Chinese Mountain Cat

Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) must be one of the most poorly known cats in the world.  With a very small known range on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau (Qinghai and northwest Sichuan), it is the only cat endemic to China and it was as recently as 2007 that it was first photographed in the wild (via a camera trap).

Chinese Mountain Cat is so poorly known that a young Chinese scientist who wanted to study it for his PhD was told by his supervisor that there simply wasn’t enough information to warrant a PhD and to focus on another mammal.  In recent years there have been sporadic sightings in Rouergai (Sichuan Province) and near Yushu (Qinghai Province) but it remains one of the most mysterious felids on the planet.

It was therefore with some excitement that I heard about the discovery of an active den while in the Valley of the Cats, near Yushu, in mid-September and was fortunate and privileged to be taken to the site by the finder, local ShanShui employee Dawa.

Dawa had been working with Han Xuesong, ShanShui’s project lead on another Tibetan Plateau species – Black-necked Crane – when he spotted movement alongside the road.  Thinking the animal was a Tibetan Fox, common in the area, he grabbed his camera and took a series of photographs.  It was only when he later looked through the images that he realised he had photographed not a Tibetan Fox but a cat..  and after circulating the images to colleagues at ShanShui, it was soon confirmed as a Chinese Mountain Cat, a poorly known and rarely seen felid.

On returning to the site, the ShanShui staff were delighted to find not one cat but three – a mother with two young kittens.  They had found an active den – possibly the first ever discovered in the wild.  The location, close to a road, meant that the cats appeared to be relatively used to seeing people and so, not long after, while the mother cat was away from the den hunting for prey, Dawa and Xuesong placed a camera trap close to one of the three entrances to the den (thought to be an old Himalayan Marmot hole).  The resulting footage is spectacular and, courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center, a compilation can be seen below.

The three cats performed magnificently for the camera trap for several days until, late in September, the mother led her kittens to another, unknown, site.  The hours of footage will undoubtedly add significantly to the current knowledge of Chinese Mountain Cat, including breeding ecology, diet and behaviour.  And with local people commenting that this cat is seen frequently in the area, this find may turn out to be just the beginning of a new insight into this most mysterious of cats.  The perfect subject for a PhD!

Big congratulations to Dawa, Xuesong and the ShanShui team for their discovery and for capturing such riveting and intimate footage of China’s only endemic cat.

Here are some still images from the camera trap.

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Title photo, still images and video clip all courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center.

 

Reference:

https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/eurasia/chinese-mountain-cat/

 

Snow Leopard Caught on Camera

Six weeks ago, working with ShanShui Conservation Center, I finished the latest round of training for the host families in the Valley of the Cats in Qinghai Province as part of the community-based wildlife tourism project.  Before leaving, I spent an afternoon high up in the mountains, where I set up a camera trap along the edge of a crag.  Two days ago, I retrieved it.  The memory card was full and included more than 1,800 images.  I was excited but at the same time wary that I may have 1,800 photos of a blade of grass waving in the wind, triggering the camera trap’s motion sensor!

As I looked through the images, I was not prepared for what I was about to see.  Many of the photos were of a cute GLOVER’S PIKA, busily preparing for winter by gathering vegetation and placing it in its den.

A TIBETAN SNOWCOCK was a joy to see, strutting along the rocks..

This was shortly followed by a group of BLUE SHEEP, a wonderful ungulate that roams these mountains in large groups, often 100+ strong.

Then, after checking around 500 photos, suddenly I had a surprise..  a SNOW LEOPARD!  The spectacular series of five photos show what I believe to be a fresh-faced young animal walking closer and closer to the camera before appearing to look right into the lens…  spectacular!

I could not have wished for a better result!

This Snow Leopard was caught on camera in a part of the valley previously not known to hold this species, so it’s helpful information to the ShanShui scientists working in the area.

The last two weeks have been a busy time for the Valley of the Cats with five groups of visitors staying with local families as part of the community-based tourism project. The groups included Professor Per Alström and his brother Klas, Beijing-based Ben Wielstra and Jan-Erik Nilsen, Alan Babington-Smith and Melinda Liu from the Royal Asiatic Society, as well as James Eaton and Rob Hutchinson from BirdTour Asia who visited with Dan Brown and his wife Rachael Ivesen-Brown.  Roland Zeidler visited with Fiona Fyfe and John MacKinnon accompanied us for a few days before heading to a birding festival in Yushu.  Finally, the day before I left, Yann Muzika, Abdelhamid Bizid, Yong Ding Li, Irene Dy and Summer Wong began their 4-day visit.

I’m delighted to say that, thanks to their supreme efforts in scanning endless ridges and crags, Per’s, James’s and Roland’s groups were successful in seeing, and recording video, of Snow Leopard in two different places, as well as spotting Wolf, Lynx, White-lipped and Alpine Musk Deer, Woolly Hare and Himalayan Marmot.  As I write this, I have just heard that Yann’s group has also been successful with two separate sightings of Snow Leopard.

To give you a sense of the place, here’s a selection of photos from last week.

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Huge thanks to all the visitors for being such great company last week and for supporting this fledgling community-based tourism project.

Reading this, you may think that seeing Snow Leopards in the Valley of the Cats is easy.  I can assure you it’s not.  Really not.  Unless one is supremely lucky to encounter one close to the road (which is possible), it can take many many hours of scanning rocks and ridges in the seemingly endless suitable habitat to find one.  But that elusiveness is surely part of the charm of the Snow Leopard.  However, even if you don’t see a Snow Leopard, the spectacular scenery, wonderful local culture and the array of other special mammals and birds make any visit an unforgettable experience.

If you’re interested in visiting the Valley of the Cats and supporting the community-based tourism project, please check out the website.  Please be warned – conditions are basic: no toilets, no running water and no heating – so the Valley is not for the faint-hearted.  However, if you are prepared to live like a yak herder for a few days, you will have a truly authentic experience.  100% of the revenue stays in the community, so visitors can be confident they are supporting the local people and conservation while enjoying the trip of a lifetime.

 

Beijing Police Step Up Anti-poaching Efforts

As birders well know, September is a peak time for autumn migration.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that millions of birds must pass over Beijing, most undetected as we sleep, from their breeding grounds in the vast forests and tundra of Siberia to wintering grounds in China, SE Asia and some as far away as Australia and New Zealand.  As well as being an exciting time for birders (as can be seen from the Latest Sightings page), this is also a time of peak activity for poachers – those who wish to capture these miracles of nature and put them into cages.

Last weekend Marie and I found an illegal mist net on the local patch.  The poacher was almost certainly targeting Siberian Rubythroats and Bluethroats, birds that command a decent price (CNY 200-300 each, GBP 20-30) in the now mostly underground bird markets scattered around the capital.  Petrified we’d call the police, he willingly helped us release the birds in the net and freed those he had already caught and bagged, before making a run for it as we destroyed the nets and poles.

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The poacher, typically a man of retirement age, became suddenly very shy.
Mist nets are, by design, almost undetectable for birds.
The poles and nets were rendered harmless and disposed of in an incinerator.

We called the police in any case and sent them the photos before publishing the images on Chinese social media.  Just an hour or so later, a journalist from the Beijing Evening News (one of Beijing’s most popular newspapers) called and asked some questions before writing an article about the incident.  The link was published on the popular social media platform – WeChat – and was soon picked up by the Shunyi Forestry Police, who subsequently issued this public notice.

2018-09-11 Forestry Police Notice, Shunyi

For those of you who don’t read Chinese, the notice refers to a British “bird protection volunteer” who found some illegal nets, dismantled them and reported the incident to the police.  It then warns poachers that the police will increase their patrols in the area, requests that anyone who sees illegal nets to call the police and commits to increasing education and awareness about wild bird protection.

That’s a pretty good result and shows how attitudes are changing, both among the media and with the law enforcement authorities.  When I arrived in China seven years ago there was little chance the police would have responded to reports of people catching wild birds.  Now they act positively and swiftly.  And whilst this is Beijing, and other parts of China almost certainly lag behind, it’s nevertheless another good sign for China and bird conservation.  Well done, Shunyi Forestry Police!

 

Valuing Wetlands in China

At first glance, coastal mudflats can seem grim and desolate places with little obvious economic value.  It is therefore not surprising that these areas have often been considered by planners, and the public, to be suitable for reclamation projects and development.

Over the past 50 years in China, 60% of temperate coastal ecosystems, 73% of mangroves and 80% of coral reefs have been lost mostly due to economic development. Only 24% of coastal wetlands have been legally designated as protected areas, much lower than the mean wetland protection rate of 43.5% across China, and coastal wetlands in China’s most economically developed provinces/municipalities – such as Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Tianjin, and Shandong – are hot targets for development projects.

This rapid development has not come without costs. Thanks to studies such as the Blueprint for Coastal Wetlands in China, we now know that many of the decisions to develop these coastal areas have neglected the significant benefits of wetlands – so called ecosystem services – including helping to prevent and mitigate flooding and storm surges, regulating climate change by storing carbon, purifying water and providing sustainable livelihoods for local people, as well as providing invaluable habitat for millions of migratory shorebirds as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and their wintering grounds in the southern hemisphere.  Such ‘natural capital’ is not reflected on most countries’ balance sheets but, nevertheless, its erosion undermines the ability to achieve sustainable economic growth.

One of the six recommendations contained in the Blueprint was the need to carry out publicity and education activities about wetland conservation, raising awareness and involving the public in protecting coastal wetlands and migratory birds.

That is why, this week, the Wetland Conservation and Management Office of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration in partnership with the Paulson Institute, the Lao Niu Foundation and the Mangrove Conservation Foundation, launched a new project to set up Wetland Education Centres across China.

The project, due to run for three years, will draw on national and international best practice, including from Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong, Guandu Nature Reserve in Taiwan and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in Singapore as well as wetlands in Japan, Korea and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserves in the UK.

The objectives are to establish:

  • A standard system for wetland education centres in China
  • Three to five demonstration wetland education centres within three years
  • A professional network for wetland education centres in China and to provide support for the establishment and development of further wetland education centres

This project will help build and strengthen public awareness about the value of China’s remaining coastal wetlands and underpins the recent announcement by the Chinese government to ban all further commercial land reclamation along the coast.

Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University delivered a comprehensive overview of wetlands in China and it was great to see Chris Rostron of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) addressing the meeting to relay some of their experience in bringing wetland education to the public.

It’s heartening to see China’s top level policy announcements being backed up by the less high-profile but arguably more important, initiatives on the ground to raise awareness about the value of wetlands and the need to protect them.

And it’s not only in China that the value of wetlands is being recognised.  At the end of August, the government in Sri Lanka approved recommendations to protect and restore the urban wetlands of the capital, Colombo, after a study by The World Bank and WWT Consulting showed that benefits included:

  • Flood damage mitigation (without the wetlands, it was modelled that a 1 in 100 years flooding event could happen every year)
  • The wetlands provided cooling for the city of up to 5 degrees Celsius in the summer
  • Providing a home for >250 species of wildlife, including the endangered Fishing Cat
  • Air and water pollution mitigation
  • Food security for the urban poor
  • Places for recreation, education and tourism
  • Carbon sequestration

In total, these benefits were calculated to be worth 8.8 million RS (GBP 41,500, USD 54,000, CNY 370,000) per hectare per year.

On 28 August the Sri Lankan cabinet approved the recommendations and will designate the remaining wetlands as protected areas as well as setting up a dedicated management body to ensure they are managed effectively.  What a great example!

 

 

 

Birding the Gaoligong mountains

The Gaoligong mountains, spanning 500 kilometres along the Yunnan-Myanmar border, near the tropical edge of the Himalayas, are one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world.

Running north-south from the Tibetan Plateau, the mountains channel some of the world’s most impressive rivers – the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze – which help supply more than 3 billion people in Asia with fresh water.  There are volcanoes, hot springs, and some of the largest remaining untouched tracts of evergreen, deciduous, and bamboo forests.  More than 500 bird species have been recorded in the area and these mountains are also home for 154 mammal, 21 amphibian, 46 reptile species, and more than 1,700 insects.

The north-south orientation of the mountains and rivers provide natural corridors for seasonal migration and, as the elevation drops, subtle changes in vegetation create an incredible range of biomes and plant life which, in turn, make the animal species in Gaoligong so unique and abundant.  Alpine meadows give way to sub-alpine forests, deciduous broadleaf forests and finally to tropical monsoon forests. These vertically distributed climatic zones hold around 5,000 plant species, fifty-five of which are rare or endangered.  This means you can go from a scene reminiscent of the Alps to the jungle in one day.  And, along the way, you’ll watch the flora and fauna change with every step.

Vinetree location 1

It is easy to see why the location was chosen for an ambitious, luxury and small-scale sustainable ecotourism project.  Situated on the edge of the Gaoligongshan Nature Reserve, Vinetree Gaoligong Tented Resort has been designed to minimise its impact on the environment while maximising the benefit to the local community and providing visitors with an unforgettable experience.  With fifteen guest tents and five public areas (including a wildlife-focused library) erected in the canopy, supported by stilts and connected by a wooden boardwalk, it’s a wonderful place to connect with nature.  Simply open the flaps covering the huge ‘windows’ of your tent and you’re immediately at eye-level with the treetops, listening to the wonderful sounds of babblers, laughingthrushes, sunbirds and, at night, even owls.

All of the waste from the resort is taken out of the forest for processing, the employees are all local people from the nearby villages and the chefs use only local ingredients to showcase wonderful Yunnan cuisine.

The mastermind of the project and CEO of the operation is Koko Tang, a local Yunnanese and former corporate lawyer trained in the UK.  She is passionate about providing unforgettable experiences for the tourists while helping to conserve nature.  She even has a dream to bring back the struggling Skywalker Gibbon to the forest around the resort.  Given the unsustainable nature of much of mainstream tourism and Koko’s attention to detail at Vinetree, she deserves to succeed and, if she does, her project could serve as a wonderful example to others in China and overseas.

TT with Koko and John
Koko with Terry and John.

As part of the “soft opening” for the resort, Koko asked John MacKinnon and me to help run a birding weekend for families, introducing them to the biodiversity, leading bird walks, providing talks and, at the same time, helping to generate a snapshot of the biodiversity of the area to develop a guidebook to the birds.  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and, despite the frequent rain (summer is rainy season in these mountains), we enjoyed a wonderful few days with some brilliant families from all over China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Xinjiang.

We had so much fun with the children.. setting up camera traps, listening to birdsong at dawn, holding a drawing competition, moth trapping at night and even enjoying a shadow play about a crane and a turtle performed by local villagers.

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We recorded 66 species of bird – see full list here – and one species of snake, Calamaria yunnanensis, a non-venomous range-restricted species, unique to Gaoligongshan.  Best of all was the feedback session at the end when Emily told us she “never wants to go to Disneyland again but instead to wild places like Gaoligongshan”..!

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Koko showed us some outstanding photographs of a Red Panda that frequented the fruiting trees adjacent to the resort last autumn..  she’s hoping it will return this year and, from looking at the amount of soon-to-be-ripe fruit on the closest fig tree, there must be every chance this September/October.

What better experience than to savour a glass of your favourite red whilst watching the rarest red of them all – the Red Panda!

John and I will be returning to Vinetree Gaoligong for a further three visits, once in each season, to gain a more complete sense of the birds and other wildlife around the resort throughout the year.  The next is scheduled for late October – can’t wait!  In the meantime, if you are interested in staying, please do check out their website and book – you won’t be disappointed.

Big thanks to Koko, Emily and the team at Vinetree for hosting us so well and to the families, especially the children, from all over China who were so engaging and who made it such a fun experience.  After the last few days, the future of China’s wildlife is a little brighter..!

 

Seven For A Secret Never To Be Told?

Since as far back as the 16th century, the Common Magpie (Pica pica) has been considered, in many cultures, a bird of ill omen.  The superstition was put into a rhyme, the first iteration of which was published in 1780, which read:

“One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for birth”

Since then, the rhyme has evolved and the modern version, which I learned from the children’s TV show “Magpie” (1968-1980), goes something like this:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.

With a distribution across Eurasia, northwest Africa, Arabia and western North America, the humble Magpie must be one of the best-known birds in these regions.  Yet, this most familiar of birds has been keeping a secret, only now revealed by new research; the Common Magpie is actually seven different species!

The new research, led by Professor Per Alström and Gang Song, was recently published in the Journal of Avian Biology and a summary by Prof Alström for the British Ornithological Union can be read here.

In short, the research shows that despite looking very similar, there is significant divergence between geographic populations of Magpie and, on that basis, the authors suggest that seven species should be recognised:

1. Eurasian Magpie Pica pica sensu stricto (comprising six subspecies from Europe to northeast Russia);

2. Maghreb Magpie P. mauritanica (Northwest Africa);

3. Asir Magpie P. asirensis (southwest Saudi Arabia);

4. Black-rumped Magpie P. bottanensis (eastern Tibetan plateau);

5. Oriental Magpie P. serica (east China and neighbouring areas);

6. Black-billed Magpie P. hudsonia (northwestern North America); and

7. Yellow-billed Magpie P. nutalli (California).

 

This means that Beijing’s Magpies should, from now on, be known as Oriental Magpies.

And so, the Magpie’s secret is finally told… and it just goes to prove that there is still much to discover, even about our most common and familiar birds.

 

 

References:

I. Opie and M. Tatem, eds, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 235-6.

J Brand, “Observations on Popular Antiquities” (1780)

NatureWatch 2018: Citizen Science on the Tibetan Plateau

I’m back in Beijing after almost two weeks in Qinghai Province, a trip that included the latest round of tourism training with local yak herder families in the Valley of the Cats, an international conference on Leopard/Snow Leopard Conservation (see previous post) and ShanShui’s 2018 NatureWatch Festival, bringing together teams of young people from across China and overseas to celebrate the biodiversity of this wonderful part of the Tibetan Plateau.

This was my 9th visit to the Plateau.  Every visit is special and the more time I spend there, the more I learn, the more secrets are revealed and best of all, the more I get to know the wonderful local people and the wildlife.

2018-07-21 NatureWatch banner, Angsai

The 2018 NatureWatch Festival was arranged by the local government in Zaduo County, Yushu Prefecture, in partnership with 山水 (ShanShui Conservation Center).  Twenty teams from across China and overseas competed to photograph as many birds, mammals and plants as possible over four days.  Local families were hired to drive and guide the teams as they explored the mountain ridges, valleys and meadows, collectively a treasure trove of nature.  And the local people also ran a fabulous campsite, at which all participants stayed during the festival, providing delicious local food to fuel our daily forays into the wilderness.  I was invited to be on the judging panel alongside John MacKinnon, author of the Field Guide to the Birds of China.

2018-07-20 campsite at Angsai
The hospitality tent, used for dining, presentations and as a general meeting place.
2018-07-20 TT's tent, Angsai
Tent No.3 – my home for the festival.

The event was meticulously organised with a defined “playing field”, a strict code of conduct, an efficient mechanism for collecting and processing the photos and a wonderful array of prizes for the winners, including a telescope and binoculars from Chinese optics manufacturer, Bosma.

2018-07-24 SX, JM, JS and ZX at Angsai
John MacKinnon (second from left) and Justine Shanti Alexander of the Snow Leopard Trust, flanked by Shi Xiangying and Zhao Xiang of ShanShui Conservation Center.

For the first two days, John and I were accompanied by Xinhua News Agency as part of a special focus on Sanjiangyuan pilot National Park.  You can see some of their English-language coverage here and here.

2018-07-21 TT with Xinhua and Xiangying
Terry (standing) with Shi Xiangying of ShanShui (left) and the Xinhua team (right).

Over the four days, participants recorded 13 species of mammal, 73 species of bird, 4 species of reptile and 315 species of plant.  A full list of the mammals and birds (in English and Chinese) together with the Chinese names of the plants can be downloaded here.

Eight of the 20 teams enjoyed encounters with the King of the Mountains, the elusive Snow Leopard, and Hui Lang’s stunning photo (header image) not surprisingly won the prize for best photograph of the festival.

As in previous years, there were so many things that inspired me about this festival.  The involvement of the local Tibetan communities and their relationship with, and respect for, the wildlife.  The spirit among the teams of sharing information and helping each other to see as much as possible.  The enthusiasm and stamina of the participants – often starting before dawn, returning after dark and climbing steep mountains and walking kilometres through the forests to seek out special plants and animals.  And the energy and passion of the ShanShui team, led by Professor Lu Zhi, Shi Xiangying, Zhao Xiang and Li Yuhan, and ably assisted by an army of volunteers.

These festivals are inspiring people to take an interest in nature and wild places and it was brilliant to see so many local people using the resources we’ve been able to provide – binoculars and a field guide to the wildlife of Sanjiangyuan – to observe the plants and animals and learn their names.  There is no doubt that long-term conservation can only be effective if it enjoys the full support of the local people. And, for the Valley of the Cats at least, it seems this special place is in good hands.

A selection of photos taken by the participants is below.

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And here are a few video clips of some of the wildlife and the environment:

The Glover’s Pika must rank as one of the most popular mammals on the Plateau.

Musk Deer is common in the Valley but not easy to see.  Dawn and dusk are the best times.

The Woolly Hare is one of the most frequently encountered mammals in the Valley and it’s not uncommon to see 10 or more together in its preferred habitat – grass meadows.

Wolf is a sought-after mammal and the so-called “new road” is the best place to see it.  These are part of a group of seven seen early morning on 25 July.

The streams of the side valleys are adorned with wild flowers and flanked by 4,000m+ peaks, providing a stunning backdrop to the festival.

For those interested in the night sky, The Valley of the Cats is a superb place from where to view the Milky Way and, if you are lucky, you might get to see other natural phenomena such as this magnificent double rainbow, photographed over ShanShui’s workstation.

Night Sky Sanjiangyuan by Zhao Chenghao
The night sky in Sanjiangyuan by Zhao Chenghao

2018-07-19 rainbow over ShanShui workstation, Angsai

If you’re feeling adventurous, why not arrange your own visit to the Valley of the Cats?  Small-scale community-based tourism is now up and running and for a very reasonable price you can stay with one of the local families and be guided around to see the local wildlife.  As well as enjoying some incredible encounters with wildlife, you’ll experience the wonderful culture of the local people in a very special part of the world.  With 100% of the revenue staying in the local community, you’ll be supporting the local people too, helping them to continue the lifestyle they’ve been enjoying for generations.  See the Valley of the Cats website for more details and to register your interest.