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”.

5 thoughts on “Training Yak Herders on the Tibetan Plateau”

  1. Hi Terry,

    How are you doing? What a great experience! To be honest, I am very envious.

    As you stated at the end, I am very interesting in visiting and could get a small group together.

    A lot of questions of course about when, size of group, cost, length of time, etc. We have a spring break the 1st week of April which would be my preferred time but don’t know how that will work with the yak herders.

    Anyway, again very interested but need more information.

    On a side note, trying to get a bird club started at ISB. One of our projects would be to try and attract swifts to ISB. What information can you provide? Also, if we visit Yeya lake this fall when would be the best time to go? I understand it may already be to late in the season but maybe there are birds passing through ???

    Thanksfor all your help.

    Wayne

    ________________________________

    1. Hi Wayne. Thanks for the comment. Great that you are setting up a bird club at ISB. I’d be delighted to help in any way I can. Certainly not too late to visit Yeyahu this autumn – it should be good until well into November. I’ll send you an email with more detailed answers to your questions. Thanks again, Terry

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