Nicknamed the « jewel in the crown of the plant kingdom”, the Xishuangbanna rainforest is luxuriant. Gigantic trees, dense foliage, undergrowth laced with climbing and creeping plants, orchids, ferns – in total, more than 5,000 plant species are found there. The surrounding peoples use around 1500 of these species. Botanists estimate at around 600 the number of species considered rare or endangered. As many would have already disappeared.
… But fragile
Since 1950, the forest area of Xishuangbanna has shrunk by half. The population is growing and rubber plantations are taking their toll on local biodiversity. Habitat destruction and forest fragmentation no longer allow large animals to find sufficient food. Meanwhile, agricultural production is polluting waterways, fish and frogs.
Fortunately, in 1958 China established the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve which, alongside local initiatives, is helping to preserve this natural jewel.
Xishuangbanna means “Land of twelve thousand rice fields” in the Dai language. The Hani and the Dai, two ethnic groups living here have long understood that their own survival depends on the balance of nature.
Representing just 0,2% of China’s territory, Xishuangbanna is home to 5,000 plant species, 500 mammal species, more than 60 species of amphibian and reptile, 300 bird species, and so on.
In 1950, 67% of the Dai land was covered in forest. By the beginning of the XXIst century, this had fallen to just 30%.
A world in peril
Mass tourism on the rise, intensive agriculture is making headway, the need for firewood is growing, rubber plantations are multplying – and the forests of Xishuangbanna are retreating, putting some species at risk, such as the Indochinese tiger and the Mekong giant catfish.
Alerted by local authorities, the central Chinese government created the Xishuangbanna National Nature Reserve in 1958. Made a national priority in 1980, this reserve protects part of the territory.
Useful, creative gardens
Siamese cassia (Senna siamea) : Grown in firewood « gardens » this tree meets the energy needs of the Dai. It is so vigorous and grows so quickly that a 1000 square metres plot can keep a family going for a whole year.
Meanwhile, their ecosystem gardens provide food on a daily basis. Vegetables and medicinal herbs are grown in small family gardens, while fruit trees, bamboo, cotton and rice in larger ones on the outskirts of the village. These gardens are designed so that each plant interacts harmoniously with the others and with its surroundings.
The forest of Xishuangbanna is at risk. Luckily, a traditional form of environmental management is at work in Dai country. Locals fiercely protect certain areas from deforestation; in doing so, they have succeeded in preserving close to 400 hills, creating islands of biodiversity. These hills are sacred to the Dai and form the heart of a rich oral tradition.
Another unusual conservation area: the backyards of some 200 Buddhist temples. Supported by religious canon, conservation spaces for rare species are created.
The Chevrotain: With four stomachs, the chevrotain is a ruminant that weighs 8 kg at most. Its origins can be traced back 34 million years. Living alone or in pairs, it only uses a small territory. Notice its short and slender legs, which are useful for moving quickly through a dense forest.
The Binturong: Don’t make a binturong angry! It will scream and bare its teeth. Yet they say that this little bearcat, as it is nicknamed, is easily tamed and can become an affectionate companion. A loner, it spends its days nestled in the hollow of a tree, making it vulnerable to predators. It waits for nightfall to gather the plants that it is fond of.
All connected to the Forest
Around the strangler fig (Ficus spp.): The famous strangler fig (Ficus spp.) is the prince of the rainforest. Beginning life as an epiphyte, it grows on the branches of a tree that it slowly smothers as soon as its own roots reach the ground. A tireless fig producer, this tree-forest has relationships with many species. Acrobatic gibbons swing through its branches, in the hollows of which hide the pollinator insects of the vines that climb its trunk. Plants and insects, in turn, serve as food for such small animals as the chevrotain and peacock, which are on the menu of the Indochinese tiger and the Indian python. As for the elephant, it eats the leaves.
The binturong in Overloon. Photo : © Tassilo Rau
A chevrotain in the Zoo of Singapour. Photo : © Bjørn Christian Tørrissen