A quest for cats and ungulates on the Tibetan Plateau
An atmospheric report of our China trip is added to the EB5 report chapter!
For Jan it was all about having another wildlife experience equal with the feeling of his 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 the EB5 website (report chapter). For several years Snow Leopards have been spotted too in Mongolia and China. Moreover, especially those from the Chinese Tibetan Plateau, these reports are topped with numerous sightings of different and other iconic mammal species like the bizzare and beautiful looking Pallas’s Cat, the massive Wild Yak and the enigmatic looking Tibetan Antelope. So actually the intention to get out to the Tibetan plateau was already made just after Jan’s first Hemis experience. Though, mainly because of being occupied by EB5 guiding, it took way too long in effectively doing it. But nothing wrong in dreaming is there? Being a bit felid addicted, the Pallas’s Cat was Jan’s goal and target number one for several years and, to be honest, this dream was fullfilled far beyond all expectations! Actually the complete trip was an extravanganza of wildlife! China really is an outstanding destination for those eager to search and find enigmatic animals!
A first remarkable and fantastic discovery of this trip on our first full day in core area 1. Rather distantly and nearly invisible, a sleeping Snow Leopard was laying on a ridge with only a front paw and part of the head visible. As the afternoon slipped by into evening the Snow Leopard started to become active. Aferwards the massive beast started its evening stroll up to the top of the massive mount where it was scraping, spraying and looking to some Blue Sheep in the near valley. Continuing its stroll to the top, we felt priviledged in observing territorial marking behavior.
Last evening, we again located a Snow Leopard looking shape sitting on its haunches in that typical cat like sphinx way of sitting. Apparantly, as the shape started to move, it was a Snow Leopard! Quite soon we noticed that it was actually present near a kill. As the animal approached the kill very carefully and alert, it soon became clear another Snow Leopard was nearby! Interaction between both animals present nearby the kill pure magic to watch! Next morning 2 Bearded Vultures, 5 Himalayan Griffon Vultures and 2 Ravens were eating the carcass reminents.
The first of four Pallas’s Cat observations The morning after our first Snow Leopard sighting, we posted ourselves near a stake out were Plateau Pikas occured in very high densities. In a sudden moment we had 4 different Tibetan Foxes hunting on the spot. To get a wider and better view of the spot, Jan posted himself a bit further away from where the others stood. This undoubtly was a bad idea! As soon Ronan was making obvious gestures, Jan 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 were we stood and the cat. Despite the brief observation and quick disappearance, the cat was definately somewhere near by. Nevertheless, several attempts looking from different positions failed in refinding it. Despite many more days to come, wildlife people perfectly know the psychological thoughts begining in Jan’s mind: “am I gonna dip this one”? Anyway despite Jan’s mind spinnings as the day moved on our focus on this stake out faded a bit. We all started to look around in a 360° angle from the vicinity of our 4WD vehicle. Doing that, Jan scanned rocky outcrops looking similar to the site where the invisible Pallas’s Cat was hiding. The result was surreal! He, totally unexpected and out of the blue, located another most wanted member of the felidae family in his binoculars. Swapping straight to Detlef’s scope, he pointed out the animal and spoke the words: “I’ve got a Lynx!” Still feeling pleased, fortunate and excited about our recent Snow Leopard obervation, we again all went mad!
Another moment of intense yeahs, high fives, raised fists, jumping around and hugging each other – even Jan who has 10+ sightings of these holy grails on his personal cat list! Different from the Pallas’s Cat earlier this cat couldn’t escape! Way too big and no cover around! When spotted, the lynx was sitting on its haunches facing the sun. Although distant, besides the obvious jizz, the following distinctive features were visible in our scopes: powerful, relatively long, legs, large well furred paws, large pointed ears wih tufts at the tips and a long, white facial “ruff”. Due to the bright sunlight it was facing into its coat appeared red coloured on its hind parts. The black body spots were less numerous than the animals observed by Jan in Poland. White coloured underparts, as with their European relatives, including the neck and chin. Very obvious, the coat looked thicker furred. Given Jan’s field experience, to him the animal gave the impression of a very large, winter coated individual. As soon as we all had the animal in our scopes, the cat started to move showing more features: short body, large feet and the typical short “bobbed” tail with an all-black tip. While moving, its rear limbs were obviously longer than the front ones, giving the body a tilted forward look. Although being present in bare but rocky country, the animal managed to disappear in the endless slanted landscape. Fortunately, we quickly relocated it a bit higher up the slope where, after a second stroll up slope, it lay down to start lavating its fur. Amazing to see such a rare animals laying down licking its paws, back, chest and genitals. Afterwards the animal curled up and appeared to go to sleep. So time to focus again on the Pallas’s Cat site. But as that one decided to stay hidden, from late afternoon onwards it was, of course, the lynx again that earned all our observations. It stood up, looking around now and then but never during the whole afternoon leave its resting spot. As with the Snow Leopard earlier, serial yawnings announced the lynx becoming active again. The animal started its afternoon stroll rather quickly and went up the slope, ignoring a fenced area by just crawling underneath, to eventually disappear behind a curve on the summit. So, overall a superb observation of a third member of the felid family within 24 hours and, especially for Ronan, an unexpected bonus after three fruitless attempts for Eurasian lynx in Poland!
The 2nd of four Pallas’s Cat observations Half way on the journey to Budongquan, we stopped to watch a local horse race that was going on. Rules were easy but crazy for the horses: 10 rounds around a square race track. Difficulty for the riders was keeping the horse in its fastest trotting mode all the time. If the horse went into a gallop it was disqualified straight away. For the riders, without having the comfort of a saddle, it was all about keeping their balance on the horse. In the end the horsein the best physical condition and best rider won. A bit cruel while the race was on were horses 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! Despite being adapted to absorb every bit of available oxygen, 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!
After enjoying this remarkable festivity we moved on. At a small restaurant in a rural town en route 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! Although something in Jan’s mind was whispering something else it clearly was all about who would be the one finding our target first. This 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. Not a DVD episode but a real hunting scene seen through our own binoculars and scopes for 45 minutes! Being surrounded by an agile version of ‘an-all-you-can-eat-buffet’ the Pallas’s Cat’s senses were all triggered. The cat not knowing where to look or what individual pika to focus on as its bizarre striped head looked in all directions with whiskers motoring and a twitching upperlip, 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 and vice versa. 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 stance with its tail held out straight. After eating its lunch half hidden underneath an overhanging bank the cat sat relaxed with, now and then, its mouth slightly open. Nice too was its anticipation on alarm calls produced by the numerous nearby Himalayan Marmots. It looked up and around to detect potential enemies. After resting a bit the cat went again into hunting mode but this time just briefly and not really with any intent. Then it started to patrol all the way up the slope trying to find a resting refuge. Entering a burrow situated underneath an overhanging turf bank we thought the scene was over but, as a Red fox appeared from the same burrow the scene went on. The cat, first chasing the fox away, continued its stroll further along the slope where it quickly dissappeared in what, from our view point, must have been a vertical burrow. What a show, an outstanding parade of Jan’s number one target!
While witnessing this superb sighting, we had plenty of time to study its colours and physical characters. Feature wise, the combination of its dense fur, short legs, very low and wide apart positioned ears, flat looking face and unusually short toes resulted in a stocky, stout and plush general appearance. Colourwise, its cheeks appeared white with narrow black stripes running from the corners of the eyes. Its dense summer fur appeared strikingly pattered with a combination of ochre patches and dark vertical bars on the body and forelegs.
Pallas’s Cat observations 3 & 4 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. More over, being off tarmac and gravel roads, there was no annoying passing traffic with locals getting crazy with shooting selfies surrounded by tall European strangers! Yes, sometimes we felt like celebreties plagued by obtrusive Tibetan residents!
So, feeling liberated, it was Ronan this time who from the back seat spotted a female Pallas’s Cat low down on a slope in front of us. It had obviously just finished a successfull 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 was two kittens sitting. After a short scope session we took our camera gear and walked up hill and postioned 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.
Being in an area all day with a high potential for mammals we continued to scan at random on the same road further into the endless landscape. Remarkably, quite soon, Jan spotted another Pallas’s Cat, a male, on a slope in the same valley. Just crazy to find such a rarely spotted animal in such a short interval after the denning scene we just had! Although behaving less stressed in its behaviour, this cat showed like the one we had earlier en route to Budongquan. Judging by its speed this animal was obviously prowling. Great to observe its natural behaviour for about half an hour. Although distant this individual’s striking characteristics were a combination of ochre patches and dark vertical bars on the body and forelegs plus its white cheeks with narrow black stripes running from the corners of the eyes. Along with its stocky, stout and plush general appearance of course no other cat looks as bizarre as this one!
Although we were actually scanning the area hoping to locate a Himalayan Brown Bear, two more goodies, Asian Badger and a Tibetan Wolf, were spotted by Jan while continuing on the same road. As being way too hot, the bears didn’t show up. The badger sighting was the only we had during our trip. The wolf, our 3rd encounter so far during the trip, was busy hunting pikas.
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 less as possible. Which we managed rather well! 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%!
Full report by clicking on the below link:
August 2021 Jan will return guiding to the Tibetan Plateau. According new site info, this forthcoming trip could even be better! All details on demand by sending an email!