Citizen Science on the Tibetan Plateau

Every once in a while in life, something happens to make us feel good, that reinforces our faith in human nature and gives us a renewed sense of purpose.  Whether it’s meeting someone who inspires, gaining a privileged glimpse into the natural world or simply reading wise words, these are important moments that can encourage and inspire for years.

Having been back in Beijing for 24 hours, I know that the 2017 Nangqen International Wildlife Watch Festival was one of these special moments.

The Festival, arranged by the local government in Nangqen and the brilliant NGO, 山水(ShanShui), was designed to celebrate the biodiversity of this unique part of China.  Seventeen teams from across China and overseas competed to photograph as many birds, mammals and plants as possible over three days.   I was invited to be on the judging panel alongside Professors Lu Zhi (Peking University, Beijing) and Liu Yang (Sun Yat-sen University, Guangzhou), Lama Tashi Sangpo and wildlife photgrapher Xi Zhinong.

Base camp at Nangqen, Qinghai Province.
Four of the judges with local community leaders. Judges from left to right: Terry, Xi Xhinong, Professor Lu Zhi and Lama Tashi Sangpo.

Members of the local community were hired as drivers, guides and to run the campsite at which all the participants stayed during the festival.  We ‘enjoyed’ (yes, really!) 5 days without a phone signal or wi-fi.

Nangqen is a stunningly beautiful place.  Located 3-4 hrs from Yushu in Qinghai Province, the habitat is a mixture of grassland, wooded hillsides and high, desolate mountains.  The elevation spanned from 3,800m at the camp up to in excess of 5,000m.  It’s home to some unique plants, mammals and birds, including the endemic Tibetan Bunting and Tibetan Babax, as well as some of the highest densities of large predators in China, including Asian Brown Bear, Lynx, Wolf, Leopard and, of course, the King of the Mountains, the magnificent 雪豹 (XueBao), the elusive Snow Leopard.

A typical mountain scene at Nangqen at 4,500m elevation

Overall, the teams recorded 17 species of mammal, 94 species of bird and 230 species of plant, providing a wonderful snapshot of the biodiversity at this special site – citizen science at its best.

Highlights included 2 separate sightings of SNOW LEOPARD (possibly the same individual), 2 sightings of EURASIAN LYNX (one of which was photographed), 1 sighting each of PALLAS’S CAT (at the campsite at night!) and WOLF, as well as the sought-after endemic birds, TIBETAN BUNTING and TIBETAN BABAX plus some scarce and local plants including the wonderful Lamiophlomis rotata (see below) a plant used as a painkiller by local communities.

Lamiophlomis rotata is used as a painkiller.
Meconopsis racemosa, a beautiful poppy-like flower found at high elevations.
The closest I got to Pallas’s Cat was seeing Yaya’s tattoo!

There were so many things that inspired me about this festival.  The involvement of the local Tibetan communities and their relationship with, and respect for, the wildlife.  The spirit among the teams of sharing information and helping each other to see as much as possible.  The enthusiasm and stamina of the participants – often starting before dawn, returning after dark and climbing steep mountains and walking kilometres through the forests to seek out special plants and animals.  The energy and passion of the ShanShui team, led by Professor Lu Zhi and including Zhao Xiang, Shi Xiangying, Li Yuhan, Gao Xiangyu and Yu Lu, ably assisted by the girls from Wild Xinjiang, Yaya (Huang Yahui) and Da Xiang.  The enlightening talks by Lama Tashi Sangpo, Xi Zhinong, Shi Xiangying and Prof Lu Zhi about the wildlife and conservation of the Tibetan Plateau.  I could go on.  Put simply, it was the best wildlife watching event in which I have participated.

These local guys helped free our stuck vehicle after a thunderstorm at 4,500m.

There are many great stories from the event but I’d like to tell just one involving 12-year old Wujing Dingzen, son of one of the Chinese Communist Party leaders in Xining.  Armed with a small pair of binoculars and a SLR camera, he told me at the beginning of the festival that he wanted to see a Snow Leopard.  Not wanting to discourage him by saying how tough they are to see, I told him there was a chance but that it would require a lot of luck and he’d need to spend a lot of time looking in the right places.  On the afternoon of day three, I had just sat down in my tent to relax after a long day in the field.  I opened my sketchbook and attempted to (poorly) sketch a Lammergeier, several of which we had seen that day.  A few minutes later, Dingzen appeared at the entrance to my tent with a local Tibetan guide.  He asked if I was going out that evening and, if so, could he join.  The local guide offered to drive us anywhere we wanted.  A few minutes later, together with Da Xiang, we were on our way up the mountain at 4,700m to search for Snow Leopard in the early evening sun.  Despite scanning the mountainsides for more than two hours, we drew a blank, but enjoyed wonderful views of more than 100 Blue Sheep and singing Tibetan Buntings.  As we returned to camp, Dingzen asked if I could join him the next day at 0500 to search again.  I told him that I couldn’t as I had judging duties but Da Xiang said she would join.

Given the high standard, choosing the best 20 photographs from the festival was extremely difficult..

The next morning as the judges were going through the photographs submitted by the teams, Da Xiang came running into the tent exclaiming that she had seen a Snow Leopard at the place we had visited the evening before..  the sighting was brief, and she didn’t have a photograph, but nevertheless she was, as one might expect, deliriously happy at seeing her first Snow Leopard!

Yaya holding up Da Xiang’s hurried sketch of the Snow Leopard and the location of her sighting.

Da Xiang explained that she was the only one to see it but that Dingzen had climbed up the mountainside to try to get a glimpse.  As he walked over the ridge, he was not seen again for more than three hours.  What happened between then and arriving on the back of a motorbike with a local yak herder, is something he will never forget.  On his return, Dingzen explained that he had walked up the mountain and had climbed over two or three ridges and, as he emerged over the final ridge, he came face to face with a Snow Leopard.  The animal, just 5 metres away, was looking at him, growling.  He was petrified and simply froze.  After a few seconds, the Snow Leopard ran into a small cave, still growling.  Dingzen grabbed his camera, quickly took a photo of the cave and then ran for 2-3 minutes until he was so out of breath he had to stop.  By this time he wasn’t sure exactly where he was, so he headed down and found the nearest track, from where he hitched a lift with a local motorbike rider.  On arrival at the camp, his heart was still pounding and he was visibly exhilarated as he recounted his story.  He must be one of very few people in the world to have been growled at by a Snow Leopard in the wild..!

Wujing Dingzen (right) explaining to Professor Lu Zhi where he encountered the Snow Leopard.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Dingzen was given the “Young Citizen Scientist With Most Potential” award at the last evening’s ceremony.

Among the many well-deserved awards, the biggest congratulations must go to Yinjiang Oriental Hobby, the team from Yunnan Province, made up of Zeng Xiangle, Ban Dingying and He Haiyan, who came top overall.  Their all-round knowledge of the biodiversity of this region was hugely impressive (by the way, Zeng is an excellent Yunnan-based bird guide and can be contacted on email at: 463621792@qq.com).

A special mention to the superb young artists – Saoba and Xigua – who painted this cool ‘field guide’ to the birds of the area.

Other countries were represented, including Australia, France, the UK (me) and the US.  Among the foreign participants, American photographer Kyle Obermann, on a photographic tour through China’s western mountains, took some stunning images of the area.

Tom Stidham, a Beijing-based paleontologist was part of team “T & Y” with his wife, Wang Ying.

Tom and Ying (front) with other participants looking for Tibetan Bunting on the evening of day three.

Sacha Dench from the UK’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, who was in China after visiting relatives in Australia, took the opportunity to participate.  Sacha is best known for the “Flight of the Swans” during which she flew a paramotor from Russia to the UK to follow the migration of Bewick’s Swans and to highlight the risks they face.

Sacha trying her first ever chicken foot at Yushu airport.

But best of all, it was brilliant to see so many young Chinese, from all over the country, participating with such great spirit.  With amazing wildlife, and talented young naturalists, the future of China’s conservation movement is bright.

I’d like to put on record my huge thanks to the Yushu and Nangqen governments, the local community, ShanShui and to everyone who participated for making the festival such an inspiring and fun event.  Can’t wait for the third festival in 2018!

Here is a compilation of video clips, set to the background of local Tibetan group ENU’s “Fly”.  I hope it gives a sense of the location and its wildlife.

 

For more information about the ShanShui Conservation Centre, see:

http://www.shanshui.org/

WeChat Subscription Channel: SSbaohu

About ShanShui:

Founded in 2007, ShanShui Conservation Centre is a Chinese NGO dedicated to conservation practices.  Together with their partners – communities, academic institutions, governments, companies and media – they support local initiatives to defend the land we depend on.  They focus on the most biodiverse areas: Sanjiangyuan, the Southwestern Mountain Areas and the Lancang Mekong River Basin.  They launched the Nature Watch Programme in 2014 with the following goals: examine local biodiversity data and evaluate conservation outcomes to build a conservation database (http://chinanaturewatch.org), interpret and propose conservation policies, and promote public participation in observing and preserving nature.

Snow Leopard Watching in Qinghai

Following our successful trip in April, we’re just back from another visit to “The Valley of the Cats” on the roof of the world in Qinghai Province.  Joined by Jocko Hammar from Sweden and Hong Kong-based Chris Campion, it was our second ‘pilot’ visit as part of the project with ShanShui Conservation Centre and the local government to establish the viability of sustainable ecotourism in the area.  Again, we succeeded in observing the main target – the elusive Snow Leopard.  We enjoyed two encounters, just four hours apart, including witnessing a spectacular (failed) hunt of a baby Blue Sheep.

Staying with local yak herder families in the valley was, as always, a delightful cultural experience – their wonderful hospitality, warm family atmosphere and being able to witness the activities of the working yak herders added immensely to the trip.

Qinghai in June is stunningly beautiful..  the dry barren slopes of winter and spring are replaced by lush green meadows, anointed by a wonderful array of wild flowers.  The herds of Blue Sheep are swelled by the arrival of a new generation and, although the weather can turn from summer to winter on a whim, as evidenced by the blizzard we experienced on day two, the temperature is generally a pleasant 15-25 degrees C during the day.

Add in some special scenery and the supporting cast of wildlife, including White-lipped Deer, Musk Deer, Mountain Weasel, Tibetan Fox, Glover’s Pika, White Eared Pheasant, Monal-pheasant, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture to name just a few, the result is the experience of a lifetime.

The charismatic Glover’s Pika is common in the Valley of the Cats.

A short video giving an insight into the most recent trip, including footage of Snow Leopards, can be seen below.

After seeing Snow Leopards so well, we explored a nearby side valley and were rewarded with a thrilling encounter with a rarely seen bird – the Tibetan Bunting.  We counted at least 4 of these high altitude specialists and enjoyed a stunning performance just a few metres away as it sang to defend its territory and fed in the meadow.

We are delighted to announce that we’ll soon be able to arrange bespoke trips for small groups to this unique location.  The trips are being carefully designed in consultation with the local government, the local community and the ShanShui Conservation Centre.  Visitors will support the local community, including contributing to the special “Compensation Fund” offering local yak herders recompense when their animals are taken by predators, and the ShanShui Snow Leopard Conservation Project.  More details will be available soon.

Snow Leopards in Qinghai

I am just back home from an incredible trip to Qinghai Province with Marie, Tormod Amundsen (Biotope) and Will Soar from the UK’s Rare Bird Alert.  Our visit was to support the Chinese NGO, ShanShui, and the local government in developing sustainable ecotourism.  We were hosted by, and owe huge thanks to, local yak herders – especially Sen and Chairennima – who welcomed us into their homes and entertained us with stories of Asian Brown Bears breaking into their food stores and Snow Leopards strolling through their back yards.

It was a magnificent trip in so many ways and we have some exciting news to announce very soon.

In the meantime, here is a short video of one of our encounters with SNOW LEOPARD.  We were fortunate to enjoy three encounters with Snow Leopards in four days, without any pre-scouting, illustrating just how intact is the ecosystem in this wonderful place.  Add in other special mammals and birds, together with the breathtaking scenery and unique Tibetan hospitality, and you have the ingredients for a trip of a lifetime.  Stay tuned for some incredible footage by Tormod of this stunningly beautiful and unspoilt part of China and an opportunity to experience it for yourself.

Big respect to Marie, Tormod and Will for being the best travel companions one could wish for.

Almost every yak herder in this area has footage of Snow Leopard on his/her smartphone.. so we now feel part of the club!

Here’s Tormod’s reaction after seeing his first Snow Leopard…

 

You can read Tormod’s account of the trip, and see his video containing some stunning drone footage of the area, by clicking here.

All Snow Leopard footage taken using an iPhone 6S with Swarovski Optik ATX95 and iPhone adaptor.

Snow Leopard video

I have merged all the clips I was able to record of Snow Leopards in Yushu, Qinghai.  The result is just under 5 minutes of footage of these magnificent cats… Click on HD for best quality.

Mr and Mrs Pink

Is it a finch?  Is it a bunting?  The PRZEVALSKI’S ROSEFINCH (Urocynchramus pylzowi) has, at one time or another, been classified as both but now sits in a family of its own.  With a limited range in China (Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu Provinces) it’s a sought-after species for any visiting birders.

During our recent visit to Qinghai, Marie and I were lucky enough to encounter two pairs in a valley close to Qinghai Lake.  One pair, clearly breeding, brought a selection of insects to feed their young which we were able to capture on video.

The call reminded me very much of the central China race of Long-tailed Rosefinch, lepidus.

This bird was a species we were keen to see during the Qinghai trip and we were very happy to see them so well.

Featured image: Przevalski’s Rosefinch by Marie Louise.

Snow Leopards

What a week.  Only 6 days after an incredible encounter with Pallas’s Cats near Qinghai Lake, I have been so lucky (again!) to spot not one but two SNOW LEOPARDS near Yushu in Qinghai Province.

Two weeks ago I was invited to participate in the “International Nature Watch Festival of the Mekong River“, organised by the local government and the brilliant conservation organisation, 山水 (Shan Shui).  The competition involved teams of 4 who would spend 3 days recording as many species as possible of of mammal, bird and plant in Zaduo County, Qinghai Province.  Initially I was due to be one of the judges but, on the first morning of the competition, the organisers asked whether I would join a team of two Beijing students – Zhang Chengxin and Liu Garbo – who didn’t have much experience at bird or mammal watching.  Of course, I was delighted.

Each team was provided with a vehicle and local driver.  Our driver took us to a stunning valley where we began our list with White Eared Pheasant, Himalayan Marmot and the cute-looking Glover’s Pika.  As we walked along the valley, we met a local Tibetan family of yak herders who were the only inhabitants of this stunning site.  They invited us in for tea and yoghurt (both delicious!) and we spoke about the wild animals they had seen.

Qinghai Shan Shui12
Inside the local family’s house – beautifully decorated in Tibetan style

Qinghai Shan Shui13

With a herd of around 100 yaks, the family explained that, every year, they lose around 5 of their animals to large predators, mostly Snow Leopard and Wolf.  Although they weren’t pleased about losing 5% of their stock annually, they understood the necessity to balance their needs and those of the wild animals, for which they had great respect.  They described to us how the Snow Leopards sometimes come down to their house, particularly in winter, and how they had seen them leisurely ambling by their back yard, much to the chagrin of their Tibetan Mastiff!

One of the family members offered to show us a way up the mountain to help us to look for mammals and so, after a generous helping of yak yoghurt, we set off up the mountain..  at 4,500+ m, struggling to keep up with our local companion.

Qinghai Shan Shui15
Heading up the mountain with our Tibetan companion.

Every few hundred metres we stopped to scan the rocky slopes.  We were rewarded with excellent views of Blue Sheep (good for the mammal list), Red-billed Chough, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture and Wallcreeper.  In the heat of the day we thought the chances of seeing any large mammals were slim… Nevertheless, we began to explore the slopes nearby.  More Blue Sheep, more vultures and more of the comical Marmots provided entertainment and then, suddenly, through my binoculars, I spotted a suspicious shape on top of a nearby rocky outcrop.  I quickly set up the telescope and was shocked to see the head of a Snow Leopard staring back at me.

Snow Leopards for ShanShui2
My first view of a SNOW LEOPARD!

“Whoaaaa” I gasped, and quickly encouraged the team to look through the telescope in case the big cat decided to bolt.  Fortunately, the magnificent cat stayed, seemingly very relaxed and looking around…  We watched in awe for more than half an hour before it sloped off the top of the rock and walked down to a sheltered spot below.  There, a second shape moved and it was apparent that there was not one but two Snow Leopards!  Wow!!  It was testament to their camouflage that the second was only seen when it moved.  The two cats greeted each other, a ritual that included licking each others fur, and settled down to sleep.  We watched them, in awe, for around 2 hours in total, during which time they slept, shuffled around, panted in the heat of the sun and groomed each other.  In the late afternoon, knowing it was at least an hour back to camp and I was due to speak at dinner, we decided to leave them in peace.  As we walked down the mountain, every few hundred metres, we turned around for another look..  we didn’t want the encounter to end.

I was lucky to have my telescope and iPhone with me so I was able to take some video footage.  Despite the distance and the heat haze, I was delighted to be able to record some of our special encounter.

On return to the camp, our sighting was the talk of the tents and earned us an audience with the governor of Zaduo County, Mr Cai Danzhou.  Cai explained his ambitions for the area, including becoming a National Park and world-class ecotourism site with limits on tourists, limits on the area open to visitors and prioritising its greatest asset – its wildlife.  Mr Cai has been working with the excellent 山水 (Shan Shui) organisation and they have clearly influenced his thinking.  The area now has the first human-animal conflict community fund which compensates local people for the loss of livestock to Snow Leopard, Wolf and other predators.  Shan Shui has been monitoring the wildlife here with a series of camera traps and recently recorded the mating behaviour of Snow Leopard for the first time.  With Snow Leopard, Leopard, Bear, Lynx and Otter all recorded in the area, in addition to the rare plants and birds, it’s a hotspot for biodiversity in a stunning setting of monstrous mountains and spectacular valleys.

It was brilliant to see not only seasoned wildlife watchers at the event – including China’s most famous wildlife photographer, Xi Zhinong, but also young students with bags of enthusiasm for wildlife.  And with coverage on national and local TV and in newspapers, the event did a great deal to celebrate the world-class wildlife of this beautiful corner of Qinghai Province.  I can’t wait to return!

I’d like to acknowledge my teammates, Liu Garbo and Zhang Chengxin, for their fun company – their reaction at seeing the Snow Leopards was something to behold.  I really hope to see you guys again in Beijing for some birding!  And big thanks to 山水 for inviting me.  It’s a real shot in the arm to meet such a dedicated, passionate and professional bunch of people.  Looking forward to working with you guys in the future – lots of potential for some very exciting conservation and public engagement projects.