Valley of the Cats profiled in Beijing

It’s been a busy week in Beijing for the Valley of the Cats.  First, last Wednesday evening, I was invited by the Royal Asiatic Society to speak about the community-based wildlife watching tourism project during a special event held at The Bookworm.  I shared the platform with John MacKinnon, who has just returned from two weeks in the Valley having recorded a fantastic 20-minute film about this special place, its people and the wildlife, all taken against the stunning backdrop of some of the heaviest snow in living memory.  Once edited, we plan to to publish the film shortly.

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We were honoured to be joined by 12-year old Joyce Li whose dream of seeing a Snow Leopard came true during her visit to the Valley of the Cats last year.  Joyce’s enthusiastic account of her experience encapsulated the magic of the Valley and I know from speaking with her that she is now a committed wildlife champion!  This is her written account:

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The First Encounter

“In October 2018, I went to the Valley of the Cats along with my parents, to look for the elusive snow leopard. This is a simple recount of my first encounter with this mysterious big cat.

On the second day of our trip, we woke up at 6:00 am, washed, downed some porridge, and we were off. It was snowing outside, with hares popping up in front of our car lights. They froze whenever we passed, too terrified to move.

About an hour had passed, and the sky had lightened up, and rays of sunlight peeked through the mountains. The snow blanketed the slopes and we searched them for any sign of a big cat. We even asked a local if he’d spotted one. He said that he had seen a carcass of a dead sheep around here, killed by a predator, and we continued searching. We came across quite a few herds of blue sheep and white-lipped deer, but no snow leopard. We decided to move to a new location. Suddenly, Yixi, our guide, started running up the slopes, and we followed him, scrambling up the mountainside. When he stopped, we caught up to him, Yixi said that he thought he had spotted a large animal feeding off a dead sheep. We were buzzing with excitement. But it was only a large dog, picking off the scrap bits of meat.

With no more signs of anything interesting, we decided to stop by Yixi’s cousin’s and have a nice cup of tea. After resting up, we went looking for the snow leopard again, and asked Yixi’s cousin for some help on the walkie talkie. Yixi drove us along the dirt road again, and I fell asleep.

I was already awake when mom called, and still deciding whether to snooze for a few minutes more, but when I heard the words “snow leopard”, all thought of another nap disappeared. Yixi came rushing back to us (he was out searching for snow leopards while we rested in the car) and told us that his cousin had spotted one across the valley. We sped along the small dirt road to the spot where the snow leopard was last found. We raced up the mountain, panting and out of breath, and threw our equipment down. It took a LOT of searching for us to spot the snow leopard, it was so well camouflaged on the rocks, with its grey and white pelt.

The snow leopard seemed quite lazy and full, because when a herd of blue sheep came by, it made no move to hunt, instead lounging on a rock. A few minutes later of cameras clicking and admiring the big cat, the King of the Snow Mountains decided to take a little nap, and disappeared behind the rocks. We waited for another hour, and the sky had turned dark. It didn’t reappear, so we went home too, to a warm dinner.”

The Second Encounter

“It was our third day, and we were up in the mountains, searching again for the mysterious snow leopard. We parked outside Yixi’s cousin’s house, watching them milk their yak and collecting their dung for fueling fires. Someone had spotted a red fox up the mountain, and we rushed to see. We were snapping away at the little creature, until Yixi yelled “Sa!” which means snow leopard in Tibetan. The poor fox was suddenly not the center of attention anymore. We scrambled to follow Yixi, and set up our equipment. There were two of them! They were a little far away, but we could see their big furry heads poking up. Sometimes a fluffy tail would appear and wave around. An hour later, they went down the mountain to somewhere we couldn’t see. We tried searching for them again, but with no success.

We moved to a new part of the valley, and waited an entire four hours for a snow leopard to appear. No luck. Not even when we spotted three herds of blue sheep, the snow leopard’s favorite snack. So after a while, we just started to eat snacks and not really bother looking. About twenty minutes later of infinite boredom and listening to dad’s observations of blue sheep and their horns and markings, Mr. Puma, a local guide for another group (we call him because he was wearing a puma jacket), drove up the little dirt road (you could hardly call it a road, path more like it), and shouted that the two snow leopard siblings we saw in the morning were spotted again, on the same mountain, but this time closer.

We descended the slopes as fast as we could, trying not to let large piles of yak manure get in our way, and scrambled in to our car.

When we arrived, there seemed to be nothing in sight, but two little ears gave the snow leopards’ hiding place away. The two siblings were having a very nice afternoon snooze. We waited, and waited, and waited for them to stir. A while later, a big furry paw raised, and playfully cuffed it’s sibling on the head. A few seconds later, the paw disappeared. When it reappeared again, this time a paw and one of the snow leopard’s heads, it was to very excited rapid clicking from our cameras. Soon after they’d woken up, the snow leopards were play fighting. They also sprayed and rubbed rocks to make what we guessed were border marks. We captured photos and videos of them digging holes, then pooping in them, which was also a form of marking their territory, as we later learned.

It was getting dark, and all too soon, we had to go. Apparently the snow leopards agreed, because they climbed back to their hiding spot. It had been an amazing day, and I was literally dancing on the rocks.

After dinner, we visited the Research Station to meet a volunteer who’s coming here today, who has lived in Qinghai for a year, studying wildlife and their behavior. When we told the researchers we had seen two young snow leopards, they wowed and congratulated us. I asked the volunteer some questions on snow leopard behavior, and she confirmed that the snow leopards were indeed marking their territory by pooping and spraying. We also learned that young snow leopard siblings, no matter what gender they are, can stay together for a few months after becoming independent from their mother. I had once thought that only females will stay together, because males will be aggressive towards each other, as adult males often are.

Another amazing and fruitful day in the Valley of Cats!”

Joyce Li
Beijing
March 10th, 2019

Snow Leopard, Valley of the Cats. Photo by Joyce Li

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It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening with some great questions and conversation after the presentations.  I am confident many of the participants will be booking their trips to the Valley very soon!  A big thanks to Alan and Melinda of the Royal Asiatic Society for inviting us and to The Bookworm for hosting us for this special event.

I arrived at The Bookworm directly from the studios of Radio Beijing International who had invited me for an interview about the Valley of the Cats project.  The interview was broadcast in two segments over the weekend and can be heard here.

2019-03-13 Radio Beijing International

Big thanks to Christine from Radio Beijing International for the opportunity!

With several bookings already for 2019, we are hoping that we’ll be able to build on the success of 2018 during which 61 groups of guests visited, raising CNY 460,000 for the local community and snow leopard conservation.

 

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Valley of the Cats 2018

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!

Schools for Snow Leopards

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!

Snow Leopard Caught on Camera

Six weeks ago, working with ShanShui Conservation Center, I finished the latest round of training for the host families in the Valley of the Cats in Qinghai Province as part of the community-based wildlife tourism project.  Before leaving, I spent an afternoon high up in the mountains, where I set up a camera trap along the edge of a crag.  Two days ago, I retrieved it.  The memory card was full and included more than 1,800 images.  I was excited but at the same time wary that I may have 1,800 photos of a blade of grass waving in the wind, triggering the camera trap’s motion sensor!

As I looked through the images, I was not prepared for what I was about to see.  Many of the photos were of a cute GLOVER’S PIKA, busily preparing for winter by gathering vegetation and placing it in its den.

A TIBETAN SNOWCOCK was a joy to see, strutting along the rocks..

This was shortly followed by a group of BLUE SHEEP, a wonderful ungulate that roams these mountains in large groups, often 100+ strong.

Then, after checking around 500 photos, suddenly I had a surprise..  a SNOW LEOPARD!  The spectacular series of five photos show what I believe to be a fresh-faced young animal walking closer and closer to the camera before appearing to look right into the lens…  spectacular!

I could not have wished for a better result!

This Snow Leopard was caught on camera in a part of the valley previously not known to hold this species, so it’s helpful information to the ShanShui scientists working in the area.

The last two weeks have been a busy time for the Valley of the Cats with five groups of visitors staying with local families as part of the community-based tourism project. The groups included Professor Per Alström and his brother Klas, Beijing-based Ben Wielstra and Jan-Erik Nilsen, Alan Babington-Smith and Melinda Liu from the Royal Asiatic Society, as well as James Eaton and Rob Hutchinson from BirdTour Asia who visited with Dan Brown and his wife Rachael Iveson-Brown.  Roland Zeidler visited with Fiona Fyfe and John MacKinnon accompanied us for a few days before heading to a birding festival in Yushu.  Finally, the day before I left, Yann Muzika, Abdelhamid Bizid, Yong Ding Li, Irene Dy and Summer Wong began their 4-day visit.

I’m delighted to say that, thanks to their supreme efforts in scanning endless ridges and crags, Per’s, James’s and Roland’s groups were successful in seeing, and recording video, of Snow Leopard in two different places, as well as spotting Wolf, Lynx, White-lipped and Alpine Musk Deer, Woolly Hare and Himalayan Marmot.  As I write this, I have just heard that Yann’s group has also been successful with two separate sightings of Snow Leopard.

To give you a sense of the place, here’s a selection of photos from last week.

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Huge thanks to all the visitors for being such great company last week and for supporting this fledgling community-based tourism project.

Reading this, you may think that seeing Snow Leopards in the Valley of the Cats is easy.  I can assure you it’s not.  Really not.  Unless one is supremely lucky to encounter one close to the road (which is possible), it can take many many hours of scanning rocks and ridges in the seemingly endless suitable habitat to find one.  But that elusiveness is surely part of the charm of the Snow Leopard.  However, even if you don’t see a Snow Leopard, the spectacular scenery, wonderful local culture and the array of other special mammals and birds make any visit an unforgettable experience.

If you’re interested in visiting the Valley of the Cats and supporting the community-based tourism project, please check out the website.  Please be warned – conditions are basic: no toilets, no running water and no heating – so the Valley is not for the faint-hearted.  However, if you are prepared to live like a yak herder for a few days, you will have a truly authentic experience.  100% of the revenue stays in the community, so visitors can be confident they are supporting the local people and conservation while enjoying the trip of a lifetime.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.