“The Valley of the Cats”: Snow Leopards and more on the Tibetan Plateau

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“Few places remain where you get a sense of intact nature. A strong presence of apex predators, such as the Snow Leopard, is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. And this place is not just a wildlife experience – the people, the landscape and the wildlife made a lasting impression on me. What a privilege it was to experience The Valley of the Cats.”      – Tormod Amundsen, Biotope

 

With the majestic scenery of the Tibetan Plateau, wonderful culture of the local yak herders and the opportunity to encounter some of the world’s most difficult to see wildlife, the “The Valley of the Cats is a special place.  If you’re looking for an adventure on the roof of the world, this is for you.

In combination with Chinese NGO, ShanShui Conservation Centre, and the Zaduo County local government, Birding Beijing is delighted to offer the opportunity to visit The Valley of the Cats in Qinghai Province on the Tibetan Plateau as part of a unique and cutting edge community-based tourism project.  This spectacular area, part of the Sanjiangyuan (literally “source of three rivers”, referring to the sources of the mighty Mekong, Yellow and Yangtze Rivers) is home to probably the highest density of Snow Leopards on Earth and hosts an incredible array of wildlife including Leopard, Asian Brown Bear, Tibetan Wolf, Lynx, Tibetan Fox, Tibetan Gazelle, Blue Sheep, Pallas’s Cat, Alpine Musk Deer, White-lipped Deer and Glover’s Pika to name a few, as well as range-restricted birds such as Tibetan Bunting, Tibetan Babax, Tibetan Partridge, Szechenyi’s Monal-partridge and White-eared Pheasant.

A limited number of permits are now available for wildlife watching tourism through this community-based tourism project.  Independent travel is not permitted. 

Groups of up to six people in total can be accommodated in home-stays and any visit will include pick-up/drop-off at Yushu airport, a driver/guide, vehicle, accommodation and all meals.

Whilst the focus of these trips is most likely to be looking for Snow Leopards and other sought-after wildlife, other activities can be arranged such as hiking, stargazing and cultural activities.

Wildlife watching tourism in the Valley of the Cats has been designed to benefit the whole community and snow leopard conservation.  Using a strict rotation system, visitors will stay with one of the 22 families in the valley, ensuring that the opportunities to host and guide visitors are shared equally among the local community.  There is a fixed daily fee for accommodation and guiding, agreed with the local government and community leaders, and the income will be distributed as follows:

  • 45% to the host family
  • 45% to a local community fund, run by the community for the benefit of the whole community (this will help to fund things like road maintenance, shared facilities and the community wide ‘insurance scheme’ to compensate families lose yak to predators, such as Snow Leopard, Wolf or Bear).
  • 10% to Snow Leopard conservation projects

Incomes in this community are low and, with a plan to reduce the number of yak due to overgrazing, they are likely to fall.  Hence, wildlife watching tourism is a way for the families to gain additional income that could allow them to maintain their traditional way of life rather than having to leave for the city. Thus any tourist can be sure that their visit, as well as offering the experience of a lifetime, will make a positive contribution to the local community and to snow leopard conservation.

It’s important to stress that a visit to the Valley of the Cats is not for the faint-hearted.  Good physical fitness is a pre-requisite.  The living conditions are very basic with the homes in this area having no running water (except for the river), no bathroom facilities and the food is basic.  The elevation of between 3,800-4,800 metres means that the risk of altitude sickness is very real and we strongly recommend a minimum of 2-3 days acclimatisation before heading to the Valley of the Cats.  Qinghai Lake is an ideal place to acclimatise as it hosts a range of wildlife, some of which is unlikely to be found in the Valley of the Cats, and is a good stepping stone to the higher elevations of Yushu.

Permits are available for every month except June (when the local people harvest the caterpillar fungus).  A code of conduct for visitors applies – downloadable here.

If you are interested in visiting the Valley of the Cats, please see the dedicated website which provides more information and a booking/inquiry form.

Background

Map of Sanjiangyuan
Map of the Sanjiangyuan region (shaded area)

Since 2016 Birding Beijing has been working with ShanShui, a Chinese NGO based at Peking University, and the local government to develop community-based wildlife-watching tourism in a valley close to Yushu, Qinghai Province, on the Tibetan Plateau.  Yushu can be reached in one hour by air from Xining which, in turn, can be reached via Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and other major Chinese cities.

Three pilot trips were run in 2017 and all succeeded in seeing, photographing and videoing Snow Leopards.  We assess that, given three full days in the Valley of the Cats, the chances of encountering Snow Leopards and other special wildlife are good.

At the end of 2018 there will be a review involving the local community, local government and the Snow Leopard researchers to assess whether the tourism should continue and, if so, what the numbers should be for 2019.  The aim is for the wildlife watching tourism to be completely locally run from 2020.

Please note: The area where the Snow Leopards are present is sensitive as it’s in the core area of a national nature reserve and part of the pilot Sanjiangyuan National Park.  Access for foreigners is strictly controlled and independent travel is not permitted.

Valley of the Cats