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..!


6 thoughts on “Birding the Gaoligong mountains”

    1. Thank you, Freja. Yes, the engagement with the local villagers is so important. Lots of ideas to do more, including planting a community forest with native species in an area close by that was cleared by loggers decades ago.

  1. Wow, what a great opportunity Terry. I loved reading your summary of the events and it was great to see you with John in the photos. Loving the positive news and reports. Things are looking up indeed. By the way, please congratulate John again for his book — an amazing achievement with very little to go on at the time.


    1. Thanks Tom..! Yes, lots of positives happening right now and it’s important to encourage as many as possible.. I’ll pass on your comment to John.. he’s thinking of updating the book. I hope I am half as active as he is at 71!

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