5 Sept 2017

Qinghai Province - a Snow Leopard Quest, 25th to 30th August 2017

Early morning, south Qinghai Province

We had first heard about the possibility of seeing Snow Leopards in China when we read Terry Townsend’s “Birding Beijing”  blogposts earlier this year.

Of course wild animals don't get more attractive than big cats, so when a chance to join a tour with four other Hong Kong birding friends came up, we jumped at it.  

The trip was organised by China Wild Tour and led by Mengxiu TONG.

The possibility of having to yomp up mountain slopes with lens or telescope at 4000m + elevations had caused us to be cautious about getting used to conditions.

The others flew up to Yushu from Chengdu in the morning of the 25th.

We had a long drive from Yushu City, and arrived as dusk was falling to stay with our hosts for five nights. We had a large tent and camp beds, and meals were taken with our hosts, in an earth-floored room, cooked on a yak-dung fuelled stove.  It was here I regretted that my Tibetan is pretty much limited to "Tashi Delek".

We had brought fruit and vegetables, and these supplemented what appears to be the main Yak herder diet of flat breads, yak butter, roast meat and yoghurt. Some vegetables and barley are grown near the farmsteads.

Generally, it seems that the arduous tasks of looking after the Yak fall to the local women. Milking, herding, calving and just leading the beasts around.

Here's the view with a head torch as I headed to the "facilities" behind the cowshed. It was basic accommodation, but the important thing was that our hosts were very welcoming.

On our first morning we proceeded to the valley clearly recognisable from TT’s "Birding Beijing" video of “Valley of the Cats”...  

Yak Farm
No sooner had the vehicles come to a halt, then we were partly distracted by a party of Tibetan Partridges, but someone called “Snow Leopard” and we all glanced up - partridges forgotten - to where a fluffy large creature was walking from a rocky outcrop back along a grassy ridge. 

"Don't walk over that ridge..." I prayed....

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia
I had the 500mm and 1.4x converter ready and banged these shots off from by the car, no climbing required.  (But the shots are BIG crops.) The Snow Leopard very considerately ambled along our side of the ridge as everyone clattered their kit together to get photos.

The animal was lost to view, and later re-found beneath a rocky outcrop from where we saw it on and off for several hours. It appears that this is a favourite spot for the animal.

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Snow Leopard view

A natural prey for Snow Leopards in south Qinghai is Blue Sheep, but they can, and do, take domesticated Yak.

Blue Sheep - Pseudois nayaur

Finally, the Snow Leopard moved off again in late afternoon, heading for the ridgeline opposite us.

Snow Leopard - Uncia uncia

Success on the first day freed us up to go and admire Tibetan Buntings in another area.  We had two full days for scenery and birding, and returned to the original valley on the fourth day (29th) , where we saw not a whisker of anything feline. This was as predicted by our hosts, who said that, knowing it had been seen on the 26th, the Snow Leopard would not return to that area for a few days.

Still, the scenery was outstanding.

Lammergeier - Gypaetus barbatus

Tibetan Buntings - Emberiza kozlowi

Tibetan Buntings - Emberiza kozlowi

We came across family parties of White Eared Pheasants daily, usually in the late afternoon.  

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

White Eared Pheasant - Crossoptilon crossoptilon

One or two  other species were present to remind us we were birders.

Chinese White-browed Rosefinch - Carpodacus dubius

Common Magpie - Pica pica bottanensis

Pacific Swift - Apus pacificus salimalii

White-throated Dipper - Cinclus cinclus

Red sandstone scenery

Looking back at the trip, I must thank Carrie Ma for inviting us along.

We were very fortunate to get great views of the Snow Leopard and doubly so for getting it so early in the trip. As described in Terry Townsend’s “Birding Beijing”, the Shanshui Conservation Centre hopes to run more tours to the area, with fees for accommodation, food, guiding and transport to supplement local incomes and compensate for Yaks lost to the Snow Leopards.

I hope this works out well.  It will be a delicate act to balance the expectations of more visitors with those of the area’s farming hosts.  Managing the welfare of a shy predator will be harder still.


Added on 8th July 2018 - via Birding Beijing, there's now a "Valley of the Cats" website !

Check it out !  https://valleyofthecats.org


  1. You are a lucky man indeed, John, to have seen one of the world's rarest mammals, to say nothing of the birds and the experience of being with Tibetan people.

    1. Thanks David, with no snow Leopards to fall back on in Canada, we really had to nail this one .....:-)

  2. Amazing to see the Snow Leopard............!

  3. Wow! John, wonderful views and beautiful photograohy. Congratulations on the Snow Leopard and I'm pretty excited about the Lammergeier too!

    1. Thanks Russell, - btw whenever I try to write on your comments it says "You have been timed out". Computers - still a mystery to me.

  4. Snow Leopard is a dream cat of mine, amazing stuff John!

  5. That hurts! Very pleased for you though John- Amazing stuff. Can I join a tour next year ?

    1. Hi WW,
      I suggest to contact https://www.chinawildtour.com - we did it through them as I mentioned at the beginning of the Snow Leopard post.