What a week. Only 6 days after an incredible encounter with Pallas’s Cats near Qinghai Lake, I have been so lucky (again!) to spot not one but two SNOW LEOPARDS near Yushu in Qinghai Province.
Two weeks ago I was invited to participate in the “International Nature Watch Festival of the Mekong River“, organised by the local government and the brilliant conservation organisation, 山水 (Shan Shui). The competition involved teams of 4 who would spend 3 days recording as many species as possible of of mammal, bird and plant in Zaduo County, Qinghai Province. Initially I was due to be one of the judges but, on the first morning of the competition, the organisers asked whether I would join a team of two Beijing students – Zhang Chengxin and Liu Garbo – who didn’t have much experience at bird or mammal watching. Of course, I was delighted.
Each team was provided with a vehicle and local driver. Our driver took us to a stunning valley where we began our list with White Eared Pheasant, Himalayan Marmot and the cute-looking Glover’s Pika. As we walked along the valley, we met a local Tibetan family of yak herders who were the only inhabitants of this stunning site. They invited us in for tea and yoghurt (both delicious!) and we spoke about the wild animals they had seen.
With a herd of around 100 yaks, the family explained that, every year, they lose around 5 of their animals to large predators, mostly Snow Leopard and Wolf. Although they weren’t pleased about losing 5% of their stock annually, they understood the necessity to balance their needs and those of the wild animals, for which they had great respect. They described to us how the Snow Leopards sometimes come down to their house, particularly in winter, and how they had seen them leisurely ambling by their back yard, much to the chagrin of their Tibetan Mastiff!
One of the family members offered to show us a way up the mountain to help us to look for mammals and so, after a generous helping of yak yoghurt, we set off up the mountain.. at 4,500+ m, struggling to keep up with our local companion.
Every few hundred metres we stopped to scan the rocky slopes. We were rewarded with excellent views of Blue Sheep (good for the mammal list), Red-billed Chough, Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture and Wallcreeper. In the heat of the day we thought the chances of seeing any large mammals were slim… Nevertheless, we began to explore the slopes nearby. More Blue Sheep, more vultures and more of the comical Marmots provided entertainment and then, suddenly, through my binoculars, I spotted a suspicious shape on top of a nearby rocky outcrop. I quickly set up the telescope and was shocked to see the head of a Snow Leopard staring back at me.
“Whoaaaa” I gasped, and quickly encouraged the team to look through the telescope in case the big cat decided to bolt. Fortunately, the magnificent cat stayed, seemingly very relaxed and looking around… We watched in awe for more than half an hour before it sloped off the top of the rock and walked down to a sheltered spot below. There, a second shape moved and it was apparent that there was not one but two Snow Leopards! Wow!! It was testament to their camouflage that the second was only seen when it moved. The two cats greeted each other, a ritual that included licking each others fur, and settled down to sleep. We watched them, in awe, for around 2 hours in total, during which time they slept, shuffled around, panted in the heat of the sun and groomed each other. In the late afternoon, knowing it was at least an hour back to camp and I was due to speak at dinner, we decided to leave them in peace. As we walked down the mountain, every few hundred metres, we turned around for another look.. we didn’t want the encounter to end.
I was lucky to have my telescope and iPhone with me so I was able to take some video footage. Despite the distance and the heat haze, I was delighted to be able to record some of our special encounter.
On return to the camp, our sighting was the talk of the tents and earned us an audience with the governor of Zaduo County, Mr Cai Danzhou. Cai explained his ambitions for the area, including becoming a National Park and world-class ecotourism site with limits on tourists, limits on the area open to visitors and prioritising its greatest asset – its wildlife. Mr Cai has been working with the excellent 山水 (Shan Shui) organisation and they have clearly influenced his thinking. The area now has the first human-animal conflict community fund which compensates local people for the loss of livestock to Snow Leopard, Wolf and other predators. Shan Shui has been monitoring the wildlife here with a series of camera traps and recently recorded the mating behaviour of Snow Leopard for the first time. With Snow Leopard, Leopard, Bear, Lynx and Otter all recorded in the area, in addition to the rare plants and birds, it’s a hotspot for biodiversity in a stunning setting of monstrous mountains and spectacular valleys.
It was brilliant to see not only seasoned wildlife watchers at the event – including China’s most famous wildlife photographer, Xi Zhinong, but also young students with bags of enthusiasm for wildlife. And with coverage on national and local TV and in newspapers, the event did a great deal to celebrate the world-class wildlife of this beautiful corner of Qinghai Province. I can’t wait to return!
I’d like to acknowledge my teammates, Liu Garbo and Zhang Chengxin, for their fun company – their reaction at seeing the Snow Leopards was something to behold. I really hope to see you guys again in Beijing for some birding! And big thanks to 山水 for inviting me. It’s a real shot in the arm to meet such a dedicated, passionate and professional bunch of people. Looking forward to working with you guys in the future – lots of potential for some very exciting conservation and public engagement projects.