Background: Zoning is a fundamental tool for the effective management of nature reserves. A three-zone model (core zone, buffer zone, and experimental zone) has been applied to nature reserves in China since 1980s; however, this model appears not fit for all types of nature reserves, especially wetlands. Case description: Wuliangsuhai is such a typical wetland reserve, which can represent most of the other wetland reserves in China, for both its human utilization, and for its function as the bird habitat. The "Component-Process-Service" (CPS) framework of the Convention on Wetlands allows a determination of the "ecological character" of the wetland and also allows identification of potential threats, providing thus a perspective for management opportunities and challenges. Discussion and evaluation: Applying the CPS framework to Wuliangsuhai wetland nature reserve, we have had a better understanding of the ecosystem services and its relationship with the ecological process and components of the wetland. A comparison of effectiveness in maintaining ecosystem services by the two zoning models (the existing three-zone model, and the new zoning model) was made. Conclusions: The study suggested introducing an additional risk-control zone to be more effective in managing and alleviating threats to the ecological character than the standard 3-zone system. Furthermore, a "dynamic" zoning that takes into account the annual variation in habitat and avifauna distribution, as an elaboration of the Four-zone structure, may achieve the desired conservation objectives in an even more effective manner. The proposed zonation structure has the added benefit of promoting harmonization between nature conservation and local sustainable development.