Six weeks ago, working with ShanShui Conservation Center, I finished the latest round of training for the host families in the Valley of the Cats in Qinghai Province as part of the community-based wildlife tourism project. Before leaving, I spent an afternoon high up in the mountains, where I set up a camera trap along the edge of a crag. Two days ago, I retrieved it. The memory card was full and included more than 1,800 images. I was excited but at the same time wary that I may have 1,800 photos of a blade of grass waving in the wind, triggering the camera trap’s motion sensor!
As I looked through the images, I was not prepared for what I was about to see. Many of the photos were of a cute GLOVER’S PIKA, busily preparing for winter by gathering vegetation and placing it in its den.
A TIBETAN SNOWCOCK was a joy to see, strutting along the rocks..
This was shortly followed by a group of BLUE SHEEP, a wonderful ungulate that roams these mountains in large groups, often 100+ strong.
Then, after checking around 500 photos, suddenly I had a surprise.. a SNOW LEOPARD! The spectacular series of five photos show what I believe to be a fresh-faced young animal walking closer and closer to the camera before appearing to look right into the lens… spectacular!
I could not have wished for a better result!
This Snow Leopard was caught on camera in a part of the valley previously not known to hold this species, so it’s helpful information to the ShanShui scientists working in the area.
The last two weeks have been a busy time for the Valley of the Cats with five groups of visitors staying with local families as part of the community-based tourism project. The groups included Professor Per Alström and his brother Klas, Beijing-based Ben Wielstra and Jan-Erik Nilsen, Alan Babington-Smith and Melinda Liu from the Royal Asiatic Society, as well as James Eaton and Rob Hutchinson from BirdTour Asia who visited with Dan Brown and his wife Rachael Iveson-Brown. Roland Zeidler visited with Fiona Fyfe and John MacKinnon accompanied us for a few days before heading to a birding festival in Yushu. Finally, the day before I left, Yann Muzika, Abdelhamid Bizid, Yong Ding Li, Irene Dy and Summer Wong began their 4-day visit.
I’m delighted to say that, thanks to their supreme efforts in scanning endless ridges and crags, Per’s, James’s and Roland’s groups were successful in seeing, and recording video, of Snow Leopard in two different places, as well as spotting Wolf, Lynx, White-lipped and Alpine Musk Deer, Woolly Hare and Himalayan Marmot. As I write this, I have just heard that Yann’s group has also been successful with two separate sightings of Snow Leopard.
To give you a sense of the place, here’s a selection of photos from last week.
Huge thanks to all the visitors for being such great company last week and for supporting this fledgling community-based tourism project.
Reading this, you may think that seeing Snow Leopards in the Valley of the Cats is easy. I can assure you it’s not. Really not. Unless one is supremely lucky to encounter one close to the road (which is possible), it can take many many hours of scanning rocks and ridges in the seemingly endless suitable habitat to find one. But that elusiveness is surely part of the charm of the Snow Leopard. However, even if you don’t see a Snow Leopard, the spectacular scenery, wonderful local culture and the array of other special mammals and birds make any visit an unforgettable experience.
If you’re interested in visiting the Valley of the Cats and supporting the community-based tourism project, please check out the website. Please be warned – conditions are basic: no toilets, no running water and no heating – so the Valley is not for the faint-hearted. However, if you are prepared to live like a yak herder for a few days, you will have a truly authentic experience. 100% of the revenue stays in the community, so visitors can be confident they are supporting the local people and conservation while enjoying the trip of a lifetime.