Snow Leopards Come Into Focus on the Qinghai Plateau

A scientific conference and a Nature Watch Festival in China’s Yushu Prefecture, in the heart of the country’s snow leopard habitat, highlight the region’s rich biodiversity and community-based conservation efforts.

Two of Asia’s major rivers have their source in the Yushu area – the Yangtze and the Mekong. Yushu’s grasslands, wetlands and alpine meadows form one of the world’s most biologically diverse high altitude ecosystems. They are home to a large number of species, including the rare snow leopard as well as the common leopard – sometimes using the same habitat!

The local government of Yushu Prefecture and our Chinese partner organization, Shan Shui Conservation Center, recently organized two high-profile events in the Yushu area to highlight its global importance as a snow leopard stronghold.

First, an international scientific and conservation conference, entitled “With the Leopards” was held in Jiegu. During this two-day event, government representatives, local community members and national as well as international conservation experts shared their most recent research and conservation efforts.

The high-profile conference attracted a lot of attention from conservationists as well as media. Photo by Cheng Chen, Shan Shui

Participants included PKU’s Dr. Xu Zhihong, PKU’s Dr. Lu Zhi, Dr. John MacKinnon, the Snow Leopard Trust’s Dr. Justine Shanti Alexander, Dr. Shi Kun of Bejing Forestry University, Dr. Byron Weckworth of Panthera as well as representatives of WCS China, WWF China and other organizations.

The Snow Leopard Trust’s Dr. Justine Shanti Alexander (left) was interviewed by Chinese TV. Photo by Cheng Chen, Shan Shui

The conference aimed to promote snow leopard and common leopard research and conservation, exchange knowledge and ideas, and highlight Yushu’s global importance as a habitat for these highly threatened big cat species. A special focus was put on discussing good practices for developing eco-tourism and sustainable businesses in Yushu – such as the Natural Watch Festival – which could support conservation efforts and local livelihoods.

ShanShui’s 2018 Nature Watch Festival

Right after the conference, the 2018 Nature Watch Festival took place in nearby Namsei, Zadoi County, Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai, China. Like the conference, the festival was organized by the local government in Zadoi County, the Management Committee of Mekong River Park in Sanjiangyuan National Park, Shan Shui Conservation Center, the Center for Nature and Society, PKU, and SEE Foundation.

The poster for the 2018 Nature Watch Festival features the region’s two flagship species – snow leopard and common leopard. Photo by Shan Shui

The Nature Watch Festival pits teams of citizen scientists against each other in a nature watch and photography competition. Each team’s goal is to photograph as many species of birds, mammals and plants as possible in the area in four days.

Twenty teams of approximately 60 citizen scientists from across China and overseas participated in the event. The panel of judges selecting the winning images included international experts like Terry Townshend (Birding Beijing), John MacKinnon (Author of the Field Guide to the Birds of China) and Dr. Gu Lei.

To support local livelihoods, members of local herder families were employed as drivers and guides to help the Nature Watch teams travel around Namsei. The local community also facilitated the campsite where all participants lived during the festival, and provided delicious local food for the event.

Shan Shui worked closely with the local government to ensure that participants obliged to the festival’s code of conduct, which highlighted the need to not disturb animals (no baiting, no chasing animals, keep appropriate distances from wildlife, collect litter that you encounter) and not leave any traces in the ecosystem.

In the evenings, participants engaged in discussions and shared experiences about wildlife and community-based conservation in China and abroad.

More than 70 nature watchers participated in the festival. Photo by Luo Yunpeng.

Over the four days of the Nature Watch Festival, participants recorded 13 species of mammals, 73 species of birds, 315 species of plants, and 4 species of reptiles.

Prizes were given for the best picture; as well as for the most number of mammals, birds and plants photographed and correctly identified. Hui Lang (Liu Chenji) won the prize for Best Picture with his stunning shot of a snow leopard in a flowery meadow:

Photo by Hui Lang

See other winners’ photos here. A full list of the mammals and birds (in English and Chinese) that were photographed, along with the Chinese names of all plants identified, can be downloaded here.

The Nature Watch Festival hopes to inspire people of all ages across China to take on stewardship of nature. It showcases how citizen science approaches can be participatory in nature; supporting local conservation efforts and empowering local people.

Sustainable Eco-Tourism for Conservation

The Nature Watch Festival is part of a small-scale wildlife-watching tourism program in Namsei, where twenty-two families were selected by the local community as host families to provide accommodation, food, guiding and transportation for tourists. Binoculars and field guides were provided to local families participating as guides and drivers. The local government has invested in improving their living conditions with separate bedrooms and bathroom facilities.

Snow leopards are the stars of Namsei’s wildlife. Photo by Shan Shui / Panthera / Snow Leopard Trust

If managed effectively, eco-tourism presents an opportunity to enhance local livelihoods as well as support conservation. It allows people to experience the uniqueness of high mountain snow leopard habitats, while potentially building public support for and contributing to their conservation. However, uncontrolled, it can be a threat to these fragile landscapes and the animals that inhabit them.

In Namsei, tourists experience the daily life of the local community. Photo by Shan Shui

The program in Namsei is a great example of responsible, sustainable eco-tourism that respects the ecosystem as well as local culture. It has the support of the local community, non-profit conservation groups such as Shan Shui, and the local government.

In this program, 100% of the money tourists spend stays within the community (45% to herder family, 45% into a shared community fund, and 10% to community-based conservation projects). The homestays rotate across the community to give everyone an opportunity to host, and prices for homestays and guide services are fixed in order to ensure that the benefits are shared equitably. The shared community fund is used partly for compensation should any domestic yak be taken by predators as well as for facilities with shared benefits. The program also has a code of conduct which helps minimize any impact to the environment and respect the local culture.

One Comment

  1. I wish I could go visit these rare cubs with their sweet blue eyes! Thank you so very much for your help in caring for the Snow Leopards!

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