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.
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.
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.
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.
The Snow Leopard Trust is deeply saddened about the passing of Peter Matthiessen.
We’re excited to be teaming up with conservationist apparel company FLOAT and offer you a chance to help save snow leopards buy purchasing an amazing t-shirt, exclusively designed by FLOAT for the Snow Leopard Trust.
Here’s a sneak peak at the gorgeous t-shirt, which will be available from Monday, April 7, at www.float.org. For every t-shirt sold between April 7 and 13, $8 will be donated to snow leopard conservation.
Remote-sensor cameras have become a invaluable research tool to monitor wildlife populations. They’re also offering us more and more glimpses into the lives of the elusive snow leopard; bringing the mysterious cat out of the shadows.
Last fall, you helped us fund 30 such cameras for a crucial snow leopard study in Kyrgyzstan. We’ve shared the first pictures they’ve captured earlier this year. Now, our Kyrgyz program director, Kuban Jumabai Uluu, has sent a second batch of photos – and they are breathtaking! Enjoy!
Park rangers in protected areas are a key ally in the fight to better understand and protect the endangered snow leopard. In Mongolia, our local team is training these rangers on how to use monitoring techniques such as surveys, GPS and research cameras.
Mongolia’s Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park (GGNP) is one of the largest protected areas of the Gobi region. The park is crucial for the conservation of snow leopards and their prey in this region. Park staff at GGNP is dedicated and wants to help better understand and protect these endangered cats. However, rangers are lacking information they need about the snow leopards and have limited skills and experience in using techniques such as surveys, or tools like GPS and cameras. To address these needs, our Mongolia team is conducting ranger training workshops focused on building capacity for wildlife monitoring within the GGNP areas.
Pujii Lkhagvajav, the Trust’s Research and Monitoring Manager in Mongolia, led the most recent training this past February. “36 rangers and park staff attended the workshop. That’s three dozen allies who will support our work in the future!”
After an introduction to snow leopard and their biology, participants learned the ins and outs of different wildlife monitoring techniques – from low-tech approaches like using printed forms to record snow leopard signs and presence of prey, to more sophisticated tools such as GPS devices to navigate and map locations. Then, Puji explained how photos from research cameras can be used to monitor cat populations. “The participants enjoyed the challenge of identifying individual cats by their fur pattern”, she says. Much like a human fingerprint, a snow leopard’s spots are unique. Scientists use the fur pattern to identify cats in research camera photos – a first step to estimating the total population.
Estimating populations – with cameras and binoculars
For example, a study deploying 20 research cameras in a part of Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park for a month may yield photos of 5 different cats. Then, a couple of weeks later, the same area is surveyed once more; again using 20 cameras for the duration of a month.
If the new photos show the same five cats, but no others, there’s a good chance the total population in that area is close to five. However, if all the cats identified in the second study are unknown, we’re most likely looking at a significantly larger population.
While the process is infinitely more complicated than that, the basic principle struck a chord with park staff. “The rangers are eager to know how many cats there are in the park“, Puji says.
Research cameras are one important tool to monitor wildlife populations – but they’re not the only method our teams use. “We can’t always find the cats, but we do see signs of them. Counting and mapping snow leopard signs such as pug marks is a very effective approach”, Puji explains.
One important indicator for a healthy cat population is the abundance of prey animals like the blue sheep. Fortunately, these ungulates are easier to spot and count. Population estimates are made using the so-called double-observer method, where two observers search for and count animals simultaneously while ensuring that they do not cue each other on the locations of the animals. “During the training, we took participants into the field, where they could practice counting animals and animal signs, recording the data in survey forms and mapping the locations with GPS”, Puji says.
Lack of tools needs to be addressed
While the training was a success, there are challenges that still need to be addressed – including a lack of survey tools for park staff. “GPS and binoculars are most important tools for rangers. Without these tools, they can’t see animals or record their locations properly”, Puji explains. “Every ranger patrols their responsible areas twice a month, but right now, there aren’t enough GPS units or binoculars, so less than half of them can collect wildlife data on their patrols.”
We would like to thank GGNP director Bayanmonkh and wildlife specialist Narangarav Bayasgalan for their tremendous support and assistance with this training, which was made possible by the generosity of the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and the Whitley Fund for Nature.