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Developing a sustainable birdwatching industry in western Yunnan

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Image credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development
Image credit: Jitendra Bajracharya, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development

A cool fresh breeze touched our skin despite the warm sunlight as we deplaned at the Baoshan Yunrui Airport. With excitement and enthusiasm we set off to our destination for a week of learning.

When we reached Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve (GNNR), we were welcomed by a rush of gorgeous sounds — birds chirping, murmuring streams and the low hum of cicadas. GNNR covers more than 4,000 square kilometers, and is home to more than 200 species of wild animals, 525 species of birds, and 49 species of fish. The immense biodiversity of the reserve is matched only by its astonishing landscape and natural beauty.

The next morning, we set out down a birding trail that starts in the village of Baihualing (百花岭) and runs deep into the forest, and that was once part of the Southern Silk Road. We peered through binoculars to identify the many bird species which filled the air with song. The first sighting was that of a Yunnan fulvetta, a small grey-headed bird, foraging in a berry tree, surrounded by its fellows. The trail was dotted with die-hard ornithologists, enthusiastic birdwatchers, and younger people enjoying their time out in nature.

Birdwatching in China is experiencing a paradigm shift, from localized excursions to becoming part of the global tourist market. Unfortunately, not much attention has been given to understand the impacts of tourism on bird populations and their habitats. There is a need to establish links between birdwatching ecotourism, environmental conservation and economic benefits. These need to be location-specific, as the needs of one geographic terrain and the birds that inhabit them will not be the same as that of others.

A birdwatching hide merges into the landscape (image credit: Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve)
A birdwatching hide merges into the landscape (image credit: Gaoligongshan National Nature Reserve)

In 2009, an innovative approach to birdwatching emerged in China, one in which enthusiasts gathered around ponds that were specially curated and managed by locals. Early reports are promising. In northwest Yunnan's Baihualing, for example, pond birdwatching accounts for 70 percent of household income for participating families, according to a study conducted by the Southwest Forestry University in 2017.

This approach presents an option where birdwatching tourism is developed in such a way to integrate local socio-economic and ecological benefits. Locals have developed birdwatching interests into small businesses, erecting bird hides near ponds where people can pay a small fee to watch and take photos. Social networking services like QQ, WeChat and bird-themed BBS forums have become the main channels through which local tourism service providers market and communicate with their customers.

We were impressed by how the individual pond owners had built hides to fit nicely into the landscape without disturbing the habitat. A pond manager stepped forward and began making calls to attract the attention of some Rusty-fronted barwings nearby. He also put out a pile of worms and apples to attract Yunnan fulvettas. A squirrel and its pup wandered onto the scene, searching for morsels and competing with the birds. An Eastern yellow robin spread its wings and flew across the opening.

Eastern yellow robin
Eastern yellow robin

To the spectator, the ponds in GNNR stress the complex interplay of the beauty of nature and the need to develop it for tourism in a manner that preserves and protects this special bird-watching paradise. The situation we found ourselves in made us realize that there are more layers for sustainable tourism and more strategies needed for increasing tourists. For example, few pond owners have focused on discrete techniques to attract the birds nearby, like mimicking their songs and sounds.

GNNR is organized according to a zone concept. The 'core' zones are strictly protected areas that maintain ecosystems in their natural states. Meanwhile, 'experimental' zones are reserved for tourism activities and future development. 'Buffer' zones mark areas that are between the core area and experimental zone to restrict resource use and developmental activities to enrich the protection of the reserve.

Unlike national parks that are freely open to the public, GNNR is a reserve which provides more space for protection and development. There are restrictions against conducting tourism activities in the core and buffer zones, so all eco-tourism experiments must be situated in the experimental zones.

Yunnan's Gaoligong Mountains (image credit: Tengchong Tourism Bureau)
Yunnan's Gaoligong Mountains (image credit: Tengchong Tourism Bureau)

To provide supplementary education to visitors, GNNR employs sophisticated digital signage at its Baihualing Nature Education Center that explains the links between biodiversity, conservation and livelihoods of community. The signs allow visitors to gain insights into the history and general information of the reserve and its natural resources.

Responsible tourism is essential for sustainable development. This particular bird-watching model will need to guard against challenges in the future. More and more people will visit, which will bring more cars and more foot traffic that can distrupt habitats. Therefore, a comprehensive management plan is needed. Local bird guides also told us of the need for capacity building in managing home stays, restaurants, and nearby cultural heritage sites.

We understand that for new models, a continuous drive towards making things better is necessary. Support from related government agencies and scientists can help local communities find a more scientific and suitable approach to avoid unnecessary loss. Transboundary cooperation with Myanmar and other neighboring countries will not only create more opportunities for tourism development in Yunnan, but also enhance the brand value of tourist attractions, including the GNNR bird-watching paradise.

Editor's note: Authors Deepa Basnet is research associate in ecosystems, while Wu Ning, is theme leader, ecosystem services, both at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development in Kathmandu, Nepal. Their collaborative article above was originally published by The Third Pole under the title "Developing birdwatching as a sustainable programme in China". It is republished here, edited to fit GoKunming's format, under the Creative Commons license.

Robin image: WikiMedia

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Comments

You won't find an Eastern Yellow Robin anywhere near 百花岭 (or China at all for that matter) unless you are encountering a very serious vagrant or, much more likely but also nearly impossible, an escapee. Might I suggest using an image of a Scarlet Finch as one of the Himalayan endemics that can be regularly encountered at this site?

I also wanted to add that the use of "playback" to draw in birds, especially at frequently visited sites such as BHL, can be very harmful to local populations. The unscrupulous methods employed and/or encouraged by many bird photographers should be scrutinized.

Also, BHL is possibly the number one birding hotspot in all of China (343 species recorded on eBird alone). Very beautiful location with access to the trail that goes all the way over the the Gaoligong Mountains to Tengchong.

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