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.

China Takes Important Step Towards Protecting Remaining Intertidal Mudflats

This is big news.  The Chinese government has just taken an important step to protect some of the key remaining intertidal mudflats along the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.  A total of fourteen sites have been added to the “tentative list” for UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.  Although the tentative nomination, in itself, does nothing to protect these sites on the ground, it signals intent from the Chinese government. And, if these sites make it onto the formal World Heritage Site list, that listing comes with a hard commitment to protect and effectively manage them.

The fourteen sites listed as “tentative” World Heritage Site nominations by the Chinese government. Credit: EAAFP

The extensive mudflats, sandflats and associated habitats of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Bay, represent one of the largest areas of intertidal wetlands on Earth and are shared by China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the Republic of Korea (RoK). It is the most important staging area for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF).  And yet, in the last few decades, around 70% of the intertidal habitat has been lost to land reclamation projects, causing the populations of many shorebird species to decline dramatically.

Species such as the ‘Critically Endangered’ Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Nordmann’s Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot are highly dependent on the area for food and rest during their long migrations from as far as Australia and New Zealand to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.  And of course, this area is not only important as a stopover site.  Almost the entire world population of Relict Gull winters in the Bohai Bay, and the whole population of Saunders’s Gull and Black-faced Spoonbill breed in the area.

RELICT GULLS in Tianjin. One of the species entirely dependent on the intertidal mudflats of the Bohai Bay.

The tentative nomination has not happened out of thin air.  It’s the result of many years of hard work by domestic Chinese organisations, supported by the international community.

Back in September 2012, concern about habitat loss and the plight of migratory waterbirds led to a call to ensure a suitable framework for the conservation and management of the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea, including the Bohai Gulf, and associated bird species at the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Jeju, Republic of Korea.  A resolution on the ‘Conservation of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway and its threatened waterbirds, with particular reference to the Yellow Sea’ was adopted by 100% of voting governments.

Subsequently, national workshops were held in Beijing in 2014, and Incheon, Republic of Korea, in 2016 to implement this resolution nationally.  Then, in August 2016, I was fortunate to participate in a joint meeting in Beijing, where representatives of the government authorities of China and the Republic of Korea responsible for World Heritage implementation discussed the nomination of Yellow Sea coastal wetlands.

Negotiating text at the August 2016 IUCN meeting in Beijing, involving officials from China and the Republic of Korea.

A further resolution “Conservation of intertidal habitats and migratory waterbirds of the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, especially the Yellow Sea, in a global context” was adopted at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MOHURD), responsible for World Heritage nomination in China has been active in identifying key sites and involving stakeholders to promote the current tentative list, with technical assistance from ShanShui, a Chinese conservation NGO.  Whilst the list is not comprehensive – there are other key sites that many conservationists feel should be included – it is a strong foundation and it is possible to add further sites in due course. Importantly, at the same time, the Republic of Korea has been working on a nomination for the tidal flats of the southwest region including the most important site for migratory waterbirds in the country, Yubu Island.

With these proposed nominations by China and the Republic of Korea, the coastal wetlands of the Yellow Sea are being increasingly recognized by governments for their outstanding global importance and it is hoped that this will result in stronger protection and effective management for the continued survival of migratory waterbirds.

There is a long way to go to secure formal nomination and inscription onto the list of World Heritage Sites – that process can take many years – but it’s a vital step and an important statement of intent that provides a renewed sense of optimism about the potential to save what remains of these unique sites.  Huge kudos, in particular to MOHURD and to ShanShui, and to everyone who has been working so hard to make this happen, including the East Asian Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP), BirdLife International, the Paulson Institute, IUCN, John MacKinnon and many more.

The long-term vision is that there will be a joint China/Republic of Korea and maybe even DPRK World Heritage Site covering the key locations along the Yellow Sea/Bohai Bay.  Now, wouldn’t that be something?!

 

Links:

The formal listing of the sites can be found here: UNESCO: The Coast of the Bohai Gulf and the Yellow Sea of China

For the EAAFP press release, see here.

Title Image:

Far Eastern Curlew, Nanpu, August 2014.  One of the species heavily dependent on the Yellow Sea and Bohai Bay.