Sanhe Village has been engaged in bird tourism since the opening of its “Bird Valley” in 2018 (CNSPHOTO)
When the rooster crows, Ren Weidong wakes up. From his window, he takes deep breaths of fresh air full of fragrance from the forest after the rain, while his eyes feast on the serene mist rising from the canyon as the birds sing cheerful chorus in the mountain. As if to set the rhythm, the dogs bark from time to time in turn. The morning looks beautiful and really bucolic. However, he is eager to leave the lodge located in the middle of the Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve in Yunnan Province.
This amateur photographer, equipped with a camera and a pair of binoculars, took advantage of his retirement to make ornithological excursions. To do so, he had not hesitated to drive thousands of kilometers to his home province of Zhejiang, purposely to observe and study birds.
To carry out his mission of the day, he had as a guide Mi Bosi, a 41-year-old man living in Sanhe Village in the autonomous prefecture of Nujiang. Mi brought him to the observatory in his house. As soon as he settled in, Ren marveled at the sight of various colorful species roosting and feeding on the bamboo stalks Mi had placed in his courtyard in front of the erythrina. From the shelter of a camouflage tent, he couldn't help but press the shutter and shoot everything he sees. From time to time, he asked his guide about the names of birds in the pictures he had just taken.
In half a day, Ren was able to photograph and identify five species of the souimangas - fire-tailed, black-breasted, yellow-rumped, blue-throated and yellow-bellied birds - which account for almost half of the observable species in the country. He could not have been more pleased with the achievement.
The Gaoligong Mountain National Nature Reserve is home to over 520 species of birds (CNSPHOTO)
Tapping value of nature
The Gaoligong reserve was included in the World Wildlife Fund's List of Nature Reserves of International Importance in 1992 and added to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Network of Biosphere Reserves in 2000. It is home to over 520 species of birds, accounting for more than 30 percent of the national total, making it a bird sanctuary. Every year, thousands of enthusiastic naturalists like Ren visit this little birding paradise.
The abundance of natural resources, however, did not allow the local inhabitants to lead a decent life for generations. Just four years ago, Mi was still a truck driver. His health deteriorated due to the stress of long working hours.
The emergence of a new profession related to heritage enhancement and green recreation development has finally changed that. In 2018, his village embarked on birding tourism. As a result, Mi became a guide and manager of a waterside bird raising farm. His services include catering, accommodation, camera setup, backpack preparation, interpretation or translation and training, among others. In October and November 2019, the high season of the year, alone, he earned 20,000 yuan ($3,094), equal to his annual income in the past.
His success is not rare for local residents. The 45 guides in Sanhe like Mi all have risen above the poverty line. But at first, the local population was incredulous about this profession as Mi remarked at the time, "I've seen a lot of birds since I was a child. But how can they make money for us?"
A bird observatory in Sanhe Village to the delight of amateur photographers (CNSPHOTO)
Benefits for everyone
Zhang Chaojiang, from the prefectural science and technology office and stationed in the village for poverty alleviation, came up with an idea. He was quick to dispel their doubts by organizing a visit to Baihualing Village in Baoshan City, also in the Gaoligong reserve, where the villagers had already sensed the potential of this niche market. As proof, an activity held there for three consecutive years since 2016 had attracted the attention of bird watchers from all over the world. Zhang, a photography enthusiast himself, got a glimpse of what the future of his village could be during a trip to Baihualing in 2016.
The visit to Baihualing convinced everyone in Sanhe of the potential of profitability of the business, with the growing awareness of both the beauty and fragility of biodiversity among the general public. To tap into it, the village finally decided to launch its "Bird Valley" in 2018.
The success of the program would have been impossible without the funding of Yuan Kaiyou, a businessman involved in tourism in Zhejiang before returning to Sanhe in 2007 to develop his home village. The participants agreed to set up a system of assigning a certain number of visitors to each local guide according to their interest, allowing all to benefit from the development of the sector in an equitable manner. According to their rough calculations, a tourist easily spends 200 to 300 yuan ($31 to $46) per day on room, transport and other services related to bird watching.
Between January 2019 and September 2020, it welcomed 4,360 visitors from various backgrounds, earning over 200,000 yuan ($30,940) in total. The sales of local agricultural products such as wild mushrooms, honey, and medicinal herbs are also gaining momentum, thanks to the tourism boom.
The attitude of the inhabitants with regard to birds has finally changed. Birds are now considered as a significant source of income that must be taken care of. Today, more than 1,300 people in the village are engaged in the protection of birds. "If anyone dares to come and hunt the birds in the village, everyone will try to stop that instantly," Zhang said.
The value chain of bird tourism is not limited to Sanhe but now covers all other villages in Luzhang Town that administers it. In the coming years, Zhang plans to expand the birding tourism program to neighboring towns. CA
(Printed Edition Title: Flying on Their Own Wings)
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