Eastern Asia: Central China

Remote coniferous forests on the northern slopes of the Qilian Mountain Range in central China comprise a distinctive ecological community that may support several mammal species of conservation significance. Small bamboo forests potentially provide habitat for the critically endangered giant panda, however it is uncertain whether pandas live in this little-studied ecoregion. Fauna that is known to live here include the snow leopard (Uncia uncia), white-lipped deer (Cervus albirostris), wild yak (Bos grunniens), Tibetan gazelle (Panthalops hodgsonii) and ibex (Capra ibex).

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    6,400 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
The Qilian Mountain Range (maximum elevation 5,547 m) rises along the northeastern rim of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Northward, it slopes to the Alashan Desert of northern China. Southern slopes flank the northern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Vegetation throughout the range consists of Qilian Mountains alpine meadow and scrub with some scattered areas of coniferous forest on north-facing slopes. These coniferous forests are isolated and distinctive enough to qualify as a separate ecoregion.

Climate is a continental highland climate; mostly dry and cold with frequent winds and little rainfall; long winters; short, cool summers; drastic temperature changes from day to night; sandstorms from February to April. Average temperatures are -18.2° C to -7° C in January, 5° C to 21° C in July.

The dominant tree species within Qilian Mountains coniferous forests are spruce (Picea crassifolia) and juniper (Sabina przewalskii) (the genus Sabina is synonymous with the genus Juniperus). Some fir Abies spp. also occur here. Forests in the Qilian Mountains are reported to support a dense understory of small-stature bamboo which provides potential habitat for the giant panda, although this emblematic species is currently limited in its distribution to places southwest of here.

Biodiversity Features
On the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, an amazing diversity of vertebrates—411 species—have been found. Of the animals, 21 kinds are under first-class state protection, 53 are under second-class state protection, 36 are under provincial protection, and 22 have been listed in the International Trade Convention on Endangered Wild Animals and Plants, Appendixes I and II.

This ecoregion supports potential habitat for a variety of forest mammals such as giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), red pandas (Ailurus fulgens), takins (Budorcas taxicolor), and musk deer (Moschus moschiferus). It is uncertain, however, which of these species actually still occur in this little-studied ecoregion. Several endangered ungulate species and their predators are distributed widely across the eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, confined to more remote areas where pressures from hunting and livestock grazing are not too great. These species, adapted to steppe-meadow rangeland habitat, are likely to occur in the Qilian Mountain ecoregions as well. These include snow leopards (Uncia uncia), white-lipped deer (Cervus albirostris), wild yaks (Bos grunniens), Tibetan gazelles (Panthalops hodgsonii) and Ibex (Capra ibex).

The Tibetan Plateau is home to a variety of endemic and near-endemic bird species which include the following: Bar-hooded Goose (Anser indicus), Tibetan Snowcock (Tetraogallus tibetanus), Giant Babax (Babax waddelli) Tibetan Eared Pheasant (Crossoptilon harmani), Tibetan Sandgrouse (Syrrhaptes tibetanus).

Current Status
Much of this ecoregion remains intact due to the inaccessability of the Qilian Mountains. However, soil erosion, water shortage, and deforestation have contributed to the damage of forests. In the coming 15 years, the province will improve its conservation of the ecological balance, including the protection of the water and soil in six areas: the sources of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, Qinghai Lake, the arid mountains in the east, the Longyang Gorge Reservoir, and the Qaidam Basin. Further study of the ecology of this remote forest region would provide a foundation for informed management decisions.

Types and Severity of Threats
Soil erosion, water shortage, and deforestation are the main threats to this ecoregion. Qinghai is the original place of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers and is thus important to the ecological balance of the entire region.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
The Hexi Corridor is a chain of narrow depressions between the mountain ranges in this region that is functions as an ecological divide between the desert region in the north and the plateau in the south. At higher altitudes along the Qilian Mountains is a scattered spruce belt (2b) according to the CVMCC (1979) Vegetation Map of China classes. This is comparable to the Qilian Mountains biogeographic subunit in the Tibetan Plateau according to Mackinnon et al. (1996).

Chinese Vegetation Map Compilation Committee. 1979. Vegetation map of China. Map (1:10,000,000). Science Press, Beijing, China.

MacKinnon, J. 1996. Wild China. The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.

Mackinnon, J., M. Sha, C. Cheung, G. Carey, Z. Xiang, and D. Melville. 1996. A biodiversity review of China. World Wide Fund for Nature, Hong Kong.

Zhao, X. and X. Zhou. 1999. Ecological Basis of Alpine Meadow Ecosystem Management in Tibet. Ambio 26(8).

Prepared by: Chris Carpenter
Reviewed by: In process