Our Chinese field braced the bitter cold of the Tibetan Plateau to set out research cameras and was rewarded with a rare sighting of four snow leopards at once – a mother with two cubs and a male cat.
Adapted from a report PhD student Lingyun Xiao
Suojia, a township located west of Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve, is a place where the wildest nature remains. People moved to this county merely 50 years ago due to an expanding population in other areas. However, the strong winds and cruel coldness of this township are not the most conducive conditions for human inhabitation, which is why we can have numerous wildlife living there, including the mysterious ‘mountain ghost’ snow leopard.
Even though spring is on its way in most places of the plateau, winter persists in Suojia as if it will never go away. Our first day was quite sunny and the low temperature didn’t bother us too much.
However, as night fell, the wind began to howl, sounding as if thousands of monsters were shouting together. We struggled to crawl out of our sleeping bags the next morning, knowing it will be a tough day out in the field.
After a whole day fighting with the wind and snow, we succeeded in setting out several camera traps and also observed a lot of animal tracks, including those of two brown bears which led to dens.
This kind of weather is hard for us, but it’s ideal for snow leopards that are looking to hunt. All day we kept our eyes busy, hoping to witness a snow leopard hunting for wild prey. We had almost given up hope when we caught a glimpse of two figures sneaking along a cliff. The big tails could undoubtedly only belong to one animal: the mountain ghost.
Slowly the pair climbed up, and just then we saw the third one! A snow leopard walked quite elegantly in front of where we were. It crossed the icy river, and didn’t even bother to give us a glance. Snow leopards are just like this: always keep their own pace, as confident as a king.
We thought it had to be a mother, since the first two who crossed, waiting for this last one to join them. They reunited on the slope, and beyond our expectation, they began to walk toward us. Only when we spotted the body of a dead yak on the other side of river bank did we realize what is attracting them. They walked very cautiously and finally stopped to wait.
We prepared to leave not wanting to interrupt the family dinner, when our Tibetan field assistant, Douxiujia, noticed all of the three leopards looked up. Suddenly, the snow leopard who we assumed to be the mother jumped up and crossed the river again.
She walked along the valley as one of the younger cats jumped up and ran after her, disappearing behind a big rock. The young cat hesitated, and just then we followed its gaze and saw a fourth snow leopard walking down the slope.
From the face and shape we guessed it was a mid-age male, the real king of the territory. The big male didn’t seem to be bothered by the presence of the other cats and just kept on moving towards yak carcass on the river bank. We never did see the female cat and her possible cub ever emerge from their original hiding post.
This is the first time in the field we observed the interaction among different snow leopards. It was interesting to see intimidations not only coming from other species, but from inside the population as well. I guess as a snow leopard, it would say, I’m just a big cat struggling for everyday life.
All photos courtesy of Shan Shui and Peking University