Back in 2019, which almost seems a lifetime ago, I had the honour of working with a hero of mine – Ray Mears – and his team as part of a new series on China’s wild places. Entitled “Wild China with Ray Mears”, the seven-episode ITV series chronicles his journey across this vast and diverse country, exploring some of its special wildernesses.
The previous year, two of his researchers contacted me when they were scouting for locations. They were keen to visit the Valley of the Cats, the location of the community-based wildlife watching tourism project. I arranged for them to stay with a local family in one of the most spectacular locations and met them there on arrival. The idea was that we would have two days to explore potential filming opportunities and locations. The following morning, the local ShanShui staff and I drove to meet them at their homestay and there was quite a commotion. Several members of the family were chatting loudly and gesturing towards one of the rooms of their house which looked as if a bomb had hit it. The two researchers had been woken with a bang at 1am when the family started banging pots and pans, and were startled to learn that a brown bear had broken into the room adjacent to their sleeping quarters! Huge paw prints around the house and some muddy prints on the walls betrayed the bear’s shenanigans.
Unfazed by their experience, the first thing the researchers said to me when I arrived was “ok, we know already this is a good place for Ray!”
I won’t reveal how Ray fared in the Valley, except to say that this episode is not to be missed.
The series will be broadcast on ITV in the UK this summer, beginning with episode 1 from a very cold Beijing on Tuesday 13 July from 1930-2000. With visits to the country’s tropical rainforest, the bamboo forest home of giant pandas, bat caves in karst landscapes as well as the Tibetan Plateau, this series is a must-watch for anyone with an interest in China and its wild places.
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!
On behalf of the local community in The Valley of the Cats, close to the source of the mighty Mekong River on the Tibetan Plateau, we are delighted to announce the launch of a new website dedicated to the Valley.
The bilingual (English and Chinese) site includes background information about the Valley, the people and its wildlife. It includes latest news from the local yak herders, the latest photos from the camera traps set up and operated by the local community and feedback from visitors who participated in the pilot trips.
The Valley of the Cats is a special place and, thanks to the efforts of the local government, local families and ShanShui Conservation Centre, the Valley is now open to receive small numbers of visitors, provided permits are obtained through official channels. Visitors stay with one of the local yak herder families, who will collect you from, and return you to, the airport at Yushu which, in turn, is just one hour from Xining by air.
Feeling adventurous? Why not check out the site and contact the local community to arrange the trip of a lifetime… https://valleyofthecats.org
Header photo by Frédéric Larrey, taken in the Valley of the Cats.