The Value of Trust

Working with communities to conserve wildlife is as impactful as it is rewarding. Gaining people’s trust is no easy task though, as our China researcher Xiao Lingyun writes.

By Xiao Lingyun, PhD student at Peking University

“We’ve been waiting several days for the express delivery to send my camera traps and batteries to Xining, the capital city of Qinghai Province. Just at the time I almost lost my temper, they arrived and we could finally leave the city. The smog in Beijing has lasted for weeks and I’m happy to have the choice to escape to the field.

Xiao Lingyun and the herder she's working with
Xiao Lingyun and the herder she’s working with

Sanjiangyuan Area is one of the most important areas for snow leopard conservation. Although the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve covers a large portion of the area, local herders still live inside the Reserve.

Is there a way that local people and wildlife can coexist? That’s the question we are seeking an answer for, by studying eight different sites within the Sanjiangyuan Area.

From previous  inspiration of Yunta village, research cameras set up by the local herders are quite successful due to their local knowledge. This time, I tried to involve the local community into the research.

It’s a decision partly out of frustration. Last December we set out camera traps at the eight sites. However, in the first village I found several of them had been taken by the villagers. Even though last time we tried our best to ask them don’t do this. It’s just a normal thing when you are doing research with people living around, unless you have community projects going at the same time.

Camera traps are quite mysterious for the local people. It’s understandable that they don’t want strange things showing up on their own rangelands. But to involve them into the whole thing can make a real difference.

a snow leopard, photographed by a research camera set up by local herders in Yunta village, China
a snow leopard, photographed by a research camera set up by local herders in Yunta village, China

By teaching them how a camera trap works and asking their help to set out and take care of the camera traps, we showed our trust and respect upon them. It’s also interesting for them to investigate the snow leopards living in their village. Hopefully this will turn into a win-win situation.

To investigate the relationship between livestock and wildlife, livestock number is crucial data. However, it’s always a sensitive topic to discuss here.

a herder points to a ridge where snow leopards are known to roam
a herder points to a ridge where snow leopards are known to roam

Lots of grassland restoration policies since 2005 are heading towards reducing livestock number. Villages get lots of compensation on it without really reducing the livestock number. The numbers that are communicated to the government shrink, which makes the governmental statistics unreliable. Resistance and suspicion will show when we ask the villagers directly.

So to get the real number we have to build a trusting relationship with the villages, which is not always easy. Every day my assistant and I are thinking of different ideas to show our harmlessness and our sincerity to help. How much we wish that we can simply have a “good man” label on our head!

Through all our effort things are turning to the bright side. We have built collaboration on camera trap setting with three villages. We promised to help one village on garbage disposal. We also planned to help buying electronic fences to alleviate human-brown bear conflict in another village. Relationship is building, one step by one step.

By chatting and interviewing we gained valuable information about the herders’ livelihood. Each village has its own story, which will be too long to tell here. Only by understanding each of them, our research can give an answer a little closer to reality.”

Photos courtesy of Shan Shui Conservation Center

Xiao Lingyun is a PhD student from Peking University (PKU) and has been working with our China Team since 2011.  She is investigating the impacts of snow leopard on blue sheep, and will be the second female PhD on snow leopard biology in China in two years. Lingyun has worked in the field since early March, and will work into late May.  


  1. How do you travel to this place? Do you have to hike or can one drive in? Bike? If someone, say, were bicycle touring, can he/she ride by this area? I want to see a cat too!! How lucky you are!

    1. we’d have to ask – but most likely, there’s going to be a road to the village, but getting to where the cats roam will typically take a bit of a hike!

  2. This is a great article and really highlights the value of working with local communities. With their involvement, understanding and willingness conservation practices have a much greater chance of success. We must always remember the needs of these people. A really great story and won we have re-blogged as a guest article on our site. Look forward to hearing more.

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