Detecting Early Signs of Environmental Degradation in Protected Areas: An Example of Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, China

Published In

Ecological Indicators

Document Type


Publication Date



Identifying early signs of anthropogenic disturbances in protected areas is critical for determining overuse, safeguarding natural beauty, protecting biodiversity, and sustaining resource use and economy. Assessing disturbances to aquatic systems of such areas is challenging due to the low-dose, diffused, and cumulative nature of disturbances; high risk at iconic sites; and difficulty of linking human activities with degradation. Using Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve as an example study to overcome such challenges, we developed an approach that integrated human activities known to impact aquatic systems to calculate a holistic disturbance index for assessing the extent of human uses at scales of entire reserve and individual sub-watersheds. We linked human disturbance index with benthic algae and macroinvertebrate indicators of individual waterbodies to identify early signs of degradation. We conducted in situ nutrient experiments and intensive sampling of biota at iconic sites with early signs of degradation to provide direct linkage between tourist activities and eutrophication, and to pinpoint mechanisms of how human disturbances have resulted in such degradations. We found that the human disturbance index significantly correlated with benthic algae and macroinvertebrate indicators, and Jiuzhaigou is largely in healthy condition. For the two identified iconic sites with early signs of degradation, intensive tourist activities at observation and rest areas of Five-Color Lake seemed to link to extra amount of nitrogen input into the lake and resulted in overgrowth of phytoplankton and filamentous algae during summer peak tourist months. Extra amount of phosphorus input from tourism activities at Pearl Shoal seemed the cause of changes in substrate colors and of shifts in attached moss and algal communities. Our example study demonstrates that early signs of degradation can be visually observed and should be further assessed by measuring water quality and sensitive biological indicators at high risk areas of a waterbody during summer and peak tourist seasons. Sensitive biological indicators (e.g., intolerant diatom and macroinvertebrates) are better indicators than nutrient concentrations because of rapid assimilation of nutrients by algae and macrophytes. Our assessment approach and findings of studying Jiuzhaigou have broad applications to other protected areas for determining overuse, and hence for making science-based policy and taking adequate management actions to prevent overuses.



Persistent Identifier