Earlier this month we began a poll to see where readers think NOMAD, the first Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus) to be tracked, would spend the northern winter. The poll closed on 10 September and here are the results:
Indonesia/Malaysia – 39%
Africa – 27%
Australia – 13%
India – 8 %
New Zealand – 5%
Other – 8%
Perhaps not surprisingly, SE Asia is the most popular suggestion. However, with one specimen from Zambia (per Handbook of the Birds of the World), and eBird records from Australia and New Zealand, there remains a large element of mystery about where NOMAD will go.
Having spent the breeding season on the Central Siberian Plateau, NOMAD is now well on his way south and is currently in China’s Shanxi Province.
The migration tracks of the Mongolian Cuckoos. NOMAD’s migration is represented by the dark blue line. Zoom into the map using + and – to see more detail.
NOMAD’s migration so far isn’t giving much away but if he remains healthy for the next month or so, we should finally discover his destination. You can follow the progress of NOMAD, and all of the cuckoos tagged in Mongolia, by regularly visiting this dedicated page or the map on the BTO’s website. For Twitter users, follow @BirdingBeijing for near real-time updates of significant moves.
Thank you to everyone who voted and, if you enjoy following this project, please do consider a donationvia JustGiving towards the cost of the satellite time which, at this time, remains unfunded. Thank you!
From the stunning mountain ecosystems of the Tibetan Plateau to the pristine forests of Heilongjiang there is no doubt that China has world-class natural heritage. Historically, China’s preserved land, covering one fifth of its land surface – an area the size of Mexico – has been protected by a complex patchwork of more than 12,000 protected areas made up of nature reserves, world natural and cultural heritage sites, scenic zones, wetland parks, forest parks, geological parks, and water conservancy scenic locations, each with varying levels of legal protection and opaque administrative procedures.
Back in 2015, the Chinese government announced plans to streamline the system of protected areas and pilot national parks in nine selected provinces (expanded to thirteen today). After much research, earlier this year the government announced an intention to rationalise the existing mosaic of protected areas into just three categories – national parks, nature reserves and natural parks.
Work to create national parks is now well advanced and, to take stock of progress and learn from international experience, China’s first national parks forum took place in Xining, Qinghai Province, on 19-20 August, bringing together over 400 participants from government, academia, international organisations and NGOs.
The high-level forum was opened by Liu Ning, the Governor of Qinghai Province, and began with a congratulatory letter from President Xi Jinping. The letter set out the importance of national parks in delivering the President’s vision of “eco-civilisation” and “Beautiful China”.
“China has adopted the vision that lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets, pursued a holistic approach to conserving its mountains, rivers, forests, farmlands, lakes, and grasslands, and implemented a national park system. By implementing the system, China aims to maintain the primitiveness and integrity of natural ecology, protect biodiversity and ecological security, and preserve precious natural assets for future generations.”
President Xi Jinping
Jonathan Jarvis, former Director of the US’s National Parks Service and now Executive Director of the Institute for Parks, People and Biodiversity at the University of California, Berkeley, offered perspectives from his 40-year career in the National Parks Service and summarised the key findings from his recent visit to, and evaluation of, Sanjiangyuan pilot national park. This included recommendations relating to the legal framework, management policies, the role of science and Chinese universities, funding models, payment for ecosystem services, law enforcement, visitor facilities and branding and marketing.
“Through this new national park system, China has the opportunity to contribute to world biodiversity conservation and to show leadership in ecosystem services and the relationship between humans and environment.”
Jonathan Jarvis, former Director of the National Parks Service, USA
Sessions and sub-forums addressed issues as wide-ranging as biodiversity protection, community participation, climate change, environmental education and public access. Together with ShanShui Conservation Center, I was honoured to represent the community project in the Valley of the Cats and there was much interest in how the project, soon to pass the 1 million Chinese Yuan mark in terms of funds raised for the local community, is providing sustainable benefits to multiple stakeholders – government (informing policy on tourism for national parks, promoting national parks domestically and internationally and improving China’s image overseas), community, (financially and in terms of reducing the risk of human-wildlife conflict), visitors (a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ authentic experience), research institutes (benefiting from the community’s involvement in collecting data) and conservation NGOs (financial contribution to conservation projects in the community). It was heartening to see how the community-based tourism project in the Valley of the Cats had caught the attention of policymakers and was in their thoughts as they developed plans for how to manage tourism in the new national parks.
Throughout the forum there was a palpable sense of excitement, pride and, with that, responsibility about the potential of China to develop a world-class system of national parks, not only in terms of their natural heritage but also in terms of how they are managed.
The participants learned about the importance of wild places for human well-being. For example, the rivers that originate in Sanjiangyuan pilot national park in Qinghai Province, provide fresh water for more than 900 million people. And how personal connections to wild places and wildlife can be inspiring and even life-changing. As if to illustrate this, at the opening dinner I was seated next to a representative of WWF China. He told me how, on a visit to an African national park, he was so moved by his encounter with elephants that, on learning how this species is threatened with extinction by illegal hunting for ivory, he quit his job with the government and joined an environmental NGO focusing on the illegal wildlife trade and has worked in that sector ever since.
I left Xining with a better understanding of the enormity and complexity of establishing national parks in China and some of the key issues being grappled with by policymakers. These include balancing protection and public access, the legal framework, including enforcement, clarity on land rights, long-term funding models and the role of local communities.
There is much still to do before China launches its first tranche of national parks in 2020. However, I am confident that, with the clear political will, the collective talents across China’s government, academic and NGO sectors, combined with international experience facilitated by partners such as the Paulson Institute, China is well on the way to developing a system of national parks that will provide robust protection for its most important natural heritage as well as being a major source of national pride, respected and enjoyed by people the world over for generations to come.
The outcome of the forum, the “Xining Declaration”, is available here (Chinese only).
Back in June, in partnership with the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center in Mongolia and BTO and kindly supported by the Oriental Bird Club and Dick Newell, ‘Team Cuckoo’ visited Khurkh ringing station to catch and fit tags to five cuckoos as part of the Mongolian Cuckoo Project. Incredibly, the first cuckoo to be caught was an Oriental Cuckoo and the BTO’s Chris Hewson duly fitted a tag. As fas as we know, this is the first ever Oriental Cuckoo to be tracked.
After spending the summer on the Central Siberian Plateau in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, NOMAD – as he was called by local schoolchildren – is now well on his way south. As of 3rd September 2019 he has re-crossed the Russia-Mongolia border and is now just 80km north of Ulaanbaatar.
Assuming he stays healthy, the next few weeks and months will reveal, for the first time, the wintering grounds and migration route of Oriental Cuckoo.
So, just for fun.. it’s time to place your bets!
Where is NOMAD going?
The poll will be open until Tuesday 10 September, after which the results will be revealed. Thank you for voting!
Back in early June, five cuckoos were fitted with tags at Khurkh Ringing Station in Mongolia. The first one fitted with a tag was an Oriental Cuckoo (Cuculus optatus), believed to be the first ever individual of this species to be tracked. The other four were Common Cuckoos (Cuculus canorus). All five were given names by schoolchildren in the local community and in Ulan Bataar.
The next six weeks were fairly quiet for the four Common Cuckoos, all of which remained in the vicinity of Khurkh. However, the Oriental Cuckoo (named NOMAD) was clearly still on migration when he was caught in early June and continued north to breeding grounds on the central Siberian plane.
Now, into August, the cuckoos are already on the move. NOMAD, after only four weeks on his breeding grounds in central Siberia, has begun to move south and is currently close to the border of Irkutsk Province in Russia. Three of the four Common Cuckoos (NAMJAA, ONON and Captain KHURKH) have also begun their journey south with only BAYAN remaining in the vicinity of Khurkh. After being tagged within a few kilometres of each other, more than 2,800km now separates the five birds.
Over the next few weeks and months, following their progress is sure to be a roller-coaster ride. We expect the four Common Cuckoos to head into south Asia before crossing the Arabian Sea to Africa. However, the migration route and wintering grounds of NOMAD, the Oriental Cuckoo, will be new to science. From sight records we believe NOMAD’s most likely destination is southeast Asia or possibly Australia. However, nobody knows for sure, and one thing is for certain.. there will be some surprises along the way!
The schoolchildren in Mongolia are excited to follow ‘their’ birds and already the project has reached many who wouldn’t ordinarily take an interest in migratory birds.
If you enjoy following these birds, please consider making a donation, no matter how small, to the JustGiving site towards the ongoing satellite fees. All contributions will go directly to BTO and 100% of the funds will go towards the cost of the satellite fees only.
Big thanks to the project partners, the Mongolian Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and to the Oriental Bird Club (OBC) and Mr Dick Newell for their financial support.
Thanks also to you, the reader, for following the Mongolian Cuckoos. Isn’t migration amazing?
Some great news from the Tibetan Plateau. The community cooperative in The Valley of the Cats has been awarded the first ever franchise for community-based tourism inside a Chinese National Park.
The franchise was awarded at a special meeting in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, involving the central and local governments, representatives of the local community and ShanShui Conservation Center.
The franchise recognises the community-based wildlife watching project as a way to facilitate public access to a national park whilst respecting the local community and the fragile environment.
This recognition comes at an important time for China’s National Parks. Currently there are 11 pilot National Parks across the country, including Sanjiangyuan (literal translation “three rivers park”, recognising it as the source of the three great rivers – the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow), in which the Valley of the Cats resides. Next year, based on the experience of the pilots and ongoing research, including learning from overseas, the Chinese government is due to announce its first tranche of National Parks and how they will be managed. Tourism will be a major element of the policy and the Valley of the Cats community-based project is now formally recognised as a model for tourism that could be appropriate for environmentally sensitive areas.
Having received local government approval in 2017 and after intensive training with 22 families in the Valley, the community-based wildlife watching tourism project was open to visitors in 2018 and, in its first full year, received 61 groups of visitors raising 460,000 CNY for the local community. Demand is up in 2019 and we expect the revenue to pass 1 million CNY sometime this autumn. Importantly, 100% of the revenue stays in the community with 45% from each visit going directly to the host family, 45% to a community fund run by a locally-appointed committee and 10% to community-based conservation projects.
The project is still in its infancy and, not unexpectedly, challenges remain. For example:
i) The standard of accommodation, basic food and lack of dedicated toilets mean that this type of tourism is only for the adventurous traveller;
ii) Language can be a barrier for foreign visitors; with very few herder families having any english language capability, visitors with no Tibetan or Mandarin proficiency can struggle to communicate; and although much can be achieved with modern translation APPs, this is no substitute for direct communication;
iii) Illegal visitors – some households and visitors didn’t follow the rules and received tourists privately; this is against the regulations and can cause ill feeling in the community. With the Valley covering a large area, it is hard to police effectively. Any illegal visitors will be ejected and banned from re-entry and, from 2020, manned gates will be active at each entry point.
Other, more long-term risks to consider include:
Will the economic benefits of this kind of tourism break the balanced structure of the community and, if so, will it lead to negative behaviour?
Will the arrival of more visitors accelerate the change of traditional culture here? And will these changes affect the herders’ attitude towards wildlife? After all, it is their culture and harmonious attitude towards nature that has made it possible for this pristine environment to be preserved to this day.
Whilst recognising these risks, the experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive and invaluable knowledge is being gained that will have an influence on the way tourism is managed in China’s national parks from 2020. On behalf of the local community, a big thank you to everyone who has supported the project!
2019 began with several groups braving the cold and unusually heavy snow in February and March to experience the Valley in stunningly beautiful wintery conditions.
I made my first visit of the year in early May, coinciding with the visit of a Scottish couple, Graeme and Moira Wallace, who had flown 10,000km to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in the Valley of the Cats. It was very special, and emotional, to see Graeme and Moira encountering their first Snow Leopard. They were extremely lucky, viewing a sleepy male just 160m from the vehicle!
The next day they saw another Snow Leopard, probably a female, at a different location. The experience of seeing these wild cats on the stunning Tibetan Plateau, enjoying the incredible scenery and staying in the home of a local herder made their 40th wedding anniversary hard to beat. See you back here for your 50th?
On their return to Scotland, Graeme and Moira kindly made a donation towards the community-based conservation project in the Valley of the Cats. Thank you, Graeme and Moira!
I was back in July, accompanying the visiting Panthera scientist, Imogene Cancellare, and helping a joint UK-China TV production company with a recce ahead of planned filming in October. Imogene was collecting Snow Leopard scat, in partnership with ShanShui Conservation Center, as part of her PhD studying Snow Leopard genetics.
On their first night, the TV producers had some excitement when a Brown Bear broke into their family homestay. Fortunately, the bear didn’t get into their sleeping quarters and was scared off by the family banging pots and pans without any lasting damage but it was a stark reminder that living in this area is not without risk!
The summer nights in the Valley of the Cats are perfect for viewing the core of the Milky Way and, for the first time, I attempted to photograph the night sky. I was pleased with the results but, given the elevation and light pollution-free skies, I am sure anyone with experience and a better camera would be able to capture some stunning images.
The Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife tourism project has been, without doubt, the most rewarding project with which I have been involved. Together, we are learning by doing. A big thank you to the local government, the herder families and to the brilliant ShanShui Conservation Center for making it possible. And a special thank you to everyone who has supported the project by visiting.
If you haven’t yet visited but are interested, check out the website to learn more and make an inquiry!
Only three years ago there were fears that China’s east coast could become an epicentre of extinction, such was the rate and extent of loss of intertidal mudflats, vital to millions of migratory shorebirds including many species whose populations are in sharp decline. However, in the last three years things have moved fast, even by China standards, and the emotions of shorebird researchers and conservationists have swung from depression and despair to hope and celebration.
In early July 2019, the future of migratory shorebirds in Asia and Australasia became a little more secure due to the addition by the United Nations of two of the most important locations – Taozini and Yancheng – onto the list of World Heritage sites. Whilst not a silver bullet for saving these migratory shorebirds, shared by at least 22 countries in East Asia and Australasia, it’s a big step forward and reflects significant recent progress by China on a range of conservation issues.
The Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay are at the heart of one of the world’s largest, and most threatened, flyways known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), a bird ‘superhighway’ that connects the Arctic with the southern hemisphere. Millions of shorebirds rely on the intertidal mudflats of China’s coast as a ‘service station’ to refuel and rest on their incredible journeys from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle to non-breeding grounds as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Their journeys, which scientists have only recently begun to understand, are stories of life on the edge; incredible endurance, specialism, beauty and awe. Just one example is the ‘baueri‘ Bar-tailed Godwit that migrates from New Zealand to Alaska via the Yellow Sea to breed, before flying non-stop from Alaska back to New Zealand after the breeding season. In the last ten years it has become clear that the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper relies on the Yellow Sea in both spring and autumn for food, rest and moulting.
One of the most effective ways to secure protection for the remaining intertidal mudflats of the Yellow Sea coast would be to secure nomination as World Heritage sites. This would not only require detailed evaluations and management plans but would also help promote the importance of the area both nationally and internationally. At the same time, inscription as World Heritage site would come with hard protection obligations.
And so the process, and all the hard work that comes with such a complex nomination, including liaison between the local and national governments, academics, NGOs and China’s World Heritage team, began.
As a first step, in February 2017 a total of 14 sites were added to China’s “tentative” list for World Heritage status, a pre-requisite to a formal nomination. The early efforts were given a significant boost in January 2018 when the State Oceanic Administration announced a ban on further ‘commercial-related’ land reclamation along its coast. This was reinforced by a circular from the State Council (China’s Cabinet) in July of that year. Momentum was building.
The process of securing nomination as a World Heritage site is not easy. Vast amounts of technical data are required and the nomination must address detailed questions about why the sites are important, how the sites will be protected and managed, as well as addressing the interests of various stakeholders. As a complex ‘serial’ nomination, involving more than one site, the process was even more demanding.
Eventually, after much work and collaboration, the formal nomination documents were submitted. The next part of the process for ‘natural heritage’ sites is for the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to conduct a technical review of the submission in order to make a recommendation to governments on the World Heritage Committee, the body that approves nominations.
In this case, the IUCN recommended deferral of the Yellow Sea application, pointing out some weaknesses in the application.
Whilst the IUCN report was unquestionably thorough and correct in its assessment, the recommendation to defer was greeted with gasps of horror from the conservation community in China and overseas. The reality was that, should the application be deferred, there were so many other sites in China on the waiting list for World Heritage nomination that it could be years before the Yellow Sea sites could be put forward again and, such was the urgency of the conservation issue related to this nomination, there simply wasn’t time. The Chinese team, supported by an incredible effort from the international conservation NGOs, orchestrated by BirdLife International, quickly put together a business case as to why, in this case, the global importance and urgency of the nomination was such that the recommendation from IUCN should be noted but that the sites should be inscribed in any case. The Australian government, encouraged by BirdLife Australia, put forward a motion to this effect.
In early July, the World Heritage Committee met in Baku, Azerbaijan, to decide whether to accept the latest series of nominations for World Heritage status from all over the world. The conservation community held its breath.
On 5 July, it was the turn of China’s Yellow Sea nomination to be discussed. The proceedings can be seen here but the most relevant part of the World Heritage Congress’s decision is simply this:
“The World Heritage Committee, Having examined Documents WHC/19/43.COM/8B and WHC/19/43.COM/INF.8B2,
Inscribes the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the Coast of Yellow Sea-Bohai Gulf of China (Phase I), China, on the World Heritage List on the basis of criterion (x);”
In short, the nomination was accepted subject to China complying with certain conditions to address the weaknesses outlined in the IUCN technical report. An excellent and sensible resolution. I think it’s fair to say that the conservation community breathed a huge collective sigh of relief.
As referenced by the official decision, this is just the beginning involving two of the most important sites. By 2020, phase II will be prepared, under which additional sites are expected to be added to this ‘serial’ World Heritage Site and, ideally, given the Yellow Sea region is shared by China, the Republic of Korea (RoK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a joint three-way World Heritage Site would better reflect the shared natural heritage of this area and would illustrate the importance of countries working together to conserve migratory birds.
There is still an enormous amount of work to do to secure the future of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. However, it is hard to overstate the change from three years ago.
So, for now, big congratulations to China and to everyone who has worked so hard to support the nomination, including the scientists and think-tanks who have proven the importance of the Yellow Sea to migratory birds and the economic value of coastal wetlands, to the national and local governments for creating an enabling policy framework, to academics, domestic NGOs and conservationists for the advocacy and technical support for the nomination, to international NGOs for rallying international support and to every individual who has expressed support, providing day to day encouragement to everyone working on this issue… today, you are all conservation heroes!
The depression and despair has turned into genuine hope.
“We have designed and built buildings for over 20 years. Our focus has always been on humans and how to make our lives better. In the future, we need to consider biodiversity and to create a better living environment for both citizens and wildlife, such as the Beijing Swift.”
– Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China
On Thursday 27 June 2019, Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, the leading property development and management company in China, met with four student “Beijing Swift Ambassadors” from Beijing schools. In response to their presentations about the Beijing Swift – its lifestyle, its migration, the falling population and what schools were doing to help – and a video message of support from Hank Paulson, former Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute, Mr Pan made three major commitments:
First, to trial the retrofitting of swift boxes on two of its buildings in Beijing
Second, to consider incorporating of biodiversity criteria into new building design
And third, to promote biodiversity among the building sector in China.
That’s quite a statement. And, as a prominent figure in Chinese industry and a national celebrity with more than 19 million followers on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter), this big announcement by Mr Pan will reach far and wide and, we hope, influence the business community not only in China but overseas.
The roots of this initiative go back to December 2013 when, by chance, I had a conversation with Dick Newell at a BirdLife International reception in London about the potential to track the Beijing Swift’s migration, until then a mystery. Back in Beijing, after a few conversations, a project was born and, in May 2014, a team of volunteers from the China Birdwatching Society, the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center and the Summer Palace joined Dick, Lyndon Kearsley and I to fit geolocators to 31 Beijing Swifts. A year later, after re-trapping 13 of the original 31 birds, we were able to prove for the first time that these special birds migrated to southern Africa for the northern winter.
Since then, I have visited more than 20 schools to tell the story of the Beijing Swift and, invariably, when the students hear about the population decline caused by the loss of nest sites due to the demolition of traditional style buildings, they want to help. Many schools have set up projects to make and erect artificial nest boxes on their school campuses (just this spring, we received exciting news from ISB – the International School of Beijing – that they had been successful in attracting swifts). Then, at one school, a young girl put up her hand and asked if we could write to the bosses of the building companies to ask them to make new buildings friendlier for swifts.
What a fabulous idea!
And so, student “Beijing Swift Ambassadors” wrote a letter to Mr Pan Shiyi, Chairman of SOHO China, asking him to help and yesterday they were invited to meet him to make the case.
After a scene-setting clip from the BBC Natural History Unit about the Beijing Swift, recorded in the capital last year as part of the “Wild Metropolis” series, the meeting began with a short introduction by Terry, followed by a video message of support from Hank Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary and Chairman of the Paulson Institute. The floor was then given to the student Beijing Swift Ambassadors to set out their case. They were eloquent, passionate and very persuasive.
Mr Pan listened carefully and responded with his groundbreaking commitments, including presenting the students with signed, handmade swift boxes made by Mr Pan personally from recycled wood reclaimed from SOHO China’s building sites. In return, the students presented Mr Pan with a signed certificate, awarding him the title “Beijing Swift Ambassador”.
After the presentations, guests were invited to the roof to watch the Beijing Swifts wheeling around Zhengyangmen Gate at the southern end of Tiananmen Square. This must be one of the best places in the world to view the Beijing Swift!
This initiative could not be better timed. Next year, governments will meet in Kunming, China, to agree new targets to slow and stop the decline in wildlife at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. This meeting happens in the context of a biodiversity crisis – according to best estimates, we have lost around 60% of wildlife on Earth in the last 50 years. But whilst the governmental meeting is crucial, it is clear that governments alone cannot tackle the biodiversity crisis. All sectors of society including cities, regions, communities, NGOs and business must find ways to incorporate biodiversity criteria into their daily activities.
That is why this initiative by SOHO China and Mr Pan is so important. It shows that we can develop, we can have cutting-edge design and functionality and, at the same time, make a positive contribution to biodiversity. It is leadership of the highest order and will send a strong signal to business in China and overseas.
With the world’s spotlight on biodiversity next October, if you were a CEO, wouldn’t you want your company to have a good story to tell about how its supporting wildlife?
Huge thanks to the Beijing Swift Ambassadors, without whom this project would not have been possible. Their professional and slick presentation was exceptional. And a big thank you to Hank Paulson for his strong message of support; it was very special for the Swift Ambassadors and for SOHO China to hear these words of encouragement from a person of his stature. We are, of course, indebted to SOHO China, especially Pan Shiyi and Charlie (Tang Yin), who not only put on a special event but ensured it was backed up by lasting, meaningful commitments. Thank you to Dick Newell for providing technical advice to SOHO China about swift boxes and for being so encouraging. We are grateful to the BBC Natural History Unit for providing the clip of the Beijing Swift and to my colleague, Luo Peng, at EcoAction who worked hard to help prepare the students and to the SEE Foundation for their support for the project.Finally, I’d like to say a huge thank you to Wendy Paulson for initially connecting me to Pan Shiyi and Zhang Xin and for her unstinting support.