Friday, 6 November 2009
The more keen eyed among you may have seen a change to this blog - we are now concerning ourselves with snow leopards across China, not just Xinjiang. Xinjiang remains very special to us and we are continuing our work there, it's just that we are being encouraged by the Chinese authorities to include other provinces in our project. This is very encouraging and shows that partaking of all the baijiu has won us friends. Oh, and we're also very good at what we do...
Kun and I paid a visit to Sichuan in the summer and were delighted to find signs of snow leopard in Wolong Biosphere Reserve and giant panda hang-out. We have support from the local forestry administration and hope to survey areas on the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the coming winter, so expect more boring discussion of warm clothing and ice! Excitingly, the Sichuan Forestry Administration have taken some photos of snow leopards using remote camera traps and I hope to be able to post these up soon.
No one, with the exception of our team of course, is concerned about possible environmental degradation and increased threats to biodiversity, including snow leopards.
I’m not surprised: I’ve been in this game for long enough now not to clutchingly hold onto naïve sentiments. It places the concerns of conservationists in stark contrast against the immediate needs of the people that are unwillingly placed in the role of environmental custodians. I cannot offer compelling arguments against short-term improvements in human wellbeing within these communities, other than to offer the longer term view of a world devoid of natural space and the loss of much of our valued wildlife. Yes, people DO value biodiversity (well, some of it), but tend not to equate short-term gains on one side with long-term loss on the other.
What to do? Well, we are ensuring that we are an enthusiastic partner within the consortium concerned with the development these communities. We will continue to offer opinions and advise that maximise the gains for the people in these areas, but minimise the environmental costs incurred. Above all we will seek to ensure that the wildlife that people value so much, such as the snow leopard, are always in the minds of people making these decisions.
Saturday, 11 July 2009
Sunday, 22 March 2009
I'm heading home tomorrow to a blissful reunion with Dawn and the boys. Then the next chapter begins. Report writing, funding applications and project development will keep me busy for a good while. I will continue to update this blog with progress (I hope) and more photos once I sort them out. Stay tuned.
Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Our far-flung cameras offered logistical challenges for their retrieval. To minimise the effort we split the team. While my part of the team were happily retracing our steps, elsewhere nefarious forces were at work. Whilst recovering his quota, Khometti discovered that a pair had gone missing. He returned to Mariang Community with those he had (we were meanwhile a couple of days away at our second camp) and was (so I gather) marched by our driver, Shifu, to the community policeman to report the theft. Khometti was reluctant to do anything premature, but Shifu's outrage was forceful.
As luck would have it, to Shifu's delight and Khometti's groaning despair, on that day the Director of Taxkurgan County was visiting Mariang. Upon hearing of the heinous crimes carried out against such an important (and international) research project he, without waiver, unleashed the full force of the law in Taxkurgan and vowed to "crush the criminal network" responsible. [The story was retold a number of times when we all later reassembled, amidst a fair amount of drinking. I quote a recounted phrase from these recollections that lodged in my head.]
The full force of the law in Taxkurgan took the form of four police officers from Taxkurgan town. No one was above suspicion, not even themselves it seemed. Efforts to tackle corruption in China are taken seriously and so the first step in any enquiry is that the police officers question each other about their whereabouts, motives and alibis. Once they were satisfied that they had in fact all been together at the time of the alleged incident and that none of them had actually been to Marriang before, the investigation moved up a gear. And up a mountain. They promptly proceeded to the crime scene. A little too promptly as it happened, because they all returned some hours later complaining of headaches and nausea. With altitude sickness the best remedy is to descend to a lower elevation, so they all went back to Taxkurgan.
Before they left they made the local bobby in Mariang Officer In Charge of the investigation. He is a shrewd man, who learnt English for three months (the phrases he remembers, related in later drinking and story-telling, include "Thank you" - politeness among police officers is always appreciated when conducting enquiries; "I larve you" - not so sure about this one, but all great detectives have their own distinctive methods; and "Good health" - no comment [hic!]). His approach was simple and effective. He called on local families in the area and explained the problem and requested that the cameras be placed back in their original position by the next day. Or else!
The effect of all this on the community in Mariang was quite striking. The presence of the incident team from Taxkurgan is akin to those scenes in movies where scores of men in dark suits and dark glasses pour from unplated black 4x4s and the SWAT teams slide down ropes from helicopters. Mariang had not seen anything like this (neither the SWATy dark-glasses nor the four blokes from Taxkurgan) and it certainly put the wind up them.
The next day the cameras were found by Khometti and the local policeman in their original position.
The leader of the community, Rojabek Arkim (Roger Beck?) was beside himself when we finally turned up and were bought up to speed on the whole thing. Having reassured him that there was no harm done, we ate drank smoked [cough!] our way into the night and celebrated our snow leopard pictures. We're all good friends.
The policeman was rightly pleased with himself. He reassured us that after these events we would have no further problems with missing traps in Mariang ever again. I larve you.
Monday, 16 March 2009
Our prized snow leopard, captured on one the SLT's cameras, set by one of our trained local team (Khometti Taklashur). Along with copious other evidence, this offers proof that snow leopards are indeed using the Mariang area of Taxkurgan Nature Reserve during the winter.
Thursday, 12 March 2009
Sunday, 8 March 2009
Precarious walking for around 8 hours across what sounds like a field of boulders led the team to a new base camp in the valley yesterday. This brings them closer to the area with reportedly recent snow leopard activity, and the local herders there are lining up kills to check.
Thursday, 5 March 2009
The locals are reporting lots of attacks by snow leopards on livestock since Phil and Kun were last there, and there seem to be very few wild ungulate prey around, prompting speculation from the XSLP that perhaps a disease outbreak has swept through the valley. The local herders have kept some depredated skins for verification, and there are high hopes that the camera traps will capture some activity. Once all the cameras are in position, and training is progressed, the team may possibly relocate to another base camp in the valley in about 5 days time.
Reception on the satellite phone seems variable, but hopefully we'll hear more at the weekend.
Over and out, D.
Saturday, 28 February 2009
Right, enough of this banter. I'm off. Updates as before via a satellite phone and the beautiful Dawn's prose. Let's hope I can relay some good snow leopard news and less about border guards and paperwork.
Keep 'em peeled.
WildCRU / Xinjiang Snow Leopards
Progress in Shaksgam was all about ice. Frozen rivers were our way into valleys that are watery torrents at any other time of year. I knew this. I've even made a point of informing anyone who'd listen to me that this "is the only way of getting into these parts". But the reality hadn't struck me - walking up (and down) valleys on ice. In inflexible walking boots, which while great on rocks, mud, pavements and all manner of non-slip surfaces, are truly hellish when friction is limited. All I can say is thanks to the inventor or walking poles - and to Tom and Harry who encouraged me to take them. Brilliant. Hand extensions - like walking on all fours without looking like a (total) idiot. Just a bit of one.
Steady as you go.
Friday, 27 February 2009
As I continued I entered a street that was almost exclusively comprised of pigeon restaurants (where they're eaten rather than dining themselves, lest there be any confusion). This reminded me of an entire district of Changchun in Jilin Province given over to hairdressers and, more recently, a small nameless town in the desert where all shops but three sold decorative knives. Now, I'm no business guru, but if I were planning on entering the decorative knife selling business I would probably avoid opening a shop in this town. If I wanted to distinguish myself as a hairdresser, I'd do well to avoid competition, trust me.
Why do trades tend to cluster in Chinese towns? In a sea of pigeon cafes, I'll always go for the wooden spoons.
P.S. If anyone wishes to burst my bubble and has information about a wooden spoon scam, where innocent beggars are forced into selling wares on behalf of some evil oligarchic organised crime network - please keep it to yourself.
All was not lost - we have a good solid couple of days surveying near Shaksgam and then focused our remaining efforts in the SE of the reserve around Maraz and Kudi. Despite numerous blue sheep and a few ibex, there was unfortunately precious little sign of snow leopard. Reports from villagers emerging from the no-go area suggest there are snow leopards near the border posing problems for livestock. Conversely, in the vicinity of Kudi, to the east, villagers had never seen snow leopards, nor heard reports of them in the last 30 years or so. The wolf population, however, appeared to be thriving.
Despite the inevitable set backs and obstacles, we're all pretty pleased to have got as far as we did and get some valuable data from this difficult (in all senses of the word) region. We're now warming up and eating some nicer food in Kashgar for a couple of days before heading back into the mountains to Mariang. Hopefully here we will be able to verify our suspicions that snow leopards are active in the winter and also get some pictures with these damn heavy cameras. More lamb kebabs please!
Keep on the sunny side.
Sunday, 22 February 2009
They've had a difficult route through the desert from Kashgar, as, other than inhospitable cold, the army are extremely sensitive about the Kashmiri border and they are now at the interface where their permissions are not the 'right permissions' to let them proceed beyond the border control. The upside is that they've apparently been staying in various army shacks along route, which, for the most part, are less cold than sleeping under metaphorical canvas. The temperature drops rapidly to -20/25 at dusk, worsened by the dramatic wind howling through the valley (and virtually obliterating any sense of what Phil was trying to say at the end of the satellite phone).
So far, no recent evidence of snow leopard, just old scrapes, but the next few days surveying are full of promise. They've seen plenty of prey, with increased blue sheep and ibex numbers compared to Mariang, and also sign of greater wolf and lynx activity.
The landscape is predictably awesome, though perhaps less white. They are at c.4000m, and actually the whole area is extremely arid, with the snow line in sight at 6,000m, and frozen rivers in the valleys.
Phil anticipates moving back towards Kashgar on Friday and then heading on to Mariang, so the chances are he'll publish the next post himself. Here's hoping everything goes well, good luck. Dx
Wednesday, 18 February 2009
Work complete, finally we have enough permission and vehicles to move out of Kashgar and towards the mountains. We will begin scouting routes in attempts to find our way in so at long last I might be able to provide snow leopard research entries to this blog. However, I'll have no web access for a few weeks, so the glorious Dawn will post updates from our brief (but blissful) safety check in calls (that's what we're calling them anyway).
Break a leg.
In Beautiful Day, Bono evokes a romantic vista overlooking desert oil fields at first light. The uber-eco-friendly version to greet us was the largest wind farm in Asia.
According to the Taxiversity of Life.
Our driver, known to us as Shifu (Master), is brimming over with facts and opinion. Perfect for two days of solid driving with a captive class. Shame I don't understand too much of it, but the rest of the team are having a great time, and his ebullience transcends language. The downside is he is easily distracted from his primary task (what I think it is anyway) and so far he has been pulled over four times for speeding. The first time he gruffly paid the fine and shrugged words to the effect that the police should stop wasting time etc etc... serious crime going on etc etc... what they doin' about it etc etc... This I believe is a universal response to such injustice. The second time the officer responsible for pulling him over was a young lad (they are, like doctors, getting younger [except yours truly - medical doctors only rule]). Shifu sensed something akin to naive uncertainty on the part of the young'un and he jumped from the car to vigorously protest his innocence and demand to know why he is not out catching real criminals etc etc... it's all about getting money and easy target hitting etc etc... To be fair the officer gave as good as he got and things began to escalate. When the young officer's grizzled old chain smoking superior then stepped out of the shadows I began to ask questions of the team, such as "how much does it cost to bail people in China?" and "is it even possible?" and "who else can drive?". Shifu's no fool. The speed of change from outrage to contrition was remarkable.
He paid another fine and, balanced against what we are paying him, went into the red for the day.
The next occasion was apparently paid in cigarettes and jocularity. He got away with it. By now, you'd expect him to be particularly eagle-eyed when it comes to the numerous speed cameras alone these roads. He might need glasses. I'd see these things coming from way in the distance, but he kept constant speed until about 5m from the camera and then throw out the anchor. Baggage everywhere. Repack everything in the back and then wait for the next one. Bang! Weighty sack of camera traps to the back of the head.
The fourth time I thought an arrest was certain. And, from the heavy dragging motion of a dead man walking as he got out of the car, so did he. Whatever the combination of charm, cigarettes and charitable donation, he returned to the car, his wallet relieved of its load. His drivers licence however was freshly decorated with six shiny new points. Four more and he's off the road.
That was day one on the road to Kashgar. Day two saw steady law abiding progression and a grimace on Shifu's face each time he was overtaken by all and sundry. Onegai shimasu.
Saturday, 14 February 2009
Thursday, 12 February 2009
Wednesday, 11 February 2009
Does this change anything? I don’t know. We will carry on as before, with our (oh alright, my) banal frustrations and expensive cameras (although there’s a certain Chinese farmer I apparently must see about getting some SL photos). We will continue to provide training and support to these communities, so that together we can better understand these animals and deliver effective long lasting conservation measures. I don’t know if I should dare mention that we are also collaborating with similar projects across the border in Pakistan…
Tuesday, 10 February 2009
Preparations for Xinjiang are fully underway and the team is building. More to come…
Saturday, 7 February 2009
Far be it from me to start moaning about the difficulties of life, particularly those faced when dealing with some large organisations. The individuals I liased with in FedEx were great - polite and helpful. However, somehow, between all the polite helpfulness there appeared some gaps into which certain bits of vital communication seemed to fall. I'll skip the tortuous angst ridden account which finally resulted in me having to drive to the airport cargo depot through the most atrocious weather the UK has seen for 13 years, because FedEx don't deliver on a Saturday!
Now, given where we are going and what we are planning to do I can not complain about a bit of snow and some diffiult driving conditions. So I won't. I was more concerned with the shame of losing to a technicality and failing to get the cameras despite the SLT getting them to the UK.
Shame averted and we are all systems go. Now I have to deal with the guilt of abandoning Dawn and the boys. No amount of snow bound motorway driving will get me out of that one.
Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Picture in full garb to follow...
We will be camping at 4,000m (or thereabouts) for 4 weeks, so the amount of safety and camping gears is growing. Let alone my size 12 boots! I hope Kun and the rest of the team travel light.
WildCRU / Xinjiang Snow Leopards