"All the trees and plants here make an umbrella for the Buddha, all the animals are his gatekeepers, and like the lakes in heaven, the waters of this holy spring can never be finished." Dongga Luzhui, an elder from a Kham Tibetan village in China's Yunnan Province, finished his recitation and bowed toward the trees that towered over us. The grove was thick and dark with ancient firs, yews, hemlocks, and spruces. The trees had never been cut and never would be, Luzhui explained, because they hold the spirits of the Buddha and Living Buddhas, men believed to be reincarnations of other high holy ones.
I had joined Luzhui on a pilgrimage to a sacred waterfall in the Hengduan Mountains near Yunnan's border with Tibet. Two young Tibetan anthropologists accompanied us to document the holy sites that abound in this land of tall trees, soaring peaks, and rushing rivers. "It's not only these trees that can't be touched," said Xirao Sangbo, one of the anthropologists, "but also all the trees and animals beyond a sacred line" the local Tibetans had demarcated centuries ago. "Everything above that line belongs to the spirit of the highest mountain, and anyone who wants to take something from this forest must offer many prayers to the gods."
Such beliefs, common in the vast reaches of the Hengduan Mountains, are largely responsible for the remaining patches of old-growth forest in this part of south-central China. Running north and south, the many ranges of the Hengduans march from eastern Tibet into the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan and cover more than 300,000 square miles (780,000 square kilometers). Between the ranges run four of Asia's greatest rivers: the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, and Irrawaddy. The combination of high mountain peaks (many soar more than 15,000 feet [4,600 meters]), plunging river canyons (some as deep as 10,000 feet [3,000 meters]), and a monsoonal climate has created one of the few biological hotspots that is predominantly temperate.
Here in the Hengduans live nearly 50 species of conifers. Numerous species of maples, oaks, bamboos, rhododendrons, lilacs, primroses, and roses grow among the evergreens, forming forests that look as if they'd been planted by someone consulting a gardener's catalog. Indeed, one of the most beloved of garden plants, the elegant regal lily, was discovered less than a hundred years ago in a canyon of the Hengduans. Yet the mountains are wild, and in their deepest haunts roam some of the last remaining populations of giant pandas and red pandas, golden monkeys, snow leopards, blue sheep, and black-necked cranes.
But that rich abundance of species has been lost in most of the Hengduan ranges, primarily because of uncontrolled clear-cutting, fuelwood collecting, and hunting. Despite the sacred protection afforded to holy sites, conservationists estimate that less than 10 percent of the mountains' original forests remain. Now, however, Beijing has launched a massive effort to preserve what is left. In 1998, following devastating floods along the Yangtze River (which officials attributed to the intensive timber harvests), the Chinese government enacted a ban on commercial logging in the Hengduan region. It also forbade hunting, created dozens of parks and reserves to attract Chinese and foreign tourists, and began promoting conservation education, often through public slogan campaigns. Through that combination of bans, tourism, and education the government hopes to turn the environmental tide in China—and ultimately preserve the country's richest region of biodiversity, the Hengduan Mountains.