NatureWatch 2018: Citizen Science on the Tibetan Plateau

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.

2018-07-21 NatureWatch banner, Angsai

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.

2018-07-20 campsite at Angsai
The hospitality tent, used for dining, presentations and as a general meeting place.
2018-07-20 TT's tent, Angsai
Tent No.3 – my home for the festival.

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.

2018-07-24 SX, JM, JS and ZX at Angsai
John MacKinnon (second from left) and Justine Shanti Alexander of the Snow Leopard Trust, flanked by Shi Xiangying and Zhao Xiang of ShanShui Conservation Center.

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.

2018-07-21 TT with Xinhua and Xiangying
Terry (standing) with Shi Xiangying of ShanShui (left) and the Xinhua team (right).

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.

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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.

Night Sky Sanjiangyuan by Zhao Chenghao
The night sky in Sanjiangyuan by Zhao Chenghao

2018-07-19 rainbow over ShanShui workstation, Angsai

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.

With The Leopards

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”).

The opening of the “With the Leopards” conference in Yushu, Qinghai Province.

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.

Zha Shuji is the Secretary of Angsai, including The Valley of the Cats

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.

The local families in the Valley of the Cats testing out their new binoculars, kindly provided by Taiwanese optics company, Optisan.
A copy of this excellent field guide is now with each family in The Valley of the Cats.

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.

The Valley of the Cats Website Launched

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.

 

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”.

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.