Although I was trekking through a remote part of the Tibetan Plateau, I figured that if I was ever lucky enough to see a snow leopard, it would be little more than the glimpse of a tail disappearing over a ridge or behind a rock, never to be seen again. After all, the eyes of these magnificent but notoriously elusive cats are several hundred times more sensitive than those of a human.
And yet, there I was, watching two young snow leopard cubs yawning and dozing in the summer sun, just 500 meters from where I stood. I was elated. They must have known I was there, but they took it in stride. Their lack of fear seemed to me to speak volumes about the relationship between the locals and native wildlife in this beautiful part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
That was three years ago, in August 2016. I had come to Angsai, a small town on the banks of the upper reaches of the Mekong River in China’s mountainous northwestern Qinghai province, to participate in a nature watch festival organised by the Shanshui Conservation Center, a Chinese nongovernmental organization. Later that evening, I found myself in conversation with the party secretary of Zaduo County, which oversees Angsai. When I mentioned the region’s potential for wildlife tourism, he asked for a written proposal, and a year later I was helping launch a community tourism pilot project involving 15 local families.
Rare and inhabiting some of the most inaccessible places on Earth, the snow leopard is among the most sought-after species by the world’s wildlife watchers. Classified as vulnerable to extinction, the roughly 3,000 snow leopards remaining in the wild are spread across China and Central Asia. For years, by far the most popular destination for wildlife watchers wishing to spot a snow leopard in the wild was northern India, where tourists sometimes pay thousands of dollars for a glimpse of the cats.
A snow leopard photographed in Sanjiangyuan national park, 2014. Courtesy of Shanshui Conservation Center
If Angsai was to lure some of these wildlife-loving travellers, any community tourism initiative would have to take into account four key factors. First, it was vital to ensure that any wildlife tourism programs benefited the local community. We saw tourism as a way to boost local incomes by providing opportunities for families to host visitors in their homes and act as drivers and guides.
Second, we had to consider the tourists themselves, since tourism projects only work if people want to visit. The wildlife was clearly a major attraction: not just snow leopards, but also wolves, lynxes, and rare birds like the Tibetan bunting and Tibetan babax. To ensure visitors had a unique and authentic experience, we decided to pair tours with homestays, and we organized additional activities such as yak herding, hiking, and horse riding.
We also had to take the views of the local government into account. We stressed that tourism would help promote the pilot Sanjiangyuan national park, of which Angsai was a part; raise the region’s profile; and demonstrate officials’ support for so-called ecological civilisation, a key government priority.
Finally, there was the environment. We recognized the fragility of Angsai’s ecosystem and that the area’s most valuable asset was its wildlife. Our priority had to be avoiding damage to local ecosystems. This meant limiting the number of visitors, setting up a permit system, and carefully monitoring the industry’s environmental impact. Tourism was also an opportunity to show locals that traditional predators and other wildlife could have positive economic value, reducing the risk of human-animal conflict.
The author on a wildlife-spotting trip in Angsai Township, Qinghai province, July 16, 2019. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
Together with the Shanshui Conservation Center, which has been working in the area since 2015, we devised a training plan for local families. Our modules showcased examples of similar projects from around the world, such as Uganda’s mountain gorilla tourism initiative, which strictly limits visitor numbers and provides jobs for locals as rangers and guides. We provided each family with a field guide to the wildlife of Sanjiangyuan and a pair of donated binoculars. And, with community input, we designed a code of conduct that visitors would read and sign upon arrival.
Crucially, the local community made all major decisions about the project. They decided the price per day per person for accommodation, food, and guides; they decided how visitors would be allocated to families, using a strict rotation system; and they decided how tourism revenue would be distributed. It was important that 100% of the revenue remain in the local community, and participants chose to allocate the money earned from each tourist group as follows: 45% to the host family, 45% to a community works fund, and 10% to community-based snow leopard conservation projects.
I visit Angsai frequently to see how the project is going and to identify potential issues. Last year, 61 groups visited the town, contributing a total of 432,000 yuan ($61,500) to the community. That total exceeded 1 million yuan this fall. Many of the visitors have said how much they enjoyed the experience. On one trip back, I encountered a Scottish couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. They were so pleased with their trip that they donated 2,000 yuan to Shanshui’s snow leopard conservation programs.
One of my most rewarding experiences came when two young men told me that the project had given them a reason to stay in Angsai. Although many young people in the town don’t want to go, they feel pressure to move to the city to earn more money. For these two, the money they were earning as guides was enough for them to feel comfortable staying. For me, that was a special moment. If our project enabled local people to maintain their traditional ways of life, it would be an unforeseen — but welcome — benefit.
Of course, a project of this nature is never smooth sailing. There have been, and remain, challenges. First, the material conditions are rudimentary. The lack of dedicated toilet facilities, for example, limits the project’s appeal, especially for female visitors. We are encouraging the families to dig simple pit toilets with covering to provide privacy.
Second, some people — over-zealous photographers, mostly — have violated the community’s code of conduct by attempting to get too close to the wildlife. This kind of behavior has the potential to make the animals warier and thus harder to see for future tourists. Finally, some families have arranged visitors directly, without going through the community-based system. This can cause friction within the community, particularly with the families next on the roster to host tourists.
Despite these challenges, which are to be expected at the beginning of a project of this nature, the community is extremely happy with the progress so far. In fact, in 2018 the project was expanded to include an additional seven families from an adjacent village, bringing the number of participating families to 22.
The United Nations’ World Tourism Organisation estimates that wildlife tourism accounts for 7% of global tourism. In 2018 it directly contributed $120 billion to global GDP and is growing at a rate of 10% per year, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. Although I am unaware of any official figures for China, there is no doubt in my mind that the country’s new national park system will benefit the industry.
However, in order to ensure sustainability and to minimize the impact of tourism on fragile ecosystems and the wildlife that inhabits them, innovative new approaches will be needed. That’s why I believe the community-based approach in Angsai has value not only for the local community but also to other communities around the country. It offers evidence that what’s good for locals and tourists can also be good for wildlife.
But don’t take my word for it. Why not visit and see for yourself?
This article was produced in partnership with The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, and the Paulson Institute.
Editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A snow leopard in Sanjiangyuan national park, Qinghai province. Frédéric Larrey via Shanshui Conservation Center)