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.

Snow Leopard video

I have merged all the clips I was able to record of Snow Leopards in Yushu, Qinghai.  The result is just under 5 minutes of footage of these magnificent cats… Click on HD for best quality.

Snow Leopards

What a week.  Only 6 days after an incredible encounter with Pallas’s Cats near Qinghai Lake, I have been so lucky (again!) to spot not one but two SNOW LEOPARDS near Yushu in Qinghai Province.

Two weeks ago I was invited to participate in the “International Nature Watch Festival of the Mekong River“, organised by the local government and the brilliant conservation organisation, 山水 (Shan Shui).  The competition involved teams of 4 who would spend 3 days recording as many species as possible of of mammal, bird and plant in Zaduo County, Qinghai Province.  Initially I was due to be one of the judges but, on the first morning of the competition, the organisers asked whether I would join a team of two Beijing students – Zhang Chengxin and Liu Garbo – who didn’t have much experience at bird or mammal watching.  Of course, I was delighted.

Each team was provided with a vehicle and local driver.  Our driver took us to a stunning valley where we began our list with White Eared Pheasant, Himalayan Marmot and the cute-looking Glover’s Pika.  As we walked along the valley, we met a local Tibetan family of yak herders who were the only inhabitants of this stunning site.  They invited us in for tea and yoghurt (both delicious!) and we spoke about the wild animals they had seen.

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Inside the local family’s house – beautifully decorated in Tibetan style

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With a herd of around 100 yaks, the family explained that, every year, they lose around 5 of their animals to large predators, mostly Snow Leopard and Wolf.  Although they weren’t pleased about losing 5% of their stock annually, they understood the necessity to balance their needs and those of the wild animals, for which they had great respect.  They described to us how the Snow Leopards sometimes come down to their house, particularly in winter, and how they had seen them leisurely ambling by their back yard, much to the chagrin of their Tibetan Mastiff!

One of the family members offered to show us a way up the mountain to help us to look for mammals and so, after a generous helping of yak yoghurt, we set off up the mountain..  at 4,500+ m, struggling to keep up with our local companion.

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Heading up the mountain with our Tibetan companion.

Every few hundred metres we stopped to scan the rocky slopes.  We were rewarded with excellent views of Blue Sheep (good for the mammal list), Red-billed Chough, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture and Wallcreeper.  In the heat of the day we thought the chances of seeing any large mammals were slim… Nevertheless, we began to explore the slopes nearby.  More Blue Sheep, more vultures and more of the comical Marmots provided entertainment and then, suddenly, through my binoculars, I spotted a suspicious shape on top of a nearby rocky outcrop.  I quickly set up the telescope and was shocked to see the head of a Snow Leopard staring back at me.

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My first view of a SNOW LEOPARD!

“Whoaaaa” I gasped, and quickly encouraged the team to look through the telescope in case the big cat decided to bolt.  Fortunately, the magnificent cat stayed, seemingly very relaxed and looking around…  We watched in awe for more than half an hour before it sloped off the top of the rock and walked down to a sheltered spot below.  There, a second shape moved and it was apparent that there was not one but two Snow Leopards!  Wow!!  It was testament to their camouflage that the second was only seen when it moved.  The two cats greeted each other, a ritual that included licking each others fur, and settled down to sleep.  We watched them, in awe, for around 2 hours in total, during which time they slept, shuffled around, panted in the heat of the sun and groomed each other.  In the late afternoon, knowing it was at least an hour back to camp and I was due to speak at dinner, we decided to leave them in peace.  As we walked down the mountain, every few hundred metres, we turned around for another look..  we didn’t want the encounter to end.

I was lucky to have my telescope and iPhone with me so I was able to take some video footage.  Despite the distance and the heat haze, I was delighted to be able to record some of our special encounter.

On return to the camp, our sighting was the talk of the tents and earned us an audience with the governor of Zaduo County, Mr Cai Danzhou.  Cai explained his ambitions for the area, including becoming a National Park and world-class ecotourism site with limits on tourists, limits on the area open to visitors and prioritising its greatest asset – its wildlife.  Mr Cai has been working with the excellent 山水 (Shan Shui) organisation and they have clearly influenced his thinking.  The area now has the first human-animal conflict community fund which compensates local people for the loss of livestock to Snow Leopard, Wolf and other predators.  Shan Shui has been monitoring the wildlife here with a series of camera traps and recently recorded the mating behaviour of Snow Leopard for the first time.  With Snow Leopard, Leopard, Bear, Lynx and Otter all recorded in the area, in addition to the rare plants and birds, it’s a hotspot for biodiversity in a stunning setting of monstrous mountains and spectacular valleys.

It was brilliant to see not only seasoned wildlife watchers at the event – including China’s most famous wildlife photographer, Xi Zhinong, but also young students with bags of enthusiasm for wildlife.  And with coverage on national and local TV and in newspapers, the event did a great deal to celebrate the world-class wildlife of this beautiful corner of Qinghai Province.  I can’t wait to return!

I’d like to acknowledge my teammates, Liu Garbo and Zhang Chengxin, for their fun company – their reaction at seeing the Snow Leopards was something to behold.  I really hope to see you guys again in Beijing for some birding!  And big thanks to 山水 for inviting me.  It’s a real shot in the arm to meet such a dedicated, passionate and professional bunch of people.  Looking forward to working with you guys in the future – lots of potential for some very exciting conservation and public engagement projects.