Pingwu County, tucked away in a remote corner of Sichuan province, has the highest concentration of Giant Pandas in the wild. Wanglang Nature Reserve, pictured, is one of the few parts of the county that is protected from development.
Pingwu County, tucked away in a remote corner of Sichuan province, has the highest concentration of Giant Pandas in the wild. Wanglang Nature Reserve, pictured, is one of the few parts of the county that is protected from development. - 

Jeremy Hobson: So our economic growth was 1.3 percent last quarter. China's GDP? Almost 10 percent.

But that rapid growth has often come at the expense of China's environment. And now, a group of Chinese billionaires want to help. They're pooling their money to create China's first private nature reserve. It's an unusual move in a country where the government runs all the national parks. But as Marketplace China Correspondent Rob Schmitz reports, the Chinese government could use some help.


Rob Schmitz: The history of Pingwu County's economy is written on its mountainsides. Old growth forests stood here once. Decades of logging wiped them out.

Chen Youping is a government official here.

Chen Youping: We got to a point where we nearly had no more trees to chop down. But then the government banned logging. That was in 1998. Since then, our economy has really suffered.

To make up for the lost revenue, Pingwu County turned to hydroelectric power. The government dammed the mountain streams here. The valleys filled with water. All of a sudden, there were lakes surrounded by steep bare hillsides. And now, the hillsides are disappearing into the lakes. Huge mechanical excavators clear a mountain road -- a part of it was wiped out by the latest landslide. All this degradation is par for the course in the poor mountainous regions of China.

But the devastation in Pingwu County, tucked away in a remote corner of Sichuan province, is drawing attention. That's because it's home to nearly a fifth of the world's Giant Pandas. And that's why a group of China's richest entrepreneurs are pooling their money to buy part of this county -- to set it aside so that nobody touches it. The Nature Conservancy is helping them create China's first private nature reserve. Zhao Peng works for the conservancy.

Zhao Peng: The pattern in China has been to develop land, not to protect it.

The 23 entrepreneurs are led by Jack Ma. He's one of China's richest men; he founded the wildly popular Internet company Alibaba. According to Chinese media reports, each entrepreneur will contribute $1.4 million over the next three years to establish the park. It's a 100 square mile tract of mountains and forests.

Today, The Nature Conservancy's Zhao Peng hikes through the forest. He's looking for a camera set up by scientists that's programmed to take photos when an animal walks by. He finds it, pulls the camera out of a box and uploads photos taken over the past month onto his laptop.

Zhao: We got something.

No pandas this time. Instead, a couple shots of porcupines, badgers. There's even a bunch of photos of local villagers trying to steal the camera. Their poverty raises a question: Now that it's clear this land won't be developed, what are they going to get out of this?

Chen Xiaohong raises a thousand chickens on his farm near the park. Though the park will be off-limits to tourists, his village won't be. The local government has plans to promote ecotourism here. Chen says that's better than logging.

Chen Xiaohong: The stream that runs through my farm used to have five kinds of fish. Now, because of the logging and mining upstream, it doesn't have any fish. The environment here needs to be protected.

Chen dreams of opening a restaurant and starting his own organic chicken business. Local government official Chen Youping says this park might prove to be a model to protect other fragile ecosystems in China. Chen runs a nearby government-managed nature reserve. He says such publicly run parks in China suffer from a lack of funding. That forces parks to chase profits by building hotels, karaoke halls and parking lots. And that can defeat the whole purpose of conservation.

Chen Youping: I hope this private model works better. It's a new way to manage and fund parks in China, and I think it'll protect more of our natural areas.

The trick, of course, is to get more of China's increasing number of billionaires to part with some of their new wealth.

In Pingwu County, Sichuan, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz