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)
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!
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?