What is Nature Watch
Valley of the Cats Nature Watch is a community-based ecotourism project. According to the IUCN, ecotourism refers to "environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features—both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations". In 1987, the United Nations published the report "Our Common Future", which identified the need for sustainable development and resource conservation. Since then, ecotourism, which contributes to both socioeconomic and environmental benefits, has entered both the academic and public eye. In addition to the most commonly used term "ecotourism", tourism programs based on natural landscapes and biodiversity are also described as "sustainable tourism", "nature watch", "nature observation", "conservation tourism", "green tourism", etc.
With the growing concern for the lives of people living in nature reserves, community-based ecotourism is considered by more people as a much desirable solution for achieving conservation and development with the focus on the direct participation of local communities in project management and operation. Nature watch program integrates nature conservation and social development. By serving as guides and host families, local herders can earn an increased amount of income and realize that protecting their home landscape and wildlife will benefit their own families and communities, thus diminishing the possibility of consuming natural resources in exchange for money.
Nature Watch in Namsei
With the experience of Nature Watch Festival, Shan Shui, the community, local government and other nature conservation enthusiasts began to form some ideas -- they hoped to figure out a model that could integrate the demand of species conservation, community development, public participation and government management. Since then, the local community cooperative of Namsei, with the support of Shan Shui Conservation Center and local government, has launched a series of nature watch activities, with local herders serving as nature watch guides and host families and leading nature watch participates to view rare wildlife such as snow leopards, enjoy the natural and cultural landscape, and experience pastoral life.
From 2018 to 2020, the cooperative has worked with Shan Shui Conservation Center to conduct 7 comprehensive guide training sessions for 21 selected host families. These sessions include in-home training of cooking skills, hospitality services, and general health knowledge for each family respective.
Shan Shui has also discussed many times with the community to complete the design of the management mechanism, including the cooperative’s management charter and the code for nature watch participants. It has also completed the design of a series of nature program products, including the trilingual manual, bilingual host family manual, and materials of host families and established the website “Valley of the Cats” for the promotion and reservation of Namsei nature watch program（valleyofthecats.org.cn）.
At the same time, Shan Shui has assisted the community to hold several meetings. In addition to the more important decisions such as selecting host families, changing the term of management team, etc., it also helped with the discussion of details in aspects of management and hospitality. There were inevitably arguments and repetitions of opinions, but it was through these adjustments and changes that the community members became more involved, and promoted the constant improvement of nature watch program with a more in-depth understanding and thinking.
After many discussions and negotiations with members of the cooperative, Namsei Nature Watch Program started to adopt a collective community revenue distribution system at the end of 2018. The current charging standard is 1,000 RMB/car/day for transportation and guide, and 300 RMB/person/night for food and accommodation. 45% of the total proceeds from the project will be earned by the host families, 45% incorporated into a community fund for public affairs, and 10% used for ecological conservation in the Angsai area (e.g. establishing a community wildlife conservation fund).
The program started in 2018. By 2021, the Angsai Nature Watch program has hosted 169 nature watch teams from around the world with a total of 479 visits, bringing in over 1.73 million RMB in total revenue to the community, including approximately 950,000 RMB in community fund and an average increase in income of 37,000 RMB for host families.
Nature Watch Festival
Prior to the official launch of Nature Watch Pilot Project, two nature watch festivals were held in Namsei. Nature watch enthusiasts from all over the world came to the pilot national park to observe wildlife and also to provide their valuable input to the construction of the national park. These two nature watch festivals also allowed herders to experience for the first time the meaning and responsibility of being a guide.
From Namsei 17-22, 2016, the People’s Government of Zaduo County, Yushu Prefecture, the Management Committee of Lancang River Park in Sanjiangyuan National Park, Shan Shui Conservation Center and Peking University Center for Nature and Society jointly held the First Lancang River International Nature Watch Festival in Namsei, Zaduo County, Qinghai.
Over the course of 4 days, 14 teams identified and recorded the distribution of animals, birds and plants through videos and images, helping to establish the baseline data of Namsei Lancang River Valley. Preliminary statistics showed that a total of 10 mammal species, 61 bird and 93 plant species were recorded. Behind the fruitful harvest of each participant, there was also invisible progress. The local community received the most participation and benefit from this nature watch model that focused on biodiversity awareness and viewing.
From July 21-24, 2018, Namsei held the Second International Nature Watch Festival. 20 teams from China, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other countries participated in this festival, during which 13 mammal species, 73 bird species, 315 plant species and 4 reptile species were recorded.