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”.

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.