Tibetan herder turns into river guardian

For nearly 20 years, Zhoema Gyalpo has made it his mission to pick up garbage on the banks of the Yellow River, China's second-longest river.

The Tibetan man from northwest China's Gansu Province hiked about 430 km with his family and fellow villagers in 2021 on a trip lasting over 40 days along the Yellow River, cleaning up its banks.

For him, it was his way of protecting China's "mother river."

Zhoema lives in the county of Maqu of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. In the Tibetan language, Maqu means "the Yellow River." The river has a meandering section of around 430 km in the county.

Located at the eastern tip of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the county is a primary area of water conservation in the upper reaches of the Yellow River. The wetland in Maqu covers an area of more than 374,000 hectares.

"The river and the grassland nourish generations of people living here. We cherish them," said Zhoema.

Zhoema Gyalpo used to be a herder. Though living in the lush meadow on the bank of the Yellow River, he noticed that the county suffered from severe environmental degradation due to climate changes and various human activities.

"The grassland vegetation degraded sharply as a consequence of over-grazing and garbage pollution," Zhoema Gyalpo said, adding that plastic waste once polluted both the river and the grassland, sometimes causing cattle deaths.

To save his own meadow from degradation, Zhoema started collecting garbage across the grassland and along the Yellow River in 2003. He persisted for years despite little understanding from his fellow herders.

His meadow gradually became lush and beautiful, and his cattle grew better than others.

In 2015, the government of Gannan launched an environmental campaign to enhance the living environment of tens of thousands of farmers and herders living in the prefecture and raise their environmental awareness.

Since then, Zhoema has had more and more companions in fighting garbage pollution. Many herders formed the habit of collecting garbage and taking good care of the grassland.

However, garbage pollution is just one of the problems faced by the river. Over the years, the wetlands in Maqu had shrunk as desertification intensified and water conservation capacity dropped.

Drought and desertification had even caused several tributaries in Maqu to dry up, noted Ma Jianyun, a local forestry official.

To give the grassland a break, Zhoema Gyalpo sold more than 1,000 heads of his flocks and herds, keeping just about 200.

"It was not right to focus on the immediate benefits. Too many cattle and sheep would damage the meadow and reduce the earnings in the long run," Zhoema said.

The local government has taken measures, including initiating ecological migration programs, imposing a grazing ban in certain areas, and encouraging local herders to participate in environmental protection and tourism.

Many herders like Zhoema Gyalpo, who once lived on herding, are now embracing tourism launched by the local government and taking up jobs in the tourism and hospitality sector.

The measures have proven effective, with the trend of deterioration in the local ecology reversed. By the end of 2021, grazing bans and restrictions were imposed on more than 533,000 hectares of grassland, while herders also received compensation.

Zhoema Gyalpo opened an organic fertilizer factory in 2017, collecting animal waste and turning it into organic fertilizers used on plants for desertification control.

"A local proverb says, 'those who pull up the grass would stop growing tall, and those who pollute the river would feel pain in their eyes,'" Zhoema Gyalpo said. "Nature gives us precious gifts to take for a living, and we should treasure and protect them in return."