National Parks are coming to China

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the community in the Valley of the Cats being awarded the first concession for community-based tourism in a Chinese (pilot) national park. In late August, I was invited to China’s first National Parks Forum in Xining, to see for myself how the community’s efforts are influencing national policy.

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
Liu Ning, Governor of Qinghai Province, opens the National Parks Forum

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.

Presenting the Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife watching tourism project to the forum.
The Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife-watching tourism project is helping to shape China’s policy on tourism for its 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.

With veteran conservationist George Schaller (left) and Jonathan Jarvis (right), former Director of the US National Parks Service at the opening of the forum.

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).

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The Chinese Mountain Cats are Growing Up!

I couldn’t resist posting this short video of a family of Chinese Mountain Cats.  Taken from the same camera trap as the original footage, this clip shows a now well-grown kitten beginning to take an interest in its surroundings, including the camera trap!  It’s adorable.  Chinese Mountain Cat is one of the world’s most poorly-known felids with a small range centred on the eastern Tibetan Plateau.  It’s the only cat endemic to China.

As with the previous post, this footage is published courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center.

Snow Leopard Caught on Camera

Six weeks ago, working with ShanShui Conservation Center, I finished the latest round of training for the host families in the Valley of the Cats in Qinghai Province as part of the community-based wildlife tourism project.  Before leaving, I spent an afternoon high up in the mountains, where I set up a camera trap along the edge of a crag.  Two days ago, I retrieved it.  The memory card was full and included more than 1,800 images.  I was excited but at the same time wary that I may have 1,800 photos of a blade of grass waving in the wind, triggering the camera trap’s motion sensor!

As I looked through the images, I was not prepared for what I was about to see.  Many of the photos were of a cute GLOVER’S PIKA, busily preparing for winter by gathering vegetation and placing it in its den.

A TIBETAN SNOWCOCK was a joy to see, strutting along the rocks..

This was shortly followed by a group of BLUE SHEEP, a wonderful ungulate that roams these mountains in large groups, often 100+ strong.

Then, after checking around 500 photos, suddenly I had a surprise..  a SNOW LEOPARD!  The spectacular series of five photos show what I believe to be a fresh-faced young animal walking closer and closer to the camera before appearing to look right into the lens…  spectacular!

I could not have wished for a better result!

This Snow Leopard was caught on camera in a part of the valley previously not known to hold this species, so it’s helpful information to the ShanShui scientists working in the area.

The last two weeks have been a busy time for the Valley of the Cats with five groups of visitors staying with local families as part of the community-based tourism project. The groups included Professor Per Alström and his brother Klas, Beijing-based Ben Wielstra and Jan-Erik Nilsen, Alan Babington-Smith and Melinda Liu from the Royal Asiatic Society, as well as James Eaton and Rob Hutchinson from BirdTour Asia who visited with Dan Brown and his wife Rachael Iveson-Brown.  Roland Zeidler visited with Fiona Fyfe and John MacKinnon accompanied us for a few days before heading to a birding festival in Yushu.  Finally, the day before I left, Yann Muzika, Abdelhamid Bizid, Yong Ding Li, Irene Dy and Summer Wong began their 4-day visit.

I’m delighted to say that, thanks to their supreme efforts in scanning endless ridges and crags, Per’s, James’s and Roland’s groups were successful in seeing, and recording video, of Snow Leopard in two different places, as well as spotting Wolf, Lynx, White-lipped and Alpine Musk Deer, Woolly Hare and Himalayan Marmot.  As I write this, I have just heard that Yann’s group has also been successful with two separate sightings of Snow Leopard.

To give you a sense of the place, here’s a selection of photos from last week.

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Huge thanks to all the visitors for being such great company last week and for supporting this fledgling community-based tourism project.

Reading this, you may think that seeing Snow Leopards in the Valley of the Cats is easy.  I can assure you it’s not.  Really not.  Unless one is supremely lucky to encounter one close to the road (which is possible), it can take many many hours of scanning rocks and ridges in the seemingly endless suitable habitat to find one.  But that elusiveness is surely part of the charm of the Snow Leopard.  However, even if you don’t see a Snow Leopard, the spectacular scenery, wonderful local culture and the array of other special mammals and birds make any visit an unforgettable experience.

If you’re interested in visiting the Valley of the Cats and supporting the community-based tourism project, please check out the website.  Please be warned – conditions are basic: no toilets, no running water and no heating – so the Valley is not for the faint-hearted.  However, if you are prepared to live like a yak herder for a few days, you will have a truly authentic experience.  100% of the revenue stays in the community, so visitors can be confident they are supporting the local people and conservation while enjoying the trip of a lifetime.

 

With The Leopards

I’m writing this from Yushu in Qinghai Province where I’m participating in a conference “With The Leopards”, hosted by the Yushu local government and Yushi Party Committee and organised by ShanShui Conservation Center.  The event is focusing on the conservation of these magnificent cats on the Tibetan Plateau.  It’s quite a gathering, including many local, national and international experts including representatives from Panthera and The Snow Leopard Trust.  Among the speakers are Professor Lu Zhi of Peking University (founder of ShanShui Conservation Center), John MacKinnon (author of The Field Guide to the Birds of China and veteran of conservation in Asia, especially China) and, perhaps most encouragingly of all, the Party Secretaries from Yushu Prefecture, Zaduo County and Angsai (“The Valley of the Cats”).

The opening of the “With the Leopards” conference in Yushu, Qinghai Province.

Importantly, there are many representatives from the local communities, some of whom have already been involved in community-based conservation initiatives and others who are keen to participate.  Their perspectives have added a great deal to the proceedings, helping to ensure policy recommendations take into account, and work with rather than against, the realities on the ground.

Zha Shuji is the Secretary of Angsai, including The Valley of the Cats

The conference has heard about the latest scientific research on Common Leopard and Snow Leopard from across China, including Qinghai, Tibet, Sichuan and Xinjiang, how to fill the remaining knowledge gaps and a discussion about the issues that need to be addressed, including overall management of the grassland, human-animal conflict and climate change.

I was delighted to be invited to speak about the community-based wildlife tourism project in The Valley of the Cats and enjoyed a Q&A session with the audience where we discussed important issues around monitoring the environmental impact of tourism, how to ensure the opportunities are shared equally among the families in the valley and the potential for replicating the model in other areas of Qinghai.  I was happy to report that, so far, the community had hosted 18 groups of visitors and raised 72,000 RMB.  And, thanks to the generosity of Taiwanese optics company, Optisan, we had been able to provide each family with a pair of binoculars and a guide book about the wildlife of Sanjiangyuan to support their guiding efforts.

The local families in the Valley of the Cats testing out their new binoculars, kindly provided by Taiwanese optics company, Optisan.

A copy of this excellent field guide is now with each family in The Valley of the Cats.

Of course, this was just the beginning of the journey and we expected that, with a growing reputation and the launch of a dedicated website, the number of visitors would increase in 2019 and beyond.

The conference was the catalyst for the various Chinese organisations working on Snow Leopard conservation to collate their knowledge and advance a paper that will pull together all the data from across this vast country to provide an updated summary of the status of Snow Leopard in China.

The afternoon of the second day will see a field trip to see Black-necked Cranes at a nearby wetland but John MacKinnon and I will instead head to the Valley of the Cats with the ShanShui team, where we will be part of the judging panel for 2018 Nature Watch Festival, due to take place from 21-24 July.  This year there are 18 teams from across China, including one team from Hong Kong, and one international team with participants from the UK and US.  It promises to be a wonderful event.  With a newly-installed phone mast close to the camp, we should be enjoying connectivity, so check Birding Beijing’s Twitter feed (@birdingbeijing) for updates!

The stunning conference logo of a Common Leopard and a Snow Leopard is by Xu Ning.

April 2018 in the Valley of the Cats

I’m just back from my first visit of the year to the “Valley of the Cats”, near Yushu in Qinghai Province.  With winter loosening its grip and daytime temperatures reaching 15 degrees Celsius, it was a good time to visit.

The purpose of the trip was to conduct the second training session for the local families about wildlife watching tourism.  And immediately before the training, I took the opportunity to accompany two teachers – Wayne and Jenny Winkelman from the International School of Beijing (ISB) – for a visit to the Valley as tourists.

Wayne and Jenny with their host family in the Valley of the Cats.

As well as seeing a Snow Leopard on day one, Wayne and Jenny were fortunate to see seven Tibetan Wolves in a day and enjoyed some spectacular encounters with species such as White-lipped Deer, Blue Sheep, Alpine Musk Deer and birds such as Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Babax and Lammergeier.

As well as the wildlife, they soaked up the culture with a hike to a 800-year old local temple and Jenny spent a day as a yak herder, helping to round up the yak and milking them in the morning..  Listen below to the wonderful sound of a yak grunting as it’s being milked..

After Wayne and Jenny’s experience, we’re hoping to set up a partnership between ShanShui and ISB with ISB sponsoring some camera traps in the Valley, the photos from which will be shared with the students.

Working with ShanShui Conservation Center and the local government, we conducted three days of training involving one day of ‘classroom-based’ activities followed by two days of field training.  As usual, the local families were a joy to work with and we learned as much from them as they did from us.

Day One: identifying the best sites for wildlife watching

This time, our training was focused on guiding.  We identified the best sites for wildlife watching and, splitting into two groups, visited each in turn.  Special wildlife recording sheets – in Tibetan, Chinese and English – were created and each family will now record all wildlife sightings including date, time, location, species, behaviour and any other useful information.  The data will be reported to a community focal point to help build up a picture of the wildlife in the Valley and to identify trends.  Importantly, when there are visitors in the Valley, the families will report any sightings via the walkie-talkie network, enabling the information to be passed to the host family and thus increase the chances of wildlife-watching tourists being able to enjoy the best possible experience.

The yak herders took us to some wonderful sites from where to watch the local wildlife

We were fortunate to be in the Valley at the same time as the Snow Leopard scientists from ShanShui and, with them accompanying us on the field visits, we were all educated in how to identify and collect mammal faeces.. especially Snow Leopard.  This is part of an ongoing study into the diet and behaviour of these special cats.

Snow Leopard scat on a prominent trail at an elevation of c4,700m.

An overnight dusting of snow on day two made it easy to spot mammal tracks – these were left by a pack of five Tibetan Wolves.

One of the priorities has been to try to secure some optics for the local guides..  and I am delighted to say that we are now in the advanced stages of negotiations with an optics manufacturer to provide 15 pairs of binoculars – one for each family.  Alongside a field guide to the nature of Sanjiangyuan, we’re beginning to build up the capacity of the families in the valley to be able to provide good quality guiding.

The Valley of the Cats is open to visitors, provided they obtain the necessary permits.  Look out for a dedicated website to be launched soon.  In the meantime, if you are interested in visiting, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I can help facilitate the arrangements.

Huge thanks to Li Yuhan and the team from ShanShui Conservation Center, to Wayne and Jenny Winkelman for being such great travel companions and to the local families for being such a joy to work with and for teaching us so much about their environment and culture.  I am looking forward to my return.

Below some more photos from the most recent visit, including some recent camera trap photos of Snow Leopard, Leopard and Pallas’s Cat, courtesy of ShanShui Conservation Center.

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Snow Leopards and More: The Tibetan Plateau

The love affair with the Tibetan Plateau continues.  Here’s a short video covering some of the highlights of our most recent visit to the Yushu area with Mark Andrews, Rick Bateman, Brian Egan, Dale Forbes and Marie Louise.  Once again we were fortunate to enjoy some stunning encounters with Snow Leopards and much much more, including Tibetan Wolf, multiple superb views of Tibetan Fox, Glover’s and Plateau Pikas, Tibetan Gazelle, Tibetan Antelope, White-lipped Deer, Blue Sheep, Woolly Hare, Asian Badger (at 4400m!) as well as some special birds such as Bar-headed Goose, Black-necked Crane, Pinktail, White Eared Pheasant, Alashan, White-throated, Hodgson’s and White-winged Redstarts, Brown and Robin Accentors, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Saker, White-winged Grosbeak, many snowfinches and rosefinches, Tibetan Bunting and Tibetan Babax, to name a few.  Despite spending a lot of time in suitable habitat, we failed to find Pallas’s Cat, a species that is probably quite common in the area but difficult to see due to its primarily nocturnal habits.  And we had a frustratingly brief encounter with a probable Chinese Mountain Cat.  It’s a special place!

Although access to the area is restricted, and sensitive (the area is inside a national nature reserve and it is due to become one of China’s first national parks), small groups can be facilitated as long as the trip is arranged through the proper channels.  Independent travel is not permitted and, to reinforce that, while we were there, a group of foreigners was ejected from the valley because they had not registered.

It was great to stay with one of the local families of yak herders and to see how the training, just a few weeks earlier, had influenced their thinking.  It’s still very early days in terms of developing wildlife watching tourism in the area, and there are still many issues to address before these pilot trips can be scaled up, however there is no doubting the potential to provide visitors with an unforgettable experience whilst supporting the local people and raising funds for conservation and I’m excited to be working with the local government and ShanShui to make it happen.

If you are interested in visiting, please get in touch.

A huge thank you to the local government and to ShanShui Conservation Center (especially Zhao Xiang and Li Yuhan) for their invaluable help and support, without which our trip would not have been possible.

Finally, just for fun, this photo from the trip has been causing a stir on social media; a Snow Leopard stalking a magpie that’s a little too close to his kill.. can you spot it?

Snow Leopard eyeing magpie

 

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”.