Tibetan mammal madness on the rooftop of the world

Written by my good friend Jan Kelchtermans

Visit his website via http://www.europesbig5.com/

This lengthy travel report takes you on our recent journey to the high altitudes of Qinghai (China) where wild snow leopards, pallas's cats, yaks, wolves, lynx and countless other mammals and birds still roam freely in vast, unspoilt nature. I don't exaggerate when I say that every day we had hysterical, jaw-dropping moments of joy. Have fun reading our most exciting moments in the endless landscapes of remote China!

A lone Himalayan wolf looking at us just meters away from our vehicle. Two hours before we had an actual pack of them in front of our car in plain daylight, crossing the road. Insane experience!

Pallas's cat kitten in its hide

Part 1 - Traveling to and arriving on the roof of the world

After two days of the inevitable international hassle of waiting in terminals, security checks, customs, international and domestic flights plus an overnight stay in Chengdu, we finally set foot on the Tibetan Plateau. Given the fact that Chengdu is 400 meters above sea level the arrival in Yushu, at 3600 meters above sea level, was quite a shock. It felt a bit like being drunk without drinking alcohol!

Tibetan Fox hunting meters away from where we were standing on the road

However, as none of us really felt ill or had a headache, we decided to visit the local monastery, strolled a bit around town near the local square and, in the evening, did some birdwatching in the vicinity of the river and adjacent agriculture fields.

Jan approaching the monastery in Yushu

Fantastic colours and incredible eye for detail

The temple had many offerings like these quartz stones

The evening birding sessions went smooth. Seeing both Himalayan and Bearded Vultures, Pallas’s gull and Fork-tailed Swifts were the most obliging species present above our heads. Abundant terrestial birds species were Rufous-necked Snowfinch, Humes Groundpecker, Blue-fronted Redstart and Little Owl. Mammalwise it was the numerous Plateau Pikas getting our attention.

A Plateau Pika - we saw hundreds on our trip

Part 2 - Towards Zhidoi

Though still in a landscape affected by human development while transferring to Zhidoi we soon noticed the typical character of the plateau: vast and endless treeless hills stretching all the way to the horizon. Being out for the first time in a new country is always a pleasant experience as both unknown landscapes and wildlife offer a lot of new stuff to look out for. During our roadside breakfast stop we spotted our first Himalayan Marmots, Tibetan Gazelles, Red and Tibetan Foxes. Species we would come across daily over the next days.

Tibetan Gazelle at dusk - a common sight around Zhidoi

Once in Zhidoi, we dropped our gear in the hotel and went straight to the Snow Leopard mountains that were only a 45 minutes drive away. Although Tibetan farmers and their domesticated Yak herds still dominated the road side valleys, the landscape blended well by its character of raw nature. Especially the vast cordillera of bare mountain summits with steep cliffs appeared very wild. Because of the vast distances the use of our spotting scopes was vital. Two places offered good views over the surrounding hills, and we used them to get familiar with the area. Although this was undoubtedly an area offering a high potential of finding both target species it was still a challenge. Pallas’s Cat and Snow Leopard were seen here close to the road in winter time but not in summer.

Part 3 - The first snow leopard

Some quick field sketches of what we saw through the telescope

The rocky area where we were searching for hours to find snow leopards

Detlef's description of the observation:

On our second day of being in prime snow leopard territory, we (myself, Jan, Ronan and our guide Zi Zi) decided to strategically scan a slope where this cat had been seen in the past. I decided to use a technique that I successfully applied in the past; scan the mountains like reading the sentences of a book, from left to right and paying very good attention to unusual shapes. Over and over again. After one hour this holy moment happened when I recognised the shape of a snow leopard head, staring in the distance. It was hundreds of meters away and nearly invisible, but I could point out a Snow Leopard laying on a ridge with only a front paw and part of the head visible. In a split second I managed to gather the others around my spotting scope to get them to see it too.

Snow Leopard as seen through our spotting scope, sleeping

Snow leopard as seen through our spotting scope, walking over the ridge of the mountain

Although already late afternoon, it took a while to see more of the animal that kept on sleeping, only lifting its head every now and then, looking across the lower valley where a herd of Bharal were grazing. Looking at the position where it was lying down we crossed our fingers that the animal would stay on our side of the summit once it became active. Initially the animal decided to start its evening stroll on the wrong site of the summit as it walked off out of view for us. To our great relief however, it reappeared a bit later back on our side and now in full view! What a massive looking animal! Including the long thick tail, about 2.5 metres in size for sure! The animal eventually disappeared out of view once it started to descend from the summit. We left the area with our satisfaction levels maxed out.

Happy faces on the afternoon we saw Tibetan wolves and a Snow Leopard

As the organiser of our trip, it was all about having another wildlife experience that could match the feeling of my personal Snow Leopard discovery in Hemis NP, India - back in the autumn of 2012. An atmospheric report of that once in a lifetime observation is available on my EB5 website (link at top). These days, Snow Leopards are seen annually in the Indian Himalayas. Incredible reports full of crazy sightings and pictures are no longer a surprise, something really great to witness and read about in an age of extinction. But observations like this aren’t limited to India anymore. For several years Snow Leopards have been spotted in Mongolia and China. Moreover, especially those from the Chinese Tibetan Plateau, these reports are saturated with numerous sightings of different and other iconic mammal species like the bizarre and beautiful looking Pallas’s Cat, the massive Wild Yak and the enigmatic looking Tibetan Antelope.

Being a bit addicted to wild cat species, the Pallas’s Cat ('PC') was my goal and target no. 1 for several years and, to be honest, the observations we had were far beyond my expectations! There was initial stress when the first of our four Pallas’s Cat observations we had during the trip was missed by me. But not the other three we had!

Home of the 3 (!) felid species we saw!

The morning after our first Snow Leopard sighting, we posted ourselves near a stake-out were Plateau Pikas occurred in very high densities. We had 4 different Tibetan Foxes hunting on the spot, crazy! To get a wider and better view of the area, I posted myself a bit further away from where the others stood. This - of course - was a bad idea! As soon as Ronan and Detlef were making large gestures, I knew what was going on. ‘They must have seen a Pallas’s Cat!’ And they had! But the animal was seen only briefly moving up the slope in its typical stealth mode. It was actually disturbed by a local Tibetan Yak herder driving by on his motorcycle between where we stood and the cat's location. Despite the brief observation and quick disappearance, the cat was definitely somewhere near. Several attempts looking from different positions failed in finding it again.

As the day moved on, our focus on this stake-out faded a bit. We all started to look around in a 360° angle in the vicinity of our 4WD vehicle. I was scanning some rocky outcrops similar to the site where the invisible Pallas’s Cat was hiding. The result was surreal! Totally unexpected and out of the blue, I located another most wanted member of the felidae family in my binoculars. Swapping straight to Detlef’s scope, I pointed out the animal and yelled “I’ve got a Lynx!”. Still feeling pleased, fortunate and excited about our recent Snow Leopard observation, we again went all mad! Another moment of intense 'yeahs', high fives, raised fists, jumping around and hugging each other - even for me who has 10+ sightings of these holy grails on my personal cat list! Compared to the Pallas's Cat, this cat was way too big and had no cover around him! When we spotted it, the lynx was sitting on its haunches facing the sun.

This animal was amazing; powerful musculature, long body & legs, large furry paws, pointed ears with tufts at the tips and a long, white facial “ruff”. Due to the bright sunlight it was facing, its coat appeared reddish on its hind parts. The black body spots were less numerous than the animals I observed in Poland. White coloured underparts, as with their European relatives, including the neck and chin.

Sketches of our Lynx sighting

After hours of looking at it, watching it sleep and move, it eventually disappeared behind the summit. What an incredible observation.

After having some successful days in Zhidoi, we slowly headed towards our next destination, Budongquan. It was a trip that would take 9 hours easily, driving through vast, endless plateaus with new target species like Wild Ass, Tibetan Antelope, Wild Yak and Argali.

Yak road blocks were becoming part of our daily routine

Half way our transfer to Budongquan, we stopped to witness a local horse race that was going on. Rules were easy but crazy for the horses: 10 rounds around a square race track. The difficulty for the riders was keeping their horses in the fastest trot continuously. If a horse went into a gallop it was disqualified immediately. For the riders, without having the comfort of a saddle, it was all about keeping their balance on the horse. In the end the horse in the best physical condition and the best rider won. It looked cruel as these horses were breathing their lungs out.

Fortunately, as some of the horses just didn’t make it to the end, their empathic riders just aborted the race! Even though their lung tissue is adapted to use every bit of available oxygen efficiently, there is just not enough air to breath at an altitude of 4000 metres above sea level to run such races. At least that was our opinion even if the locals really enjoyed it!

Spectators watching the horse race

After enjoying this remarkable festivity we moved on. At a small restaurant in a rural town a resident eldery couple prepared one of many tasty hot lunches we had during our trip: fresh, full of vegetables and very cheap.

Exciting news during the meal was our driver’s information about a site nearby where he had seen a Pallas’s Cat earlier. Once at the site, it was the road side slope that looked promising as the area was literally drenched with Plateau Pikas. They were just everywhere! It clearly was just a matter of who would find it first, not 'if' we would find it. An area with such an abundance of prey had to host a cat!

And indeed, it happened very quickly as our driver suddenly pointed out a Pallas’s Cat he spotted through his binoculars! What we then witnessed was a ‘Planet Earth’ experience. A real hunting scene seen through our own binoculars and scopes for 45 minutes! Being surrounded by Pikas, the Pallas’s Cat’s senses were triggered in an almost hysterical way. The cat did not know where to look first and which individual pika to focus on, its bizarre striped head looking into all directions with whiskers motoring and a twitching, its tail tip moving up and down, left and right. While moving in stealth mode it would take two steps forward and one step back etc. After a few unsuccessful raids the cat finally succeeded in grabbing and pulling a pika out of its burrow where the unfortunate rodent had tried to hide. Proud of its catch of the day, the Pallas’s Cat moved off with the pika in its mouth a bit away from the killing scene. This time not in stealth mode but in a more upright posture with its tail held out straight. At some point it was even chasing a red fox! Spectacular wildlife observation again.

Part 4 - A constant variety of beautiful, mostly horned ungulates

Our roadside hotel in literally the middle of nowhere, near Budongquan. This was the least comfortable bed we ever slept in, but the food was always very good and so cheap!

Detlef: "During our trip to Budongquan, we actually managed to see already two target species in their natural environment; the Wild ass ('Kiang') and the Tibetan antelope."

The valley of the wild Yaks

"The Tibetan antelopes especially were a unique wildlife experience. These are living in such remote areas, but are still being hunted illegally for their fur. Indeed, the profits coming from this natural resource are huge. 'Shahtoosh' scarfs made from this antelope's fur sell for more than 20000 US dollars in the western world, and each year loads of illegal shipments are confiscated by border patrol. National Geographic published an interesting article about this secretive industry: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/04/tibetan-antelope-killed-to-make-luxury-scarves/"

Wild ass or 'Kiang' in the endless landscapes of Budongquan

Saker Falcons

One of the very few photos we got from the enigmatic Tibetan antelopes.

Bactrian camel (feral), fantastic atmosphere to see these in such a natural landscape

In contrast with the cats, all the potential ungulate species we encountered during the trip didn’t take any real effort to find. Only exception to this maybe were both herds of Argali sheep and an Alpine Muskdeer. The Argali were 6 impressive males we suddenly encountered while we were busy photographing a playful, young Mountain Weasel near an abandoned shed at the entrance of the Wild Yak valley. Very typical of these large horned sheep is their behaviour of keeping their distance. As soon as they notice humans approaching they run off. Pretty much a mission impossible to get close to them.

The only Alpine Muskdeer was seen by chance during a morning session when exploring the other side of Zhidoi. However, all other ungulate species were seen frequently and in good numbers near the road or while scanning from vantage points: Tibetan Gazelles, Blue Sheep, Tibetan Wild Ass, Tibetan Antelopes, White-lipped Deer and even Wild Yak.

Our first encounter with Wild Yak was a small bachelor group that was part of a larger herd nearby. It was definitely one of the many highlights during our trip.

To establish dominance and hierarchy, one of the bulls showed non-violent threat display towards the others by bellowing and scraping the ground with its horns. These are very large and heavily built animals with a bulky wither, sturdy legs and rounded cloven hooves. And their horns were so big! Sweeping out from the sides of the head, they curved forward ranging around 75 cm in length.

Wild yak are huge. They are much bigger than the domestic yaks

PC observation 3:

During one afternoon, we managed our 3rd and 4th PC sighting while exploring the far side of the Zhidoi mountain range. This area became one of our favourite hang outs as it looked so pristine and beautiful.

Amazing Pallas's cat kittens by their den. It was such a privilege to be with them and to witness their curious, playful behaviour

We were glad to be on these more remote roads as the common roads were always an adventure. Either we had to pray for your lives because of crazy drivers or we were regarded as celebrities by sometimes quite obtrusive locals who wanted to take selfies with us!

It was Ronan this time who from the back seat spotted a female Pallas’s Cat low on a slope in front of us. It had obviously just finished a successful hunt as it had a pika in its mouth. As we stopped, it walked up the hill towards the ridge where at a cave entrance there were two kittens sitting. After a short scope session we took our camera gear and walked up hill and positioned ourselves behind some large boulders in front of the cave. After a couple of minutes one curious kitten came out of the cave to watch us for a moment. Unfortunately it didn’t stay out long. It was the middle of the day and we were out in the open on a very hot and sunny day, both the kittens and us couldn’t cope with the situation. So we decided to retreat from the scene. Returning in the afternoon would be a better idea.

Once back near the Pallas’s Cat denning area in the afternoon, we first scoped the scene from a distance. The mother, spying us straight away, promptly moved on top of a vertical boulder nearby but soon vanished. Both kittens kept sitting just in front of the cave mouth. We approached the cave from a much wider angle trying to disturb the kittens as little as possible.

As soon as we were seated behind the same boulders as before both curious kittens came out to watch us this time. One of them couldn’t find a good position and was struggling a bit trying to be as close to its sibling as possible while keeping an eye on the strange looking, camera clicking creatures in front of him! Truly a magical experience of this very rare cat species. Pallas’s Cat mission accomplished 100%!

Part 5 - Ending with Snow Leopards near a kill

Before returning to Yushu, we spent one last full day in our beloved Zhidoi area. Being totally satisfied and happy with all observations so far we spent our last evening near the stake out where we located the Snow Leopard. However, looking from a different angle now, I now located a Snow Leopard looking shape sitting on its haunches in the typical sphinx posture! It even turned out that this individual was accompanied by another Snow Leopard, and that they had just made a kill (blue sheep)! Unbelievable excitement when we discovered this.

A few hundred meters away, so only blurry photos, but this scene I will never forget

Part 6 - A healthy ecosystem

Being in the field we have never witnessed an area so full of rodents. Plateau Pikas were literally eveywhere with at some specific places, their abundancy was almost a plague. On every square meter several individuals were foraging, shouting alarm calls or just running in between burrows. As females can produce 2 to 5 litters of 2 to 7 offspring with a three-week interval in between each litter, not surprisingly, this group of lagomorphs are known to have the fastest growth rates of their order. Their abundancy resulted in good numbers of some specific birds of prey - Upland Buzzards and especially Saker Falcon sightings were remarkably common.

Glover’s Pika, endemic to China, was seen too but less abundant and always spotted near rocky clefts.

The most striking birds found in shingle-bed river valleys were Ibisbills

As mentioned before, like with rodents, several bovid species occurred in good population numbers. This resulted in good numbers of different and larger birds of prey. Nowhere else before had we encountered such high numbers of Bearded and Himalayan Vultures. It must be said however that countless numbers of domestic yak herds resulted in a lot of unnatural carcasses. Golden Eagles and Black Vulture were observed too.

Although biodiversity amongst bird species in general is not that high on the plateau some terrestial bird families were very abundant in gorges and near rivers: snowfinches, accentors, redstarts, rosefinches and ground jays.

It's reassuring to witness that not all pristine nature is being lost. This area is so remote it can still thrive mostly undisturbed, with many healthy predator-prey populations.

Part 6 - Gear and mindset

The vast plateau landscape is heaven for those eager to scan. we have to admit that being equipped with good optical gear does really increase your chances of being successful in finding wildlife. A combination of Swarovski binoculars, attached with an adapter to a tripod combined with a Swarovski spotting scope really improved the quality of our observations. It must be said that this sort of trip also requires skill to spot anomalies during long scanning sessions and you have to be mentally prepared for any outcome, under any weather condition. Wildlife was abundant here yes, but doesn't come served on a plate. It's both putting those long and countless miles on the road and the scanning that does bring you the wanted results. Despite one Pallas’s Cat, all the target species we located were personal discoveries without the help of our local guide. Should you go there I'd recommend taking someone who loves scanning for long periods and is equipped with good optics.

Part 7 - Logistics, high altitude and what to bring

Although we didn't mind as much, be prepared for different standards of accommodation compared to those in Europe or safari lodges worldwide. Beds are hard everywhere, hot water isn’t always available and rooms not always clean. A some places things are really basic with toilets/bathrooms that are pretty dirty. But again we were out there to see wildlife in the first place. Enjoying comfort is something to like when at home. Also the catering standards are different to those in Europe. Food can be really spicy although they say it’s not! Be prepared to eat a lot of rice, soup, noodles and nuts. Forget about continental breakfast. We always had cereal or oatmeal in the morning, took a prepared meal from a supermarket with us for lunch and, in the evening, went to locals restaurants (which fortunately were super good usually). As all ingredients are cooked in woks and boiled in frying pans on high temperatures, the chances to get an upset stomach are slim. None of us were sick because of the food. Overall, we didn't suffer from altitude sickness though our first night was unpleasant with headaches, feeling dizzy and having a bad sleep. As days moved on we got used to the high altitude but as soon as we walked a bit faster - especially uphill - we just couldn’t inhale enough oxygen to feel comfortable. Fortunately most sightings were done near the car which made things a lot less demanding! Apart from binoculars, spotting scopes and a lot of patience, don’t forget to take a small chair with you which is ideal to break the long periods of standing when scanning. Take sunglasses, a good sunscreen and a cap! The sun really burns here.

And take a guardian angel with you: traffic can be very dangerous!

Report and pictures © Jan Kelchtermans and Detlef Tibax www.europesbig5.com


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