Cover Story Following damage caused by economic rise, China tackles ambitious conservation experiment

The government intends to combine three separate regions of Sanjiangyuan to create China’s first national park, setting aside an area the size of Pennsylvania. China is also working to set up a series of other trial national parks around the country.

Ann Hermes/Staff

More than 2,700 miles before the Mekong River drains into the South China Sea, before it winds past the ancient Khmer temple of Vat Phou and the poppy fields of the Golden Triangle, it begins on the Tibetan Plateau in western China. Tibetan Buddhists believe the spiritual source of the river is an alpine lake called Zaxiqiwa. Scientists have argued for decades over the river’s geographical origin. Not one of them doubts that it trickles down from a glacier high in the serrated mountains. The question is which one.