Citizen Science on the Tibetan Plateau

Every once in a while in life, something happens to make us feel good, that reinforces our faith in human nature and gives us a renewed sense of purpose.  Whether it’s meeting someone who inspires, gaining a privileged glimpse into the natural world or simply reading wise words, these are important moments that can encourage and inspire for years.

Having been back in Beijing for 24 hours, I know that the 2017 Nangqen International Wildlife Watch Festival was one of these special moments.

The Festival, arranged by the local government in Nangqen and the brilliant NGO, 山水(ShanShui), was designed to celebrate the biodiversity of this unique part of China.  Seventeen teams from across China and overseas competed to photograph as many birds, mammals and plants as possible over three days.   I was invited to be on the judging panel alongside Professors Lu Zhi (Peking University, Beijing) and Liu Yang (Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou), Lama Tashi Sangpo and wildlife photgrapher Xi Zhinong.

Base camp at Nangqen, Qinghai Province.
Four of the judges with local community leaders. Judges from left to right: Terry, Xi Xhinong, Professor Lu Zhi and Lama Tashi Sangpo.

Members of the local community were hired as drivers, guides and to run the campsite at which all the participants stayed during the festival.  We ‘enjoyed’ (yes, really!) 5 days without a phone signal or wi-fi.

Nangqen is a stunningly beautiful place.  Located 3-4 hrs from Yushu in Qinghai Province, the habitat is a mixture of grassland, wooded hillsides and high, desolate mountains.  The elevation spanned from 3,800m at the camp up to in excess of 5,000m.  It’s home to some unique plants, mammals and birds, including the endemic Tibetan Bunting and Tibetan Babax, as well as some of the highest densities of large predators in China, including Asian Brown Bear, Lynx, Wolf, Leopard and, of course, the King of the Mountains, the magnificent 雪豹 (XueBao), the elusive Snow Leopard.

A typical mountain scene at Nangqen at 4,500m elevation

Overall, the teams recorded 17 species of mammal, 94 species of bird and 230 species of plant, providing a wonderful snapshot of the biodiversity at this special site – citizen science at its best.

Highlights included 2 separate sightings of SNOW LEOPARD (possibly the same individual), 2 sightings of EURASIAN LYNX (one of which was photographed), 1 sighting each of PALLAS’S CAT (at the campsite at night!) and WOLF, as well as the sought-after endemic birds, TIBETAN BUNTING and TIBETAN BABAX plus some scarce and local plants including the wonderful Lamiophlomis rotata (see below) a plant used as a painkiller by local communities.

Lamiophlomis rotata is used as a painkiller.
Meconopsis racemosa, a beautiful poppy-like flower found at high elevations.
The closest I got to Pallas’s Cat was seeing Yaya’s tattoo!

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.  The energy and passion of the ShanShui team, led by Professor Lu Zhi and including Zhao Xiang, Shi Xiangying, Li Yuhan, Gao Xiangyu and Yu Lu, ably assisted by the girls from Wild Xinjiang, Yaya (Huang Yahui) and Da Xiang.  The enlightening talks by Lama Tashi Sangpo, Xi Zhinong, Shi Xiangying and Prof Lu Zhi about the wildlife and conservation of the Tibetan Plateau.  I could go on.  Put simply, it was the best wildlife watching event in which I have participated.

These local guys helped free our stuck vehicle after a thunderstorm at 4,500m.

There are many great stories from the event but I’d like to tell just one involving 12-year old Wujing Dingzen, son of one of the Chinese Communist Party leaders in Xining.  Armed with a small pair of binoculars and a SLR camera, he told me at the beginning of the festival that he wanted to see a Snow Leopard.  Not wanting to discourage him by saying how tough they are to see, I told him there was a chance but that it would require a lot of luck and he’d need to spend a lot of time looking in the right places.  On the afternoon of day three, I had just sat down in my tent to relax after a long day in the field.  I opened my sketchbook and attempted to (poorly) sketch a Lammergeier, several of which we had seen that day.  A few minutes later, Dingzen appeared at the entrance to my tent with a local Tibetan guide.  He asked if I was going out that evening and, if so, could he join.  The local guide offered to drive us anywhere we wanted.  A few minutes later, together with Da Xiang, we were on our way up the mountain at 4,700m to search for Snow Leopard in the early evening sun.  Despite scanning the mountainsides for more than two hours, we drew a blank, but enjoyed wonderful views of more than 100 Blue Sheep and singing Tibetan Buntings.  As we returned to camp, Dingzen asked if I could join him the next day at 0500 to search again.  I told him that I couldn’t as I had judging duties but Da Xiang said she would join.

Given the high standard, choosing the best 20 photographs from the festival was extremely difficult..

The next morning as the judges were going through the photographs submitted by the teams, Da Xiang came running into the tent exclaiming that she had seen a Snow Leopard at the place we had visited the evening before..  the sighting was brief, and she didn’t have a photograph, but nevertheless she was, as one might expect, deliriously happy at seeing her first Snow Leopard!

Yaya holding up Da Xiang’s hurried sketch of the Snow Leopard and the location of her sighting.

Da Xiang explained that she was the only one to see it but that Dingzen had climbed up the mountainside to try to get a glimpse.  As he walked over the ridge, he was not seen again for more than three hours.  What happened between then and arriving on the back of a motorbike with a local yak herder, is something he will never forget.  On his return, Dingzen explained that he had walked up the mountain and had climbed over two or three ridges and, as he emerged over the final ridge, he came face to face with a Snow Leopard.  The animal, just 5 metres away, was looking at him, growling.  He was petrified and simply froze.  After a few seconds, the Snow Leopard ran into a small cave, still growling.  Dingzen grabbed his camera, quickly took a photo of the cave and then ran for 2-3 minutes until he was so out of breath he had to stop.  By this time he wasn’t sure exactly where he was, so he headed down and found the nearest track, from where he hitched a lift with a local motorbike rider.  On arrival at the camp, his heart was still pounding and he was visibly exhilarated as he recounted his story.  He must be one of very few people in the world to have been growled at by a Snow Leopard in the wild..!

Wujing Dingzen (right) explaining to Professor Lu Zhi where he encountered the Snow Leopard.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Dingzen was given the “Young Citizen Scientist With Most Potential” award at the last evening’s ceremony.

Among the many well-deserved awards, the biggest congratulations must go to Yinjiang Oriental Hobby, the team from Yunnan Province, made up of Zeng Xiangle, Ban Dingying and He Haiyan, who came top overall.  Their all-round knowledge of the biodiversity of this region was hugely impressive (by the way, Zeng is an excellent Yunnan-based bird guide and can be contacted on email at: 463621792@qq.com).

A special mention to the superb young artists – Saoba and Xigua – who painted this cool ‘field guide’ to the birds of the area.

Other countries were represented, including Australia, France, the UK (me) and the US.  Among the foreign participants, American photographer Kyle Obermann, on a photographic tour through China’s western mountains, took some stunning images of the area.

Tom Stidham, a Beijing-based paleontologist was part of team “T & Y” with his wife, Wang Ying.

Tom and Ying (front) with other participants looking for Tibetan Bunting on the evening of day three.

Sacha Dench from the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, who was in China after visiting relatives in Australia, took the opportunity to participate.  Sacha is best known for the “Flight of the Swans” during which she flew a paramotor from Russia to the UK to follow the migration of Bewick’s Swans and to highlight the risks they face.

Sacha trying her first ever chicken foot at Yushu airport.

But best of all, it was brilliant to see so many young Chinese, from all over the country, participating with such great spirit.  With amazing wildlife, and talented young naturalists, the future of China’s conservation movement is bright.

I’d like to put on record my huge thanks to the Yushu and Nangqen governments, the local community, ShanShui and to everyone who participated for making the festival such an inspiring and fun event.  Can’t wait for the third festival in 2018!

Here is a compilation of video clips, set to the background of local Tibetan group ENU’s “Fly”.  I hope it gives a sense of the location and its wildlife.

 

For more information about the ShanShui Conservation Centre, see:

http://www.shanshui.org/

WeChat Subscription Channel: SSbaohu

About ShanShui:

Founded in 2007, ShanShui Conservation Centre is a Chinese NGO dedicated to conservation practices.  Together with their partners – communities, academic institutions, governments, companies and media – they support local initiatives to defend the land we depend on.  They focus on the most biodiverse areas: Sanjiangyuan, the Southwestern Mountain Areas and the Lancang Mekong River Basin.  They launched the Nature Watch Programme in 2014 with the following goals: examine local biodiversity data and evaluate conservation outcomes to build a conservation database (http://chinanaturewatch.org), interpret and propose conservation policies, and promote public participation in observing and preserving nature.

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