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.
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.
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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..!
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: firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
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.
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:
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.