The Valley of the Cats may sound like a mythical place but in reality, it’s a real-life haven for studying snow leopards on the Tibetan Plateau. We know that a lack of poaching due to local Buddhist beliefs combined with responsible ecotourism contributes to the healthy population of these elusive cats. In return, the cats serve as ghostlike sentinels for the health of these pristine ecosystems. What we don’t know, and are aiming to find out, is the relationship snow leopards have with the local landscape.
As a Ph.D. student working on range-wide snow leopard genetics, my research combines field and laboratory efforts to better understand where and how snow leopard populations persist across all 12 range countries. A vastly collaborative project, I work with many groups (and with the generous support of the Panthera Sabin Grant program and the Panthera Snow Leopard program) using noninvasive genetic techniques to better understand snow leopard gene flow (and therefore movement) across the mountains of Central Asia. Part of this research involves collaborating with researchers on various other project efforts, including field work. This past summer, I visited the beautiful slice of heaven known as the Valley of the Cats for the second time to work alongside Chinese conservationists, but got much, much more than I bargained for.
The Tibetan Plateau is the largest and highest plateau in the world. Often called the “roof of the world,” this region is surrounded by massive mountain ranges and some of the most beautiful ecosystems on the planet. In western China, the Plateau includes the Valley of the Cats, named for the high density of predators, including snow leopards, it supports. ShanShui Conservation Center, a Chinese non-governmental organization based at Peking University, has been working alongside the local community to study the snow leopards in this region and to build a responsible eco-tourism program that employs local families to foster a greater appreciation of local biodiversity. To learn more about their field efforts and community-based conservation project, I spent several weeks with this longtime Panthera collaborator at their research station to assist with efforts aiming to protect snow leopards through targeted action. At the top of my to-do list: to see a snow leopard!
In most parts of their range, it is very difficult to spot these elusive cats. Not only are snow leopards incredibly secretive, but their spotted coats are the perfect camouflage against the rocky mountainscapes where they reside. However, in this valley, a high density of cats coupled with peaceful co-existence alongside the Tibetan herders means good chances of glimpsing this mountain ghost. After several days of checking camera traps and searching for snow leopards, our group started one sunny morning by driving to an area where a resident female snow leopard regularly hunts. It was mid-July, which meant her cubs should be around 6 weeks old, and she’d need to hunt to maintain her milk production. As we drove down the dirt road carved through the mountains, our faces glued to our binoculars, I strained my eyes for any sign of movement. Unsurprisingly, our spotting expert Terry, who has seen 21 snow leopards to date, suddenly shouted “There!” I spun around, searching, but the ghost had disappeared behind the mountain before I could spot her.
Eventually, we set up our spotting scopes (a portable, high-powered telescope on a tripod) along the small road, across the river from the mountain, and waited. A single marmot was issuing an alarm call over and over. Like many prey species, marmots use these calls to warn others that there’s a predator nearby. After about 30 minutes of scanning the mountain with our binoculars, the marmot called once again, and that’s when it happened. She came out of nowhere, launching down the mountain and charging past the calling marmot, coming to a rapid stop and flattening herself against the earth. The snow leopard exploded over the grass, ripping through the wildflowers in a blur of white and black, charging a second marmot that had been ignoring the alarm calls of the first.
The cat covered more than 15 meters in less than 3 seconds, using her long tail as a rudder in the last moment to turn her body in an attempt to grab the rodent before it retreated into its underground burrow. The great cat got one paw on the marmot before it fled into the ground below, and she followed with half her body into the ground in a final attempt to secure her next meal. When we saw the tip of her tail flicker in agitation, we knew she’d lost it. Then, she stood upright and looked directly at us.
In that moment, I’m not sure whose heart was racing faster- mine, or the snow leopard’s. Panting, the cat sat down on top of the marmot burrow. After calmly watching us for a few seconds, she seemed to lose interest and laid down. After several minutes she leisurely got up and walked along the side of the mountain and out of sight, leaving as silently as she’d come. A week later, we’d hike to the very spot we’d seen her disappear so ShanShui staff could set camera traps to document her movements, and, if we’re lucky, a report of healthy cubs!
The Valley of the Cats is a truly special place. During our amazing experience seeing the Mountain Ghost in the wild, this snow leopard was not only unbothered by our presence, but attempted a hunt right in front of us. In so many parts of the world, carnivores are persecuted for trying to carve out a living, but here, Tibetan herders live peacefully alongside these cats without conflict. Their Buddhist faith is a primary driver of this sustained coexistence, and a new community ecotourism initiative is focused on empowering the local families who live alongside these cats while instilling public appreciation of this valley’s biodiversity.
Snow leopard conservation isn’t just about these great cats- it’s about whole systems. Mountains that support healthy populations of snow leopards also support healthy populations of prey species like blue sheep and marmots, as well as the food they eat. The presence of snow leopards suggests that these mountain ecosystems are rich enough in resources to maintain important biodiversity, and these ecosystems may, therefore, be better able to withstand and recover from disturbances. While seeing a snow leopard in action was a once in a lifetime experience, my hope is that we continue to work and learn collaboratively to ensure this slice of heaven persists for generations to come.