Article by Justine Shanti Alexander, Regional Ecologist, Snow Leopard Trust. Video by Shan Shui Tibetan staff, Zhala.
In January 2017, I had the opportunity to join the team from Shan Shui, the Chinese partner organization we work with alongside Panthera, on a field trip to Angsai, in Sanjiangyuan Nature Reserve. This area in Qinghai Province, China, is also known as the Three Rivers Nature Reserve, as three of Asia’s major rivers, the Yellow River, Yangtze, and Mekong/Lancang, all originate there.
In Angsai, nomadic herders herd their livestock (primarily yak) alongside wildlife species (such as Ibex, white lipped deer, grey wolf, common leopard), including the elusive snow leopard, in alpine meadows and rocky terrain at altitudes over 4,000 meters.
On this particular day, our team was visiting a new area with the aim of expanding our camera trapping efforts to a wider area (camera trap array set up to monitor snow leopard population). According to local herders, both snow leopards and the common leopard have inhabited the region for as long as they can remember. The village chief explained that retaliatory killing of both species used to occur, as both species were known to kill yak, a primary source of livelihood for herders.
He was hopeful however that retaliatory killing no longer represented a major concern, as the head monks had reminded them that all life was equal and that wildlife should not be killed. The community had come together to set up an Environmental Group, and herders would now patrol the region to help counter poaching and remove snares in the region. The village chief expressed pride that they had snow leopard and leopards in their district and excitement that soon we would be setting up camera traps to monitor the local population.
The air was very cold after a night of snow fall, as the team visited a herder family on the western boundary of the village, facing dramatic rugged habitat where snow leopards had been reportedly observed several times on the mountain slope.
Cairen Nima, a local herder, told us that he had lost two yaks to snow leopards in the past year, yet he was very proud that his pasture hosted the majestic species. After much butter milk tea and snow leopard story telling we headed back down a particularly narrow valley towards Cairen Nima’s home to stay the night with his family, he suddenly became alert. He recommended that we keep our eyes peeled for a sighting of snow leopard. The night was falling – apparently, the best time to catch a glimpse of the mountain ghost. We all became very attentive and quiet, scanning the valley ahead and rugged steep slopes. Then Tenzin suddenly noticed fresh tracks on the frozen valley floor and announced with excitement that the tracks were very fresh – could a snow leopard have just walked by?
Within seconds the words ‘xuebao’ (snow leopard in mandarin) was whispered. To our left, climbing up the rock face, approximately 100 meters away, a snow leopard suddenly appeared.
Not only one but two more snow leopards came out – a family of three (presumably a mother with her sub adults) swiftly climbing up the rock face. Their composure was relaxed and their gaze would occasionally turn down towards us, as if they were watching our movements. For the next twenty minutes the three snow leopards climbed the slope with ease from one rugged outcrop to the next. Finally, they reached the horizon- their silhouettes capturing the sunset as they disappeared over the ridgeline, and then they were gone.
The valley suddenly became quiet as darkness enveloped us, except for our fast heartbeats as we slowly took in what we had witnessed. Cairen Nima smiled at us and said “welcome to my home”.
The Snow Leopard Trust works in China in partnership with Panthera and the Shan Shui Conservation Center.