A spectacular area stretching over more than 26,000 ha in China's Hunan Province, the site is dominated by more than 3,000 narrow sandstone pillars and peaks, many over 200 m high. Between the peaks lie ravines and gorges with streams, pools and waterfalls, some 40 caves, and two large natural bridges. In addition to the striking beauty of the landscape, the region is also noted for the fact that it is home to a number of endangered plant and animal species.

The site lies in the Wulingyuan District of the city of Dayong and covers the entire drainage basin of the Suoxi Brook, which winds for 69 km through the site. The most notable feature, dominating about two-thirds of the site, are more than 3,000 quartzite sandstone pillars and peaks. Between the peaks are numerous ravines and gorges, many containing attractive streams, pools and waterfalls. The site also contains a number of karst features, notably some 40 caves which are concentrated on the banks of the Suoxiyu River and the south-east side of Tianzi Mountain. Huanglong or Yellow Dragon Cave is said to be one of the 10 largest caves in China. Spectacular calcite deposits are a major feature of many of these caves.

There are two spectacular natural bridges in the area: Xianrenqias (Bridge of the Immortals) and Tianqiashengkong (Bridge Across the Sky). It lies 357 m above the valley floor and may be the highest natural bridge in the world. The site is popularly known to have '800 brooks and streams' but in reality, there are far less, perhaps 60. Many drain into the Suoxi River which runs through the centre of the site. One of the side branches of this river has been dammed at one point, creating Baojeng Lake. This lake has been created for water supply, flood control and to enhance the habitat for the Chinese giant salamander as well as for recreation.

Wulingyuan lies in the Central China Botanic Region of the Sino-Japanese Botanic Zone, and was a refuge for many ancient species during the Quaternary glacial period. Below 700 m the community is predominantly evergreen broadleaf. Between 700 m and 950 m, there is a mixed community of evergreen and deciduous broadleaved trees. There are also some coniferous species including Chinese plum yew and pines. Above 950 m, there is a community of deciduous broadleaved trees, bushes and herbs; in some areas below 1,000 m, extensive communities are dominated by pine.

3,000 species of plant occur within the area, including some 600 species of woody plant; these are split fairly evenly between tropical/subtropical and temperate species. Many of the species are of value for timber, medical or ornamental purposes.

A number of faunal species are globally threatened with extinction: Chinese giant salamander, Asiatic wild dog, Asiatic black bear, clouded leopard, leopard and Chinese water deer. The clouded leopard population is likely to be very small, although tracks and others signs have been found they have never actually been seen.

Unlike many other areas of China, the site does not have a long human history. In ancient times it was regarded as remote and inaccessible. Local legends indicate that Zhangliang, a lord in the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), lived in seclusion in Wulingyuan and was buried below Qingyan (now Zhangjiajie) Mountain.

Approved as a scenic and historic interest area by the State Council in 1988, and was placed under the authority of Wulingyuan District Government which was created in the same year. In ancient times, the site was remote, inaccessible and seldom visited: it thus remained almost untouched by man until the founding of People's Republic of China in 1949. Since that time it was under the administration of three county governments, until the Wulingyuan District was established and instructed to take great care to ensure protection, with the closure of some hills to facilitate afforestation. In 1992 the core zone was established as a natural World Heritage Site on the basis of criterion (iii).

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