Living and working in China is challenging and rewarding. It is a vast country of rich culture and diverse habitats, from some of Earth’s most populated cities in the east to the deserts of Xinjiang, Gansu and Inner Mongolia in the north, from the taiga forests of Helongjiang to the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau supplying hundreds of millions of people with fresh water. It is a privilege to be here and, as a guest, I have been extremely fortunate to work on some incredibly rewarding projects with some brilliant people and organisations. As a new decade begins and we reflect on 2019, here are a few of my personal highlights from the last twelve months and a look ahead to what promises to be a busy and important year for nature, not only in Beijing and China but the world over.
I will begin with the “Valley of the Cats“, a ground-breaking community-based wildlife tourism project in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau. 2019 was the second full year of operation for the project, which involves 22 families in three villages around Angsai Township in Yushu Prefecture. Under the project, tourists are allowed to visit this sensitive area, lodge in a herder family home and be guided around to look for wildlife. The jewel in the crown is, of course, the Snow Leopard, but it’s clear from the feedback received that experiencing the unique Tibetan hospitality and culture is a major highlight for visitors.
There were four major milestones for the project this year. First, in March, the project was formally recognised by the Chinese government and awarded the first ever franchise for community-based tourism inside a (pilot) national park in China. Second, the project was showcased at the first ever National Parks forum in Xining, China as an example of how tourism can work in environmentally sensitive places, benefiting the community and supporting conservation. Third, the Valley was visited by two TV crews from the UK. The BBC’s flagship Natural History Unit spent six weeks filming as part of a major new series, Frozen Planet II, focusing on wildlife at the three poles – the North Pole, South Pole and the third pole – the Tibetan Plateau. And ITV’s Ray Mears visited to film an episode for a forthcoming series about Wild China. It was a dream come true to work with the BBC Natural History Unit and a real treat to meet Ray Mears, a major influence on me. These two productions, both likely to be broadcast around the world, will undoubtedly help to raise awareness about China’s wonderful wildlife and wild places. Finally, in November, the project passed 1 million CNY (GBP 108,000) in revenue, 100% of which has stayed in the community.
The Valley of the Cats has been, without doubt, the most rewarding project with which I have ever been involved. I feel privileged to have been part of it, working with the local community, ShanShui Conservation Center and the Qinghai Provincial and Angsai local governments. And I am immensely grateful to all who have visited to support the project. Two memories from this year that will stay with me forever are the sheer joy and emotion on the faces of Graeme and Moira Wallace, who celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary by visiting the Valley and seeing two Snow Leopards, and the two young local men who told me that the tourism project had given them a reason to resist the bright lights of the city and stay in their community to continue their traditional way of life.
In May I was honoured to be invited by the Beijing Municipal government to be an advisor for a major new programme to make the capital better for wildlife. This programme, to be conducted in collaboration with Peking University, includes pilot habitat restoration projects around the capital – including grassland, mountains and wetlands – and major public awareness campaigns. Ideas on the table include a “wild ring road”, “urban oases” for migratory birds, altering the management of parks to leave “10% wild” and many more.. As part of this programme, Tim Appleton visited Beijing in September to share the UK’s experience of managing a major reservoir for water quality, wildlife and leisure. As the recently-retired manager of Rutland Water Nature Reserve and, of course, the founder of the UK’s BirdFair, Tim’s experience was well-received and will, I hope, influence how Beijing manages its reservoirs, including Miyun Reservoir, potentially a world-class nature reserve that could bring in revenue to one of the poorest counties of the capital.
We are now planning for a major new bird-related public engagement initiative that I hope will be announced early in 2020. Watch this space! With more than 500 species of bird recorded in the capital and mammals such as wild cats (Leopard Cats) and the potential return of Common Leopard, Beijing is well-placed to become a ‘capital of biodiversity’.
June saw me travel to Ulan Bataar, the capital of Mongolia, with colleagues from the British Trust for Ornithology to join forces with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) to begin the Mongolia Cuckoo Project. Together, we travelled to Khurkh in the northeast, close to the border with Russia. Five cuckoos (four Common Cuckoos and an Oriental Cuckoo) were fitted with transmitters, named by local schoolchildren and followed via a special webpage. The aims of the project are twofold – first, scientific discovery, to find out the winter destination and migration route of cuckoos from Mongolia and, second, to enthuse and inspire the public about the wonders of bird migration and the habitats they need. So far, three of the cuckoos have made it to Africa, crossing the Arabian Sea and, in the case of ONON and BAYAN, also the Rub’ al-Khali desert of Saudi Arabia, before heading south to East Africa. As of the end of 2019, NAMJAA is in Kenya, ONON is in Tanzania and BAYAN is in Malawi. To follow the progress of these intrepid travellers, see this dedicated page.
June also saw the launch of a major new project to support one of Beijing’s most iconic birds, the so-called “Beijing Swift” (Apus apus pekinensis). Four student “Swift Ambassadors” from Beijing schools wrote a letter to China’s leading property developer, SOHO China, led by celebrity couple PAN Shiyi and ZHANG Xin. The students requested a meeting with Mr Pan and Ms Zhang to ask China SOHO to make their buildings more friendly for the Beijing Swift. On receipt of the letter, Mr Pan, the Chairman of the company, invited the students to meet with him and, at a special meeting, each student Ambassador explained something about the Beijing Swift – its aerial lifestyle, the incredible migration to southern Africa, the fact the population has declined due to the loss of nest sites on old buildings and what the students were doing to help by making and putting up homemade boxes for the Swifts.
Mr Pan responded by making three commitments: first, to retrofit 200 special nest boxes onto two of SOHO’s existing buildings in Beijing, second to commit to making new buildings “Swift-friendly” by including in the design appropriate spaces for Swifts, and third to promote biodiversity among the building sector in China. The project demonstrated that, with a little thought and almost no extra cost, business can make a big difference to support biodiversity. I hope that, as the focus on biodiversity increases in 2020, the leadership by China SOHO will inspire other companies to explore similar initiatives to support biodiversity.
The beginning of July saw a major milestone in the protection of the remaining intertidal mudflats of China’s Yellow Sea coast when two of the most important sites were formally inscribed as World Heritage Sites. The journey to Baku, the location of the World Heritage Committee meeting in July, was dramatic, with many twists and turns, and the conservation community almost scored a spectacular own-goal… but the end result means that, just four years from a seemingly desperate situation, the future of millions of migratory shorebirds that depend on the Yellow Sea, including the iconic Spoon-billed Sandpiper, is a little brighter. The inscription was the result of a monumental effort by a cross-national multidisciplinary team of scientists, NGOs, advocacy groups, think-tanks, politicians and members of the public and, although not a silver bullet, it is a giant leap forward and the effort now switches to Phase II, under which additional sites are due to be inscribed as World Heritage Sites.
In September, as if to remind conservationists that there is a long way to go, it was sickening to hear of industrial-scale trapping of buntings, including the critically endangered Yellow-breasted Bunting, in coastal Hebei Province. Organised criminal gangs catch thousands of buntings and finches using kilometres of mist nets, keep the birds in ‘fattening centres’ before transporting them live to south China, where the demand for ‘exotic’ food remains strong.
Although law enforcement authorities are becoming more proactive and incidents are now routinely reported by the media, it is a sobering reminder of the threats faced by migratory song birds.
As we look forward, 2020 promises to be a busy and important year. In October, China will host the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In simple terms, it is the point at which governments are due to agree new targets to 2030 and beyond to reduce the loss of biodiversity.
The meeting, due to take place in Kunming, Yunnan Province, will see delegates from more than 180 countries coming together to thrash out a new deal. With China due to name its first tranche of national parks this year, progress on the protection of the Yellow Sea, strengthening of the Environment Protection Law and greater public awareness, the host country has the foundations of a positive story to tell. However, to bend the curve on global biodiversity loss is going to take a monumental effort not only from governments but by parliaments, business, NGOs, cities and, indeed, every one of us.
A crucial piece of work to support COP15 will be a major new report outlining recommendations for how to finance biodiversity protection. Estimates suggest that governments are able to provide only around 10% of the funding needed to effectively protect key global biodiversity. Hank Paulson, Chairman of the Paulson Institute, former US Treasury Secretary and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, has been asked by the Chinese government to convene a high level group to develop recommendations for how to bridge the gap by leveraging funding from the private sector. With Hank’s unrivalled experience in finance and his commitment to conservation, he is well-placed to deliver what could be a game-changing contribution to the future of global biodiversity. I am honoured to be part of the team working on this important initiative.
Other plans include a cuckoo tagging project on the Tibetan Plateau, to celebrate the launch of China’s national parks, potentially twinning Sanjiangyuan, one of China’s first national parks, with national parks in Africa via migratory birds, and more biodiversity projects with businesses in China, building on the SOHO China project. I will also continue to work with universities, schools and youth groups to connect as many people as possible to nature.
I am extremely fortunate, and immensely grateful, to have the opportunity to work on so many interesting and important projects and with such wonderful colleagues and organisations, both inside China and overseas. I’d like to recognise Hank and Wendy Paulson, who are both a major influence and source of support, and colleagues at the Paulson Institute in Beijing and Chicago, especially Rose Niu, Tina Ren and Wang Jing, ShanShui Conservation Center, in particular Professor Lu Zhi, Zhao Xiang, Shi Xiangying, Xinnong, Yiliao, Peiyun, Xuesong and the Yushu team, the Beijing Municipal government, especially Wang Xiaoping and his team at the Department for Forest and Parks, Nyambayar Batbayar and the crew at the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center, to Chris Hewson at the British Trust for Ornithology and to Dick Newell and Lyndon Kearsley for their hard work and companionship in making the Mongolia Cuckoo Project possible. And a huge thank you to everyone who works hard to protect biodiversity and/or supports those so doing.
2020 is going to be a big year. BRING IT ON!
Title image: introducing children to nature in Gaoligong Mountains in Yunnan Province (Photo by Koko Tang)