China’s Conservation Heroes: An Interview With Professor Lu Zhi

Over the last 12 months I have been lucky enough to work with ShanShui Conservation Centre, one of China’s most active and impressive conservation NGOs focusing on community-led conservation projects, especially on the Tibetan Plateau.  ShanShui was founded in 2007 by Professor Lu Zhi, perhaps China’s most famous conservationist who made her name working with Giant Pandas in the 1980s and 1990s.  In the first of an occasional series of interviews to showcase China’s conservation heroes, I visited Peking University to speak with Professor Lu about how she got into conservation (by accident!), her motivation for forming her own NGO, her take on the current conservation challenges in China and even what she would say if she had 5 minutes with President Xi Jinping (she has two great pieces of advice).  The complete interview is just over an hour long.

I hope you enjoy listening to Professor Lu Zhi as much as I did.

Cover image: Professor Lu speaking with a young conservationist on the Tibetan Plateau.

Training Yak Herders on the Tibetan Plateau

Providing training to yak herders on the Tibetan Plateau was not something I ever expected to feature in my career..  but that’s precisely what I was doing last week!

In partnership with Chinese NGO, 山水 (ShanShui), the training was designed to build capacity for small-scale, high-value wildlife tourism in a stunning valley near Yushu in Qinghai Province.  It was my 6th visit to this special part of China and each time I am in awe of the sheer majesty of the scenery, the wildlife and, especially, the local people.

At 4,500m elevation, the scenery is simply stunning.

Traditionally, the Tibetan communities in this area have been nomadic, making a living by roaming the mountains and valleys of the Tibetan Plateau to seek out the best grazing for their herds of yak.  For centuries they have lived alongside wildlife, including some of the most impressive predators in Asia – Lynx, Leopard, Tibetan Wolf, Asian Brown Bear and, of course, the ‘grey ghost’ (Snow Leopard).  In recent decades, these communities have been encouraged to become less nomadic, living in more permanent settlements dotted along the valleys, concentrated around the best grazing, enabling easier provision of services and greater access to schools.  Today, overgrazing is a serious issue on the Plateau and there is pressure on the local people to reduce the size of their herds which will, of course, reduce incomes.  Identifying alternative income sources is therefore paramount to help ensure the sustainability of their way of life.  Given the relatively high density of predators, the existence of some range-restricted birds such as Tibetan Bunting and Tibetan Babax, and the stunning scenery, one potential alternative source of income is wildlife watching tourism.

ShanShui has been working with this particular community for some time, engaging them in their Snow Leopard conservation project.  Zhao Xiang, who heads up the project, spends most of his time in this area, ably assisted by Li Yuhan and some local staff, including the wonderful ZhaLa.  Already, many of the families have been involved in placing and managing a host of camera traps, designed to help map the density of predators in the valley.  Together, they’ve identified more than 20 individual Snow Leopards in the area as well as capturing images of Leopard and Snow Leopard in the same place, suggesting their territories overlap, something that has only rarely been documented before.

Asian Brown Bear caught by a camera trap. Image courtesy of ShanShui.
A Leopard caught in the same camera trap. Image courtesy of ShanShui.
One of the Snow Leopards captured by a local camera trap. Image courtesy of ShanShui.

The video below shows some of the local people setting up and testing one of the camera traps (by pretending to be a Snow Leopard).

Wildlife watching is something I’ve been discussing with the local government and ShanShui since my first visit in August 2016 when I was fortunate enough to see two Snow Leopards on the first day of the wildlife watching festival.  After writing some advisory papers and following discussions involving the local government, ShanShui and local people, we organised two ‘pilot’ wildlife watching trips to the valley in April and June 2017, both of which were successful in seeing Snow Leopards and a range of other special wildlife, thus proving the potential for wildlife watchers to enjoy a special experience in this valley.  Since then I’ve been working with ShanShui to build the capacity of homestay families, drivers and guides to host visiting wildlife watching tourists.  Last week’s training was the first of what we expect to be a series of five or six courses over the next few months.

I must admit I was a little apprehensive at the prospect of training Tibetan yak herders.  Would these nomads really take to being in a ‘classroom’?  Would they be receptive to the ideas and experience we would convey?  Would they even turn up at all…!?  I needn’t have worried.  The yak herders were an absolute joy to work with – full of enthusiasm, a hunger for knowledge, participatory and most of all, fun!  In fact they taught us as much as we taught them.

Studying a book about the wildlife of Sanjiangyuan, the name for the broader local area.

We conveyed examples of sustainable wildlife watching tourism in other parts of the world, learned about cultural differences and how to communicate in the absence of a shared language, discussed good practice in hosting wildlife watching tourists… including a session on basic medical training from a local doctor, and there was even a cookery session dedicated to catering for different tastes including vegetarians (not something that comes naturally to a community that relies on yak for almost everything).

The cooking course was a highlight!

As an early ice-breaker, the participants put together a map of the valley on which they annotated the best areas for the most sought after wildlife – Snow Leopard, Leopard, Asian Brown Bear, Tibetan Wolf, Lynx and Tibetan Bunting.

One of the outputs – a map of the local valley with colour-coded dots representing sites for the key wildlife.
The key for the map.

After two days of classroom-based training we set up a ‘field day’ during which the participants would put into practice their knowledge and guide us for a day.

My team for the field day..
Heading into a stunning side valley..
Scanning for wildlife.
Learning to use a telescope..

We had a wonderful time, following them into secret side valleys, listening as they told us about the significance of the local plants and pointing out signs of wild animals including a Snow Leopard scrape and fresh bear scratches on an ancient tree.

A Snow Leopard ‘scrape’, used to mark territory.
Scratches of Asian Brown Bear on an ancient tree

As with many rural communities around the world, a significant proportion of the young people are tending to move to the cities where they hope to find more opportunities.  It was heartening to hear the young guys in my group say they wanted to stay in the valley and were looking for ways to generate alternative income that would enable them to do so.. wildlife watching tourism, they said, might be just such an enabler.

I returned to Beijing feeling positive about the future of the wildlife and the wonderful people that co-exist in this special part of the world.  If managed well, including restricting the total numbers of visitors, implementing a code of conduct for visitors and monitoring the impact on the fragile ecosystem, tourism has the potential to raise income levels for local people across the community, raise funds for Snow Leopard conservation and provide visitors with a special experience.  I’m looking forward to further supporting the local people to take advantage of this opportunity.

Big thanks to Zhao Xiang, Li Yuhan and Zhala of ShanShui for making the arrangements and for their wonderful hospitality.  Also to Cuomao, my skilled Tibetan-English interpreter, the local government who provided me with accommodation and food during this stay and, of course, to all of the wonderful participants of the course for being such brilliant students and teachers.

The third pilot trip – the first since the training – will take place next week when I visit the valley with an international group of wildlife watchers and I am sure it will help further to develop the capacity of the local people whilst learning more about the best places to see the wildlife.  If you have a small group interested in visiting, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

 

 

 

Header image: playing the “food chain game”.

Nocturnal Flight Calls in Beijing

Have you ever wondered what birds are flying over your home?  During the migration season it is possible that many hundreds, even thousands, of birds fly over one’s home in a single night and recording sound during the dark hours can help to shed light on the number of birds and the diversity of species that are flying overhead as we sleep.

The practice of recording nocturnal flight calls (NFC) is gaining in popularity in Europe and the US (and elsewhere?) but is still in its relative infancy.  Thus, identification of the calls recorded is a major challenge.  Not only does successful ID require a strong knowledge of the vocalisations of many of the resident and migratory species in the area but it appears that some birds use different calls at night to those with which we are familiar, thus adding to the difficulty.

For some time, I’ve been thinking that I really should try to record nocturnal flight calls in Beijing.  After all, although I live close to one of the world’s busiest airports (a source of ‘noise’ for around 20 hours per day), my apartment is on the 13th (top) floor and, from sightings in the capital, we know that Beijing is on a major flyway.  There simply *must* be lots of migrants flying over my apartment as I sleep…

And so, after some helpful advice from David Darrell-Lambert in London, who has been recording night flight calls for some time in an urban environment, I took the plunge and ordered a digital sound recorder and set to work!  I made my first recording on the night of 29/30 August and have been recording every night that I have been at home ever since.

So what have I discovered?  A resident LITTLE OWL that I never knew I had, some BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERONS, MOORHEN, GREY NIGHTJAR, brown flycatcher sp, a probable EYEBROWED THRUSH, YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER, OLIVE-BACKED and RICHARD’S PIPITS, LITTLE BUNTINGS and many many many calls that remain unidentified!

Here are the spectograms and recordings of MOORHEN and the presumed EYEBROWED THRUSH.  Note the “noise” of the local crickets, particularly in the first recording.

 

That’s not a bad list of species for a major capital city and I am confident I will record many more species as the autumn wears on.  What price a first record for Beijing?

So how does it work?

The digital recorder records to a HCSD memory card.  Depending on the quality, a 16GB memory card can record around 20 hours of sound.  I simply place the recorder on my window ledge (or on the roof), pointing roughly in a northerly direction, and leave it there until early morning.  When I wake I have around 8-10 hours of recording.

Fortunately, one doesn’t need to listen to all 8-10 hours to find the birds.  There is some great free software out there to help.  Audacity and Cornell Lab’s RavenLite are both superb pieces of software that help to “visualise” the sounds using a spectogram.  I upload the sound file from the memory card to RavenLite and set the programme to display 10 seconds at a time…  then I scroll through the file, spending a fraction of a second on each page, until I see an obvious bird call.  For my urban environment, I very quickly became accustomed to identifying barking dogs, car horns and people shouting, enabling me to scan the files with ever greater efficiency.  I perhaps spend around an hour going through each night’s recording and saving all the relevant snippets.  So far, on average, I have recorded around 30 calls per night, around two thirds of which remain unidentified.

To help with identification, the great resources at Xeno-canto Asia are a big help.  However, even this resource is generally limited to diurnal calls and may not include calls given exclusively at night.

It is clear there is a huge amount to learn, and discover, by recording nocturnal flight calls and I am sure that I am going to find out an immense amount over the autumn migration period.

A dedicated page has been set up here where all the latest news about this exciting new project will be posted.  Please check regularly and help if you can!

Title image: a spectogram of EYEBROWED THRUSH recorded from my apartment.

The Birds of the Wenyu, Beijing’s Mother River

Beijing is one of the few major inland capital cities not built on a major river.  In fact, the choice of site for China’s capital was taken partly because it wasn’t coastal or on a major river, thus reducing the risk of invasion via water.

However, to think that Beijing doesn’t have ANY rivers would be a mistake.  The Yongding, Chaobai and Juma originate in the highlands of neighbouring provinces, Hebei and Shanxi, and meander through the mountains west and north of the city.  And there is a fourth river – the Wenyu – that runs from Shahe Reservoir, between the 5th and 6th ring roads in the north of the city, to Tongzhou in the southeast.  All four rivers are tributaries of the Hai river that eventually empties into the Bohai on China’s east coast.

Running along the border of Chaoyang (urban Beijing) and Shunyi (Suburban) Districts, the Wenyu River is a flyway for migratory birds that has attracted Beijing ‘firsts’ such as Greater Flamingo, Grey-tailed Tattler and Buff-throated Warbler.  The Wenyu has also been the local patch for one of the most active of Beijing’s patch watchers – Steve Bale (Shi Jin).

There is something magical about birding a local patch.  Over time, the patch-birder develops an intimate knowledge of the resident species and the migratory birds likely to turn up, including when they are likely to appear.  The joy of finding a “patch first”, even if it’s a relatively common species in the region, is hard to beat… and the more effort invested, the more rewarding the results.

Of course, some locations are better than others and Steve’s choice of a relatively unknown river in the most populated capital city in the world perhaps doesn’t sound the most promising of local patches.  However, the reality is very different.  As you will see from the free-to-enjoy PDF of Steve’s book, The Birds of the Wenyu ..Beijing’s Mother River, this is a place that all birders living in or passing through China’s capital should be visiting time and time again.  As I am sure your will agree, this is a mightily impressive and wonderfully written work, which documents the 280 species recorded by (on, and over) the Wenyu River.

We perhaps should not be surprised that the Wenyu River is so productive.  After all, it’s part of Beijing, an under-birded city located on one of the world’s most impressive flyways.  And, as Steve says in his introduction, the potential for discovery is huge and it must only be a matter of time before the 300th species is recorded there.

Steve should be congratulated on a brilliant and comprehensive piece of work.  Not only is his the first book of its kind for China’s capital city, adding significantly to our understanding of the avifauna of Beijing, but with plans to translate and distribute it free of charge to schools and community groups, it will certainly inspire a whole new generation of birders in the capital.

Thank you, Steve!

 

What Have Birds Ever Done For Us?

Most people of a certain age will chuckle at the mention of the famous “What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?” clip from Monty Python’s “The Life Of Brian”.  I was reminded of that scene when I began to read an excellent paper about the value of birds by 

As the introduction of the paper says, some birders and conservationists will feel offended when asked to explain why we should care about wild birds.  This community already values them highly for the pleasure they obtain from seeing and hearing them and simply being around them.  However, this value is felt only by those already steeped in birds and their environments.  The vast majority of decision-makers, politicians and policymakers aren’t convinced by this view and, in this age of growing pressure on our environment, decisions are increasingly being made based on a judgement about the impact on the economy.  This means that it is vital for conservationists to communicate the value of birds, and other wildlife, in terms that are recognised, and respected, by people that make important decisions about development.

This paper examines three areas where birds make significant contributions to the economy – seed dispersal and pollination, pest control, and scavenging and sanitary services.

Here are just a few examples from the paper:

According to Diana Tomback, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Colorado at Denver, the estimated cost of replacing CLARK’S NUTCRACKERS’ seed dispersal of white-bark pine is USD 1,980 to USD 2,405 per hectare and USD 11.4 to USD 13.9 billion across the range of whitebark pines in the U.S.

Birds such as Nutcrackers and Jays are highly valuable for seed dispersal.

In Malaysia, oil palm farmers put up BARN OWL nest boxes when local rodents developed resistance to the rodenticide warfarin. The switch to owls had the added benefit of population increases of other species that were being poisoned by warfarin, including mammalian predators, such as common palm civets and leopard cats.

Owls, such as this Northern Hawk Owl, are important for controlling rodent populations.

And in India, the crash in the population of vultures in the 1990s, caused by the administering of the veterinary drug diclofenac (which causes kidney failure in vultures when they feed on the carcasses), has been devastating.  The paper explains that, as vultures disappeared, there were increases in rotting animal carcasses which resulted in a 20-fold increase in the number of feral dogs at just one Indian rubbish dump.  Economist Anil Markandya and colleagues calculated that from 1992 to 2006 alone, the disappearance of vultures led to approximately 48,000 additional human deaths from rabies and cost USD 34 billion to the Indian economy.

Vultures provide a huge economic benefit by cleaning up rotten carcasses, sadly often valued only when they have disappeared.

As researchers focus on this issue, I am certain there will be many more examples of “hidden benefits” of wild birds from across the world.  As Cagan says in the paper:

“Only a small fraction of bird ecosystem services have been evaluated economically, but even these few examples show how birds are critical for the healthy functioning of ecosystems and contribute billions of dollars to the world’s GDP.”

As much as some in the conservation community may find it offensive to need to set out the economic value of wildlife, this type of analysis will be an essential, and increasingly necessary, part of the argument to protect and conserve wild birds and their habitats and one that is written in language that policymakers, politicians, the public and even hard-nosed economists will understand.  The paper is recommended reading for all politicians in all countries!

After reading, as in the Monty Python film, some sceptics might well say “Ok, APART from the seed dispersal, pollination, pest control AND the sanitary services, what have birds ever done for us?” but it might just convince some that wild birds and their habitats are worth saving and, for that reason, it’s a hugely important paper that deserves wide dissemination.

Huge credit to Cagan for setting out the economic value of birds so clearly and succinctly. The full paper can be accessed here.  A Chinese version is available here.  And more on this subject can be found in Cagan’s book entitled “Why Birds Matter“.

Thank you to Professor Per Alström for flagging up the paper to Birding Beijing and to Li Siqi for the excellent Chinese translation.

 

Schools For Swifts: Harrow Beijing to Make and Erect Swift Boxes

Two years ago, after an agonising 12 months wait, the Beijing Swift Project proved, for the first time, that the capital’s Swifts migrate to southern Africa for the northern winter.  The astonishing journey, which sees them fly more than 26,000km per year (and, by the way, many of them probably don’t land at all!), has inspired not only scientists but also everyday Beijingers.  As well as the national mainstream media coverage reaching millions of Chinese, the story of the Beijing Swift has been the subject of science lessons by forward-thinking teachers and features in magazines.  One of the most important aspects of the coverage has been to shine a spotlight on the population decline of the Beijing Swift.  Although hard data is sketchy, it is clear from speaking with local ornithologists that the number of Swifts circling in the skies over Beijing has fallen dramatically.  The main culprit is the loss of nest sites caused by the destruction of traditional buildings, complete with lots of nooks and crannies, which have been replaced by modern, high-rise developments with their straight lines and smooth surfaces – not so good for the Beijing Swift.

I’ve lost count of the number of schools I’ve visited to tell the story of the Beijing Swift and, almost without exception, the schoolchildren are very concerned when they hear about the decline and want to do something about it.  One group is planning to write to the CEO of China Soho, the largest real estate developer in Beijing, to ask that they will consider designing in Swift boxes to their new buildings to provide replacement nest sites.  And now, one school is going a step further!

A few weeks ago I met with Paul Shelley, Head of Design and Technology at Harrow Beijing, one of the capital’s international schools.  Paul is keen for students to link their woodwork classes to conservation and, after sharing designs of Swift boxes, the woodwork students at Harrow will, this autumn, build and then erect swift boxes to the campus in Beijing with the hope of attracting Swifts to begin a new colony on site.

The campus of Harrow Beijing. Thanks to the teachers and students, there could soon be the sound of screaming Swifts on summer evenings!

Of course, there is no guarantee that they can attract Swifts and it will take some time, and some encouragement by way of playing Swift calls at the right time of year, to maximise the chances of success…  but what a brilliant initiative!

It’s something I think could catch on…  school campuses offer perfect sites for Swift colonies – often they are large buildings with eaves and with large open spaces to the front, providing Swifts with plenty of access.  It’s certainly something that I’ll include in my briefings on the project in the hope that other schools follow suit.  Who knows – this could be the start of a new initiative – “Schools For Swifts”..!?

Kudos to Harrow, and Paul in particular, for making this happen and I wish Paul and his students the best of luck when the autumn term begins in September.  Watch this space for updates!

 

Title image: Swifts at the Summer Palace

The 3rd China International Birding Festival, 20-22 October 2017 – Call For Teams!

The China Birdwatching Society has just announced that the 3rd China International Birding Festival will take place around Laotieshan in Lushun District, Dalian, from 20-22 October 2017.  Sponsored by the State Forestry Administration and Dalian Municipal People’s Government, the festival aims to promote birding and wildlife conservation as well as celebrating the world-class migration hosted by Lushun every spring and autumn along the East Asian Flyway.  The centrepiece will be a 24-hr “bird race” involving teams of up to four people.

The opening ceremony of the 1st festival was interrupted by low-flying Oriental Honey Buzzards!

It’s a fabulous way to promote birding.  The local government, especially the local governor, Mr Yi, deserves great credit for supporting the establishment of what has become the premier annual birding event in China.  You can read about the 1st and 2nd festivals here and here.  This year’s event will be covered by local and national media and it promises to be the biggest yet..

Lushun governor, Mr Yi, toasting “The Foreign Flappers” at the opening dinner in 2016.
Laotieshan is situated at the southern tip of the Liaodong peninsula in Liaoning Province. Just one look at the geographical position will tell any birder it must be a brilliant place for autumn migration. And it is!

With a mouth-watering array of species possible, including Baikal Teal, Oriental Stork, Streaked Shearwater, Japanese Sparrowhawk, White’s Thrush, Mugimaki Flycatcher and Yellow-breasted Bunting, the festival will produce some top quality birding.  For those interested in participating, the local government will cover transfers to and from the airport in Dalian, the accommodation cost and most meals.  Participants must pay their own travel costs to Dalian.

Teams from outside China are welcome to participate and registration is now open.  There are a limited number of spaces so, if you are interested, please contact Rita on email: h12@wbag.org or on telephone +86 18600686862 before the deadline of 12 August.

To register, simply provide the following information: Organisation (if any), Team Name and then, for each participant, the full name, gender, age, WeChat ID (if any), Telephone number, ID or passport number and flight/train arrival/departure times.

Laotieshan is famous for its passage of Oriental Honey Buzzards. Peak passage will have passed by the time of the festival but it’s a species that should be recorded by most teams.

Good luck to everyone participating and see you there!