Wolong is a Sichuan village located in the very heart of China’s largest Giant Panda Conservation area – the Wolong National Nature Reserve, home to the largest concentration of wild Giant Pandas in China. The inhabitants, who have a Tibetan heritage traditionally farmed the valleys and grazed the high grasslands with their yak and goats. In the past, remote and difficult to reach, visitors were few, but today new road connections, now mean a quick and easy connection with the huge urban population of nearby Chengdu and the rest of Modern China.
Times are changing fast at Wolong, with hill farmers taking full advantage of the new infrastructure and resultant tourist traffic that now floods the area. Gone are the days when it was just goats, yak and a vegetable garden to feed the family – now hillside terraces and pasture, home to a rich array of local wildlife, are being cleared in an intensification of agriculture – establishing plum orchards, giving an easy to manage cash crop and far better income
Our goal has been to establish a sustainable industry that equally benefits locals and wildlife and counters the wildlife negative advances of intensive agriculture. We quickly concluded that establishing bird hides for the use of the ever-growing army of Chinese bird photographers would be an ideal answer. Wolong is already the hotel base for the bird watching mecca of Balang Mountain – the bird photographers are here, but how to find a local landowner who was willing to take part in this project?
Into the story steps Wan Fugui, a Wolong local who closely relates to the traditional values of the area and, through his experiences working with both local and international conservation agencies, also appreciates the importance of protecting and preserving Wolong, not only as natural habitat but also as a sustainable ecological resource for locals and visitors alike. Fugui knew the hillsides around Wolong contained a species that was prized by bird photographers but has increasingly come under pressure because of the removal of scrub and cover vegetation – the Golden Pheasant.
The male Golden Pheasant is one of the world’s most striking gamebirds. However, being a shy and skulking bird, it’s more often heard than seen and very little is known of its life in the wild. But we do know that males use their bright plumage to attract hens through a spectacular group display known as lekking. This takes place in early spring, and they are polygamous species with dominant males breeding with more than one female. The female is a drab well camouflaged bird – far better suited to blend into the habitat. Perhaps the gaudy colours of the male, and the way they stand out against the natural background, are not only a useful attractant for females, but also a mechanism that ensures only the fittest and strongest survive the risk of predation.
The next phase of the project was to find an interested landowner – here we come to meet the extraordinarily kind, tough and resilient He Nainai, an 81-year-old widow, who lives alone on the steep hillside overlooking Wolong Village.
We learn from He Nainai that the birds come from a bamboo thicket that adjoins her land, coming up to peck at her vegetable garden. She has seen up to 20 pheasants at one time – 5 males and 15 females. She quickly agrees to both let us feed on her land and to establish a photography hide around the house.
The first morning we watched for Golden Pheasant from He Nainai's house they already arrived after 10 minutes – and this is already before we have started to put down feed. First a pair of females shortly followed by a resplendent strutting male. The birds remained in view for a good twenty minutes, and, with feeding and better screening materials, we’re sure the birds will come closer to the house and the cameras.
Other birds at the site included Barred and Black-faced Laughingthrush, Himalayan Bluetail and Grey-headed Bullfinch.
To make this project work we are looking for donations to help establish a setup phase. We need money to pay for the initial supplies of corn, the fuel it costs to collect supplies and check on sites, materials for hide and sign making, advertising and hosting prominent bird photographers to endorse the project, a management fee for Fugui’s time and essential items, like benches and other everyday objects. The idea is to first establish one or two hides, get them economically self-sufficient, and then see if we can the spread the idea to a wider group of hide providers. Our goal is to demonstrate that economic gain can go hand in hand with wildlife protection and give landowners a practical reason to conserve habitat. The presence of COVID has meant that we have now gone over one year without income and presently are not optimistic about receiving any overseas clients through 2021 – any help towards supporting this project will be very well received, since our ability to provide funds is presently very low.
Sid Francis, Meggie Francis, Wan Fugui, Roland Zeidler, Chai Jianyun