojia and founded Upper Yangtse Organisation in 1998[11]. Leaders of herdsmen from Mochu, Yamchu, Damchu, and Jichu- previously renamed as Eight-One, Anti-Imperialist, Facing the Sun and Forever Red during Cultural Revolution- agreed on a unanimous resolution was adopted for the establishment of Suojia Conservation Commission. Meanwhile, Hoh Xil got recognized and upgraded from Nature Reserve to National Nature Reserve in the late 1990s, and Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve was established to its east in 2000. Friends of Nature[12], the first official environmental NGO in China, also did a remarkable work in raising awareness and support for Hoh Xil. Tibetan Antelopes gradually stepped down from being Vulnerable to Near Threatened[13].

Today, on inscribing it as a UNESCO Natural Heritage site, it is ever more crucial to listen to and directly support the Tibetan nomads who still live in it; for wildlife protection and climate change must include supporting the livelihood of the local people. Their concern of being removed before or after the nomination was heard by IUCN experts sent into Hoh Xil to verify China’s nomination. The nomination dossier from Chinese government highlighted a gradual ban on grazing and ‘voluntary’ resettlement with compensations. Even if the Chinese government had unequivocally stated a commitment to not pursue any ‘forced’ relocation before or after the nomination in response to IUCN’s firm support of traditional rights, this coin-flip change of language need careful scrutiny and time to assess the stories of these concerned Tibetans whose millennial old sustainable lifestyle has been affected by fundamentally flawed policies of fencing, ‘ecological migration’, resettlement and socialist-housing.

After the nomination, Tian Wei hosted an excellent debate[14]  of this inscription on the World Insight program of China Global Television Network (CGTN) – a branch of the predominant state television broadcaster CCTV. She raised questions about how local communities were communicated with before the inscription, and how mass tourism is going to negatively impact the nominated sites. But Zhu Chunquan, Country Representative of IUCN China Office, obviously did not have the answer to how communication was done.

Tian Wei: China so far has already got quite a number of UNESCO Culture and Nature Sites[…]But Mr. Zhu, here comes the bigger question. You know, the reason why the local government and the communities supported the bidding for being included in the UNESCO Cultural or Natural Heritage Site is because it is more likely to bring more benefits to their real lives. But then the preservation of it seems to also reduce some of their economic income possibilities. So, how shall we, in a way, communicate with the local community? It is a big issue over the years.

Zhu Chunquan: I think that we are seeking a win-win solution. Since China rich is in Natural biodiversity and also have very long history, very rich culture, so China hopefully in the near future will become the largest and the first place of Culture and Nature Heritage Sites.

Tian Wei: Well, that’s one thing but you haven’t answered my question. My question is how to communicate with the local community about the importance of protection and preservation. You are doing some of the specific standards for the protection, so I am sure you have been working with these people who have to do these kinds of communication. What are some of the secrets for success? Secrets. Real secrets for success (laughs)

Zhu Chunquan: So any success of conservation have to meet the local community’s need and get their support. So definitely the local community will benefit from the protection or conservation efforts. So that’s what we need; to analyze and understand what their needs, what their demands and what their interests are. (CCTV: Yup) So also to protect the traditional culture, the way of living, the lifestyle.

Despite warning[15] the committee before the nomination to address such concerns, they adopted the draft decision which “Commends the State Party and all stakeholders involved for their commitment to the protection of the large-scale conservation values of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau including the integration of traditional nomadic pastoralists into conservation efforts and welcomes the commitment made by the State Party that no forced relocation or exclusion of the traditional users of the nominated site will be undertaken or pursued[16]”.

Our reasons and recommendations for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to defer or refer the nomination, pending a thorough Environmental and Social Impact Assessment and Sacred Cultural Sites mapping, was unheard. Even the least of amendments in the draft decision’s language for a strengthened protection was not introduced.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The Chinese delegations wish to extend their sincere gratitude to the committee for adopting the decision to inscribe the kekexili in the World Heritage List.

In the recent decades, the Chinese government has taken more effective protection measures in kekexili, including protecting the Tibetan antelope and the wild animals. So all the protection measures have been undertaken in collaboration with stakeholders at the community level and in consultation with international experts’ organizations. So I want to confirm that the Chinese government has never taken, and will never take any forced relocation measures at the nominated property of Kekexili.

So the nomination dossier submitted in January 2016, and the supplementary report submitted in February 2017 by the Chinese government has fully demonstrated its determination to protect the nominated property and to fully respect the will of the local herders, and their traditional culture, religions, beliefs, and lifestyle. So the government will continue to implement the Convention and Operational Guidelines, and honor its commitment to strictly protect the shared natural heritage of humankind.

So Mr. Chairman, with your nice permission, the Deputy Governor of the Qinghai province has very few words to say.”

“(A few words in Chinese, and then in English) Thank you very much. Welcome to Qinghai.”

More clapping.

For the past days, a lot of hard work and lobbying were done to inform the World Heritage Committee about the inscriptions and UNESCO heritage sites’ management. Those of us who met at the 4th International NGO Forum on UNESCO World Heritage at Risk, organized under the tireless leadership of Stephan Dömpke, Chairman of World Heritage Watch[17]  , supported each other in solidarity throughout the process and its results. We were architects, activists, conservationists, indigenous people and environmentalists from all over the world raising our voice against the increased logging in Białowieża Forest of Poland and Sumatra’s Tropical Rainforest, the damages of Orange Metro Line Project to the historical Shalamar Gardens of Pakistan, massive industrialization in the Old Town of Lamu, Kenya, the displacement and destruction of the old city of Diyarbakir in Turkey, and many other road, railway and ‘development’ projects in different countries [18]. Each of us carried an honest information of better care for our nature and culture. Each of us spoke Truth as the first and last voice .

Even if I knew that this was a game of national interests, even if I knew what many chanted – it’s China- we hoped against hope that someone spoke for an uncompromised protection of the lives of Tibetan nomads and a more detailed assessment of Achen Gangyab. Hearing the Committee members congratulate the state party one after another broke my heart.

What kind of principle is being inherited in the World Heritage Committee?

The floor opened finally for NGO, and I spoke again of the Tibetan nomads and the magnanimity of this inscription. While the Chinese Delegations took photos of me a Chinese man who works for an NGO stood with me in solidarity for a few seconds until my statement went deeper into the fact of China’s massive social engineering campaign under the banner of environmental protection. Perhaps, he did not agree. Or, maybe, he was scared of the consequences his standing might have on his return. After I finished the claps from NGO section echoed down the hall, and I went outside the hall. The NGO friends came at the exit. As Stephan hugged me, I found myself in tears.

As the Kashmiris continue their tradition by weaving Pashmina shawls, news about the joy of patrollers for Kekexili feature on the internet. Then, volunteers carried out a garbage-picking drive[19] while local Tibetans and Shan Shui Conservation NGO set a promising example of community-led conservation[20].

The challenge goes on.


Tibetan Antelopes migrating to their birthing ground, crossing under the Ultra-high Voltage power grid, over the sealed road.

August 2017 Source: Global Times




[1] 41st Session of UNESCO World Heritage Committee, Decision 41COM8B.4, From 19:06

[2] Draft List of participants:

[3] The Criteria for Selection:

[4] IUCN Evaluation Report 2017, P43,

[5] All the details about Sonam Dhargye are in Chapter 3, Wasteland (P79 – 116) of Liu Jianqiang’s book Tibetan Environmentalists in China, The King of Dzi. This book-which is banned in Tibet and China- also details the lives of other important Tibetan Environmentalists who were jailed. His story is also dramatized in the movie Kekexili: Mountain Patrol.

[6] Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s journey on the roof the world by George B.Schaller, P73

[7] A Shawl to die for, A documentary by Wildlife Trust of India

[8] Pashmina comes from the winter undercoat of a particular variety of domestic goat ( Capre hircus ), known in Ladakh as ‘pashmina goat’ or Changra (Tibetan for Northern goat). Shahtoosh was misunderstood as being collected after the Tibetan Antelope shed its downy fur.

[9] Tibetan Environmentalists in China: The King of Dzi, by Liu Jianqiang, P222

[10] Going back to the Source, by Xu Lin, 23 June 2011, China Daily:

[11] Liu Jianqiang, Tibetan Environmentalists in China: The King of Dzi, P220

[12] China’s Friends of Nature join the Tibetan Antelope on the list of Endangered species, November 22, 1998,

[13] IUCN, Pantholops Hodgsonii,

[14] World Insights with Tian Weil, 26:00

[15] International Campaign for Tibet’s report:, Gabriel Lafitte’s detailed assessment on Another group of academics also wrote to UNESCO World Heritage Center but the Chinese Government flatly denied them as ‘inaccurate and indefensible’ as seen in the video.

[16] IUCN World Heritage Evaluations, P54,

[17] World Heritage Watch is an independent NGO which advocates for true protection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites by gathering  complete and accurate facts from local people and civil society

[18] Report and Resolutions of 4th International NGO Forum by World Heritage Watch:

[19] Volunteers pick garbage, Protect Wildlife on Hoh Xil

[20] Citizen Science on the Tibetan Plateau, July 26, 2017,

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