Back in 2019, which almost seems a lifetime ago, I had the honour of working with a hero of mine – Ray Mears – and his team as part of a new series on China’s wild places. Entitled “Wild China with Ray Mears”, the seven-episode ITV series chronicles his journey across this vast and diverse country, exploring some of its special wildernesses.
The previous year, two of his researchers contacted me when they were scouting for locations. They were keen to visit the Valley of the Cats, the location of the community-based wildlife watching tourism project. I arranged for them to stay with a local family in one of the most spectacular locations and met them there on arrival. The idea was that we would have two days to explore potential filming opportunities and locations. The following morning, the local ShanShui staff and I drove to meet them at their homestay and there was quite a commotion. Several members of the family were chatting loudly and gesturing towards one of the rooms of their house which looked as if a bomb had hit it. The two researchers had been woken with a bang at 1am when the family started banging pots and pans, and were startled to learn that a brown bear had broken into the room adjacent to their sleeping quarters! Huge paw prints around the house and some muddy prints on the walls betrayed the bear’s shenanigans.
Unfazed by their experience, the first thing the researchers said to me when I arrived was “ok, we know already this is a good place for Ray!”
I won’t reveal how Ray fared in the Valley, except to say that this episode is not to be missed.
The series will be broadcast on ITV in the UK this summer, beginning with episode 1 from a very cold Beijing on Tuesday 13 July from 1930-2000. With visits to the country’s tropical rainforest, the bamboo forest home of giant pandas, bat caves in karst landscapes as well as the Tibetan Plateau, this series is a must-watch for anyone with an interest in China and its wild places.
Back in 2018 I reported on the discovery by ShanShui Conservation Center of an active den of the Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) on the Tibetan Plateau. This felid, endemic to China, is one of the most poorly known in the world. Based on fieldwork over the following months and with the help of infra-red cameras, researchers captured hours of footage of a mother and her two young kittens. In total, five breeding dens were discovered, and 33 sightings were recorded.
Now, after painstaking analysis of the footage (more than 7,500 images and 3,000 video clips), much previously unknown information concerning this cat species and its ecology has been revealed and the findings have been published in an article in Zoological Research and can be read and downloaded in PDF format here.
With the kind permission of Han Xuesong, the lead author, I am including below a short video compilation of the mother and kittens that were studied in autumn and winter 2018. It includes the cats emerging from a den, playing, the mother bringing back food and interactions with two potential threats – an Upland Buzzard and a Tibetan Fox.
With a limited distribution on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Chinese Mountain Cat is among the most elusive and vulnerable of the world’s cats and this data will be vital to help better understand, and therefore protect, this beautiful cat.
Big congratulations to Han Xuesong and the ShanShui team, especially the local rangers, Jihti, Tserdo, and Lulu, for their discovery and the subsequent publication of this article.
Title image: Chinese Mountain Cat (Felis bieti) on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (ShanShui Conservation Center)
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
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.
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.
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).
Some great news from the Tibetan Plateau. The community cooperative in The Valley of the Cats has been awarded the first ever franchise for community-based tourism inside a Chinese National Park.
The franchise was awarded at a special meeting in Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, involving the central and local governments, representatives of the local community and ShanShui Conservation Center.
The franchise recognises the community-based wildlife watching project as a way to facilitate public access to a national park whilst respecting the local community and the fragile environment.
This recognition comes at an important time for China’s National Parks. Currently there are 11 pilot National Parks across the country, including Sanjiangyuan (literal translation “three rivers park”, recognising it as the source of the three great rivers – the Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow), in which the Valley of the Cats resides. Next year, based on the experience of the pilots and ongoing research, including learning from overseas, the Chinese government is due to announce its first tranche of National Parks and how they will be managed. Tourism will be a major element of the policy and the Valley of the Cats community-based project is now formally recognised as a model for tourism that could be appropriate for environmentally sensitive areas.
Having received local government approval in 2017 and after intensive training with 22 families in the Valley, the community-based wildlife watching tourism project was open to visitors in 2018 and, in its first full year, received 61 groups of visitors raising 460,000 CNY for the local community. Demand is up in 2019 and we expect the revenue to pass 1 million CNY sometime this autumn. Importantly, 100% of the revenue stays in the community with 45% from each visit going directly to the host family, 45% to a community fund run by a locally-appointed committee and 10% to community-based conservation projects.
The project is still in its infancy and, not unexpectedly, challenges remain. For example:
i) The standard of accommodation, basic food and lack of dedicated toilets mean that this type of tourism is only for the adventurous traveller;
ii) Language can be a barrier for foreign visitors; with very few herder families having any english language capability, visitors with no Tibetan or Mandarin proficiency can struggle to communicate; and although much can be achieved with modern translation APPs, this is no substitute for direct communication;
iii) Illegal visitors – some households and visitors didn’t follow the rules and received tourists privately; this is against the regulations and can cause ill feeling in the community. With the Valley covering a large area, it is hard to police effectively. Any illegal visitors will be ejected and banned from re-entry and, from 2020, manned gates will be active at each entry point.
Other, more long-term risks to consider include:
Will the economic benefits of this kind of tourism break the balanced structure of the community and, if so, will it lead to negative behaviour?
Will the arrival of more visitors accelerate the change of traditional culture here? And will these changes affect the herders’ attitude towards wildlife? After all, it is their culture and harmonious attitude towards nature that has made it possible for this pristine environment to be preserved to this day.
Whilst recognising these risks, the experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive and invaluable knowledge is being gained that will have an influence on the way tourism is managed in China’s national parks from 2020. On behalf of the local community, a big thank you to everyone who has supported the project!
2019 began with several groups braving the cold and unusually heavy snow in February and March to experience the Valley in stunningly beautiful wintery conditions.
I made my first visit of the year in early May, coinciding with the visit of a Scottish couple, Graeme and Moira Wallace, who had flown 10,000km to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in the Valley of the Cats. It was very special, and emotional, to see Graeme and Moira encountering their first Snow Leopard. They were extremely lucky, viewing a sleepy male just 160m from the vehicle!
The next day they saw another Snow Leopard, probably a female, at a different location. The experience of seeing these wild cats on the stunning Tibetan Plateau, enjoying the incredible scenery and staying in the home of a local herder made their 40th wedding anniversary hard to beat. See you back here for your 50th?
On their return to Scotland, Graeme and Moira kindly made a donation towards the community-based conservation project in the Valley of the Cats. Thank you, Graeme and Moira!
I was back in July, accompanying the visiting Panthera scientist, Imogene Cancellare, and helping a joint UK-China TV production company with a recce ahead of planned filming in October. Imogene was collecting Snow Leopard scat, in partnership with ShanShui Conservation Center, as part of her PhD studying Snow Leopard genetics.
On their first night, the TV producers had some excitement when a Brown Bear broke into their family homestay. Fortunately, the bear didn’t get into their sleeping quarters and was scared off by the family banging pots and pans without any lasting damage but it was a stark reminder that living in this area is not without risk!
The summer nights in the Valley of the Cats are perfect for viewing the core of the Milky Way and, for the first time, I attempted to photograph the night sky. I was pleased with the results but, given the elevation and light pollution-free skies, I am sure anyone with experience and a better camera would be able to capture some stunning images.
The Valley of the Cats community-based wildlife tourism project has been, without doubt, the most rewarding project with which I have been involved. Together, we are learning by doing. A big thank you to the local government, the herder families and to the brilliant ShanShui Conservation Center for making it possible. And a special thank you to everyone who has supported the project by visiting.
If you haven’t yet visited but are interested, check out the website to learn more and make an inquiry!
As the sun will soon set on 2018, it’s a good time to review the results of the community-based wildlife watching tourism project in the Valley of the Cats.
I am delighted to announce that, in 2018, 61 groups of visitors stayed in the Valley of the Cats as part of the community-based wildlife tourism project (with the last visitors of 2018 arriving today!). These trips have generated revenue of CNY 432,400 (almost GBP 50,000) for the community. That’s just under CNY 20,000 (GBP 2,200) of benefit for each of the 22 families involved in the project. At the same time, many visitors have enjoyed the trip of a lifetime, including special encounters with some of the resident wildlife such as Snow Leopard, Common Leopard, Wolf, Asian Brown Bear, Lynx, Tibetan and Red Fox and much more.
One of the year’s more high-profile visitors was Professor Per Alström. His 30+ year quest to record Snow Leopard on camera was finally rewarded in the Valley of the Cats with the video below.
We’ve received some excellent – and importantly, honest – feedback from visitors to the Valley this year and from the host families. This feedback will be instrumental in guiding a meeting with the local community in January to review progress and discuss plans for 2019.
We can expect a few minor changes to the way the project operates, based on the experience of 2018, but we will ensure the project retains its strong sense of authenticity.
On behalf of the local community, I’d like to say a big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported the project in 2018 either by visiting or helping to promote the Valley of the Cats and, if you haven’t yet visited, please take a look at the website and consider a trip in 2019!
This week will see the start of an exciting new initiative involving schools and scientists from the ShanShui Conservation Center at Peking University with the aim of supporting Snow Leopard conservation.
In recent years, ShanShui Conservation Center has been running a community-based conservation project in the Valley of the Cats, whereby local yak herder families are involved in collecting data for the scientists based at Peking University in Beijing. The local people set up, and monitor, a series of camera traps, the data from which is contributing a huge amount of knowledge about the distribution, population and ecology of apex predators including Snow Leopard, Common Leopard, Asian Brown Bear, Wolf and Lynx.
Here is a short video showing some of the local people setting up a camera trap.
Earlier this year, two teachers from the International School of Beijing (ISB) – Wayne and Jenny Winkelman – visited the Valley of the Cats, experiencing the local culture, hearing about the conservation project and even enjoying their very own Snow Leopard sighting. We discussed how schools might be able to contribute and quickly came up with the idea of schools ‘sponsoring’ camera traps. The idea was that schools would raise money for ShanShui Conservation Center to pay for camera traps. The schools would then receive the photos from ‘their’ cameras and learn about the wildlife and people of the Tibetan Plateau.
Fast forward a few months and the students at ISB, inspired by Wayne and Jenny, have been raising money by selling cuddly Snow Leopards and thanks to their efforts they now have enough to purchase their first camera trap!
On Friday this week, a scientist from ShanShui Conservation Center will visit ISB to explain about the project, show some pictures and videos, answer questions from the students and take receipt of the donation from ISB. A camera, allocated to ISB, will then be placed on the Tibetan Plateau as part of the ongoing conservation programme. A local family will be responsible for deciding the location and for monitoring the camera. Every two to three months the school will receive the photos from ‘their’ camera, which will form the basis for learning about the Tibetan Plateau ecosystem.
Schools will thus be contributing to community-based scientific and conservation projects whilst gaining great material to support learning about the Tibetan Plateau and the animals and people that live there.
If successful, we hope this programme can be expanded with other schools sponsoring their own cameras.
Huge thanks to Wayne and Jenny Winkelman for their initiative in starting this exciting new programme, to ShanShui Conservation Center for engaging schools and especially to the students at ISB for so enthusiastically raising money to support Snow Leopard conservation. I can’t wait to see the first photos from their camera and to see how this initiative develops.
If you are a teacher at a school in Beijing interested in sponsoring a camera trap or two, please get in touch!
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.
I’m back in Beijing after almost two weeks in Qinghai Province, a trip that included the latest round of tourism training with local yak herder families in the Valley of the Cats, an international conference on Leopard/Snow Leopard Conservation (see previous post) and ShanShui’s 2018 NatureWatch Festival, bringing together teams of young people from across China and overseas to celebrate the biodiversity of this wonderful part of the Tibetan Plateau.
This was my 9th visit to the Plateau. Every visit is special and the more time I spend there, the more I learn, the more secrets are revealed and best of all, the more I get to know the wonderful local people and the wildlife.
The 2018 NatureWatch Festival was arranged by the local government in Zaduo County, Yushu Prefecture, in partnership with 山水 (ShanShui Conservation Center). Twenty teams from across China and overseas competed to photograph as many birds, mammals and plants as possible over four days. Local families were hired to drive and guide the teams as they explored the mountain ridges, valleys and meadows, collectively a treasure trove of nature. And the local people also ran a fabulous campsite, at which all participants stayed during the festival, providing delicious local food to fuel our daily forays into the wilderness. I was invited to be on the judging panel alongside John MacKinnon, author of the Field Guide to the Birds of China.
The event was meticulously organised with a defined “playing field”, a strict code of conduct, an efficient mechanism for collecting and processing the photos and a wonderful array of prizes for the winners, including a telescope and binoculars from Chinese optics manufacturer, Bosma.
For the first two days, John and I were accompanied by Xinhua News Agency as part of a special focus on Sanjiangyuan pilot National Park. You can see some of their English-language coverage here and here.
Over the four days, participants recorded 13 species of mammal, 73 species of bird, 4 species of reptile and 315 species of plant. A full list of the mammals and birds (in English and Chinese) together with the Chinese names of the plants can be downloaded here.
Eight of the 20 teams enjoyed encounters with the King of the Mountains, the elusive Snow Leopard, and Hui Lang’s stunning photo (header image) not surprisingly won the prize for best photograph of the festival.
As in previous years, 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. And the energy and passion of the ShanShui team, led by Professor Lu Zhi, Shi Xiangying, Zhao Xiang and Li Yuhan, and ably assisted by an army of volunteers.
These festivals are inspiring people to take an interest in nature and wild places and it was brilliant to see so many local people using the resources we’ve been able to provide – binoculars and a field guide to the wildlife of Sanjiangyuan – to observe the plants and animals and learn their names. There is no doubt that long-term conservation can only be effective if it enjoys the full support of the local people. And, for the Valley of the Cats at least, it seems this special place is in good hands.
A selection of photos taken by the participants is below.
And here are a few video clips of some of the wildlife and the environment:
The Glover’s Pika must rank as one of the most popular mammals on the Plateau.
Musk Deer is common in the Valley but not easy to see. Dawn and dusk are the best times.
The Woolly Hare is one of the most frequently encountered mammals in the Valley and it’s not uncommon to see 10 or more together in its preferred habitat – grass meadows.
Wolf is a sought-after mammal and the so-called “new road” is the best place to see it. These are part of a group of seven seen early morning on 25 July.
The streams of the side valleys are adorned with wild flowers and flanked by 4,000m+ peaks, providing a stunning backdrop to the festival.
For those interested in the night sky, The Valley of the Cats is a superb place from where to view the Milky Way and, if you are lucky, you might get to see other natural phenomena such as this magnificent double rainbow, photographed over ShanShui’s workstation.
If you’re feeling adventurous, why not arrange your own visit to the Valley of the Cats? Small-scale community-based tourism is now up and running and for a very reasonable price you can stay with one of the local families and be guided around to see the local wildlife. As well as enjoying some incredible encounters with wildlife, you’ll experience the wonderful culture of the local people in a very special part of the world. With 100% of the revenue staying in the local community, you’ll be supporting the local people too, helping them to continue the lifestyle they’ve been enjoying for generations. See the Valley of the Cats website for more details and to register your interest.
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.
On behalf of the local community in The Valley of the Cats, close to the source of the mighty Mekong River on the Tibetan Plateau, we are delighted to announce the launch of a new website dedicated to the Valley.
The bilingual (English and Chinese) site includes background information about the Valley, the people and its wildlife. It includes latest news from the local yak herders, the latest photos from the camera traps set up and operated by the local community and feedback from visitors who participated in the pilot trips.
The Valley of the Cats is a special place and, thanks to the efforts of the local government, local families and ShanShui Conservation Centre, the Valley is now open to receive small numbers of visitors, provided permits are obtained through official channels. Visitors stay with one of the local yak herder families, who will collect you from, and return you to, the airport at Yushu which, in turn, is just one hour from Xining by air.
Feeling adventurous? Why not check out the site and contact the local community to arrange the trip of a lifetime… https://valleyofthecats.org
Header photo by Frédéric Larrey, taken in the Valley of the Cats.