The Gaoligongshan region, at Yunnan’s border with Myanmar, is ecologically unique. Forest, mountains and deep valleys allow a complete transition from temperate to tropical forests that is unparalleled in the world. The continuous belt of forest from east to west over the crest of the Gaoligong mountains provides pathways for an extraordinary mix of flora and fauna from the Himalayas, the Palearctic, and the tropical elements of southeastern Asia.

Gaoligongshan is an equally dynamic crossroads of culture and history. The valleys of the major north-south flowing rivers, the Nujiang and Longchuanjiang, have been farmed since ancient times. The Southern Silk Road, which crosses the southern portion of the mountain range, has connected India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan with central China since the 4th century B.C., serving as a conduit for commerce, trade, and culture. Today, approximately 450 families live in the eight hamlets that comprise Baihualing village, which is adjacent to the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve. These villages reflect the remarkable cultural diversity of Yunnan, including the Han, Bai, Lisu, Yi, Hui, and Dai ethnic cultures.

Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve protects 405,549 hectares of the higher (upper and mid-) level slopes in the southern range of Gaoligongshan. The lower edge of the reserve varies from 1,500 to 2,500 m. The highest areas have been designated as an inviolate core, with no visitors allowed. The exception is along the Southern Silk Road, which has been placed outside of the core area and allows visitor access to the highest elevations in the reserve. Land below the reserve boundary receives no formal protection and is a mixture of small-scale croplands, pastures, and disturbed forests.


Although designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in October 2000, and a National Nature Reserve by the State Council of China, the spectacular environment of the Gaoligong range continues to suffer intense pressure. The unprotected lower slopes of the mountains contain great biological diversity, which is increasingly threatened as the forest cover rapidly disappears. In 1994, the Chinese Ministry of Forestry allotted just over 21,000 acres in the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve (6.8% of the total; all outside the core area) for tourism development.

The primary direct threats to Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve are:

  • Agricultural activities including the use of chemical fertilizers along the lower edge of the reserve (with associated disruption of streams and rivers and drift of pollutants)
  • Continued expansion of crop, pasturelands, and grazing into the reserve, and
  • Local needs for fuel given the few affordable alternatives to burning wood.

Lack of basic information on environmentally safe alternatives to current farming practices threatens to extend these damaging activities into the future. Deforestation of the lower slopes places an enormous diversity of plants and animals—many of them restricted to the region—at risk of extinction. Eventual disappearance of these lower-elevation species would affect the dynamics of higher-elevation communities protected inside the reserve. Finally, the introduction of eco-tourism in the region, while a tremendous opportunity, will threaten the reserve’s integrity if not developed and managed carefully, with strict attention to the vulnerability of both natural and human communities.

Chronology of Field Work Projects

January 2000

At the invitation of the Governor of Yunnan, the Center for US-China Arts Exchange sent a delegation of professionals from the United States to visit the Southern Silk Road, a 3,500 year-old trade route that pre-dates the better known Silk Road to the north. Rich in historic sites, the Southern Silk Road played a pivotal role in connecting China with South and Central Asia for at least two thousand years. The Yunnan partners arranged for the group to meet with leaders and professionals at various levels throughout the trip and the delegation developed recommendations for several demonstration projects. Two sites were chosen, and the work was carried out over several years. The two sites were the Gaoligongshan National Nature Park and Weishan City and Heritage Valley.

June to July 2002

A team led by the Field Museum in Chicago conducted a Rapid Biological Inventory and social asset mapping of three regions and eight hamlets around the perimeter of the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve. This was a Yunnan Initiative Demonstration Project of the Center for United States-China Arts Exchange. Other partners in this project included the Baihualing Village Association, the Municipal Government of Baoshan City, Southwest Forestry College in Kunming, China; Gaolingongshan National Nature Reserve Baoshan Management Bureau; Openlands in Chicago; and the Yunnan Provincial Association for Cultural Exchanges with Foreign Countries. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill volunteered their services and produced a conceptual design for an eco-lodge and gateway complex for the Baihualing area of Gaoligongshan. The Field Museum Report made principal recommendations in three areas: Protection and Management, Ecotourism, and Long-term Conservation Benefits.

Funding was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation, the Field Museum and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange.

Field team

  • Gerald Adelmann, (coordinator) Openlands Project, Chicago
  • Huaisen Ai, (mammals) Management Bureau of Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve
  • Lilan Deng, (botany) Southwest Forestry College, Kunming
  • Victoria Drake, (social and cultural assets) The Field Museum and Openlands Project
  • Robin B. Foster, (ecology) The Field Museum, Chicago
  • Shangyi Ge, (fungi) Management Bureau of Gaoligong Nature Reserve
  • Ken Hao, (coordinator) Center for US-China Arts Exchange
  • Peter Kindel, (gateway lodge study) Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Chicago
  • Zhengbo Li, (coordinator and birds) Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve
  • Rutao Lin, (mammals) Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve
  • Shiliang Meng, (ecology) Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve
  • Debra Moskovits, (coordinator, and birds) The Field Museum
  • Gregory M. Mueller, (fungi) The Field Museum, Chicago
  • Jiali Qin, (ecology) Southwestern Forestry College, Kunming
  • Ruichang Quan, (birds) Kunming Institute of Zoology, Kunming
  • H. Bradley Shaffer, (amphibians and reptiles) University of California, Davis
  • Xiaochun Shi, (botany) Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve
  • Douglas F. Stotz, (birds) The Field Museum
  • Adam Thies, (gateway lodge study) Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Chicago
  • Anne Underhill, (social and cultural assets) The Field Museum
  • Tianchan Wang, (amphibians and reptiles) Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve
  • Jun Wen, (botany) The Field Museum
  • Bin Yang, (fungi) Southwest Forestry College, Kunming
  • Jianmei Yang, ((tourism and planning research) Yunnan Normal University
  • Shaoliang Yi, (coordinator) Southwest Forestry College, Kunming
  • Yu Zhang, (amphibians and reptiles) Southwest Forestry College, Kunming
  • Xiaodong Zhao, Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve
  • Yuming Zhu, (social and cultural assets) Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve

The bilingual report was completed in 2003.

Reference: “Rapid Biological Inventories: 04, China: Yunnan, Southern Gaoligongshan”, 2003

May 2004

A Conference on Conservation and Sustainable Development convened in the city of Baoshan, near Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve. Yunnan professionals met with planners and conservationists from Columbia University, New York University and Openlands Project, Chicago.

July 2005

A team of specialists from the U.S. visited Nankang at the southern tip of Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve. This area is an important biological corridor between the eastern and western slopes of Gaoligongshan. The team members, who were from Columbia University, Openlands, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, New York University, North Carolina State University, the Atlanta Botanical Garden and EDAW, conducted a design charrette resulting in a concept plan for a nature park. The design included recommendations for low-impact eco-tourism while making conservation the priority.

October 2005 

Ai Huaisen, Director of the Management Bureau of the Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, visited Chicago to explore possibilities with American counterparts from the various organizations involved in the project.

June to July of 2006

The Center initiated an ecological restoration project on the western slope of the Southern Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve. The main partners in this project were the Institute of Botany, Kunming, China; North Carolina State University, and the Management Bureau of the Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve. The projects made use of degraded community-owned land, just outside the edges of the nature reserve, to test several models for sustainable forestry and ecological restoration in order to provide a model, on-the-ground demonstration project that could be replicated.

Yunnan Sustainable Development Forum: June/July 2008

A delegation of ten international leaders in cultural tourism, conservation, adventure travel, historic preservation and resource management from the United States and Indonesia met with Chinese officials to discuss and debate solutions for sustainable development in Yunnan Province. The goal of the Yunnan Sustainable Development Forum, held June 30 and July 1, 2008, in Dali City, Yunnan Province, was to address time-sensitive issues related to over-development and commercialization of natural and cultural sites that result in loss of authenticity and sustainability as well as severe disruption of community life. The forum focused on three specific areas in Yunnan Province: Weishan Valley; Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve, a World Biosphere Reserve; and Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In May of 2009 the Center published the recommendations in a report that Gerald Adelmann and Ken Hao presented to counterparts in Beijing that December.

Reference: “Sustainable Development: Opportunities and Challenges for Yunnan Province,” published by the Center for US-China Arts Exchange, 2009.