KUNMING－An active geothermal area in southwest China's Yunnan province has created rich biodiversity, enabling villagers to launch lucrative ecotourism projects. Tengchong, located close to the Myanmar border, boasts a lush landscape, panoramic ranges and marshy flats, and was once home to dozens of active volcanoes.
The last unconfirmed eruption took place in 1609, and there are unconfirmed reports of others during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), according to the Smithsonian Institution's Global Volcanism Program.
Due to the liquid heat flows produced by the geothermal activity, residents call the environment around Tengchong "half water, half fire".
The liquid rock spewed by the volcanoes across the area has laid the foundations for the rich soil that nurtures an abundance of vegetation.
So far, more than 2,500 types of plants and over 560 vertebrates have been recorded around Tengchong.
Zhang Xingguo, a 43-year-old farmer from Shuanghai village, is now leading a team of boatmen offering tourists sightseeing services in the Tengchong Beihai Wetland. The provincial government approved the designation of the wetland as a nature reserve in 2005, spanning a total area of 1,629 hectares.
In 2010, Tengchong completed the conversion of paddy fields and fish ponds around the reserve into wetland－covering nearly 200 hectares－along with other projects including a dam construction, greening work and disaster control.
Around 120 hectares of vegetation were restored, which sped up the recovery of local biodiversity.
The improved environment provides tranquil vistas that attract numerous visitors, while villagers nearby have enjoyed the benefits of tourism.
"More than 140 residents from our village are now working in the reserve," Zhang said. "Some are guides who introduce the wetland to tourists, and some work in wetland protection patrols. I earn a monthly salary of 4,500 yuan ($700) by rowing the sightseeing boats."
The booming tourist industry has drawn many young people back to Shuanghai to take advantage of the economic opportunities. Each villager's average income increased from 2,710 yuan in 2007 to 11,300 yuan in 2019.
Apart from the wetland, the mountains are also subject to protection measures as part of Tengchong's eco-friendly development push.
Yang Xingcan, 48, has been a forest ranger in the Gaoligong Mountains for over two decades.
"Long ago, poachers could always be found in the mountains, and locals also logged with no restrictions," Yang said.
Duan Shaozhong, deputy director of the Tengchong bureau, Gaoligong Mountains National Nature Reserve, said the ranges provide a significant ecological barrier not only for Tengchong, but also for China.
The bureau has made every effort to conserve the ecology of the mountains. It has organized a patrol group of 180 rangers, 130 of whom are local villagers.
Yang earns 2,500 yuan a month as a ranger, in addition to his homestay business which brings him about 200,000 yuan every year. His guests have included the crew of a popular variety show.
Hiking has become a key attraction for tourists, with enthusiasts able to experience the natural scenery in the mountains and trekking along marked paths.
Duan said the bureau has installed more than 400 infrared cameras in the mountains to monitor wildlife and has also established a 2,600-hectare corridor to help the migration of animals.
The Tengchong government is also cooperating with LONGi Green Energy Technology, a leading photovoltaic module supplier, to produce monocrystalline silicon rods.
The hydropower resources of the city will be utilized in the production of solar energy panels－another facet of Tengchong's green transformation.