In November 2014 the Sichuan’s First Contest for Infrared Camera Works was held by Sichuan Forestry Department. The photos from Gongga Mountain Nature Reserve,”Signposts in the Snow Mountains”, won the Top Award. These amazing photos showed the colored world of wild animals in Gongga Mountain.
Among all the entries, photo of snow leopard taken in 2011 is the most outstanding.This is the first time a snow leopard was caught on camera on Gongga Mountain and even the whole Daxue Mountain range.
In March 2015 we conducted a one-month held survey of the wild snow leopards in Ganzi prefecture with the aim to learn their distribution . Prior to our survey there was no such comprehensive held survey In Zhenda township of Shiqu county a local told us a snow leopard caught two adult male yaks a few months previously A snow leopard generally weighs between 27 and 55kg and is much smaller than a male yak of305-1,OOOkg in weight. Unlike lions in Africa that capture buffalo and young African elephant in prides, the snow leopard is a solitary hunter. So how it capture a yak 10 times heavier than its own body weight? The local headsmen told us, The snow leopard chases the yak first, jumps on its back when appropriating and holds its shoulder. The yak keeps running and struggles to throw off the snow leopard] which is useless. When the yak gradually becomes tired the snow leopard delivers it a fatal bite.”Due to the in-depth results, we learned that the snow leopard had gained a special status in Ganzi-Tibetan traditional culture. The locals regard it as the representative of the mountain Gods and are in awe of the large cat. The occasions of a snow leopard attacking livestock rarely happen and as a result there is little retaliatory hunting of the snow leopard.
Due to the decrease in the number of wild herbivores in pastoral areas, the snow leopard will kill livestock. It is much easier to hunt a Tibetan sheep than hunt a wild blue sheep of the same size. Sometimes they hunt yak, which is a high-risk prey because of the risk of potential injuries but has a return of a luge amount of meat. In the depth of Zhenda gully in Loom Nature reserve, the survey team was divided into three groups, two outdoor sample collection groups and one interview group. Dr. George Schaller and I formed one group to collect samples outdoor.
A world-famous biologist, 83 year-old George Schaller has worked on wildlife conservation for 60 years and traveled to most parts of the wild. Many younger generations that worked with him have become the mainstay in global natural conservation. Seventeen years ago, he did a wildlife survey in Ganzi and his work made a impressive impact on the ecosystem and animals. Now he came to help us study the snow leopard in Ganzi.
At seven in the morning, we took the survey tools and food wid1 us and set out to the mountains along the natural path walked out by the yak, Tibetan sheep incl blue sheep.
I looked around the with a telescope for wild animals. At that time, the sunshine brightly shone and glided across the withered grass of half the slopes, dazzling both the people and animals on the cold plateau. I scanned the sunny slopes with my telescope and suddenly saw some dense points below the hills that were distinctively different Rom surrounding yellow grass.
I took a closer look out that they were blue sheep. Blue sheep are more or less the same size of Tibetan sheep but have a grey black coat with a pure black tail among white hair on their backs. I rushed to tell Dr. Schaller what I found. He happily said,”You have a keen eye. What a rewarding day!” We decided to accelerate our pace to get closer and clearly observe the blue sheep population structure.
When we arrived at the foot of.the hill steep rocks blocked our views. We could only roughly count the population number It was a medium size Hock of eighty to ninety individuals. We wrote down the number, positioned and recorded their direction by GPS and then regrettably moved forward.
Along the way we found a lot of animal feces. The ones that Fascinated me the most were 10cm-long and shining black Feces with many animal hair and bones inside. Different feces have different shapes and sizes. Carnivore feces show streaks or beads shapes and contain many undigested animal hair and bones. Depending on the food the carnivores eat and their feces condition, the colors vary from black, brown to white. Herbivore feces are usually lumpy and granular. For example, cow feces are in blocks whereas sheep and deer Feces are in small pellets.
As we walked through the valley we noted that it was clearly not only a herbivores corridor, but also a carnivores paradise. There were a lot of black and streaked feces along tile roadside. Dr. Schaller determined that tile feces were from a large canine.
Since cite valley was near the village, he could not tell whether it was wolf or dog feces as both hunt in the wild. The wolf is the predator of almost all the herbivores in the pastoral area, the large domestic yak included. Ecologically the wolf helps the ecosystem to recover. 7l1ey can regulate d1e herbivore population and sustain d1c ecosystem. Lax contrast, wild dogs disrupt the ecological balance and threaten the existence of the snow leopard and the blue sheep. Tibetans like to keep dogs but do not sterilize their animals. After the dogs reproduce local herdsman cannot afford to keep the liners and the dogs will be abandoned into the wild. The wild dogs live in packs like wolves to hunt wild animals like blue sheep and white-lipped deer, or the livestock like Tibetan sheep and domestic yak.
Last year, a pack of wild dogs boxed in a snow leopard that had just captured its prey. The locals saw this and succeeded in driving the dogs away and saved the snow leopard. We had been in the valley for some time but could not find any snow leopards. We decided to split up. I climbed up the mountain for snow leopards feces and Dr. Schaller walked a relatively easy road to check the bare rock.
There was no easy way up the mountain. It took us a lot of effort to climb such steep mountains at that high an altitude. Perhaps the blue sheep and the snow leopard were watching us on the mountain tops.I saw Dr. Schaller climbing over the ravine and observing his location. He looked younger and cool in his light green fleece jacket and spot sunglasses. I struggled up to 4,800m above sea level .
After a simple lunch and a little break, I began to look for the trail of the snow leopard the rock. “What an ideal habitat for the snow leopard!” I thought. The huge rocks made it difficult to walk. The towering rocks a cliff of a few feet high and underneath there was a small rock platform. The snow leopard will often scent mark on rock platforms.
To complete a scent mark, they will urinate on the rock, dig a pit with their hind legs and defecate.A few days earlier we bound a snow leopard marker in the valley near Luoxu town. Dr. Schaller explained the difference of the pits dug by the snow leopard and the wolf:”It is easy to recognize the snow leopard pit. They only use the hind legs to regularly dig inward. So the pit’s shape is intact and clear. While the wolf digs outward with all Fours and the pit’s shape is not sharp”. Then Dr. Schaller gave a detailed explanation For how to recognize snow leopard feces: “The snow leopard feces and wolf feces are similar in size. There are a lot of animal hair and bones in their feces. But the wolf feces are streaked with a tail end. The snow leopard feces are in beaded form.”
I carefully searched around 1,000m along the ridge and scanned the hill with my telescope for the snow leopard and its pit, but failed. Finally I found and collected some old feces for laboratory analysis. It was time to go down the mountain. I walked along the cattle path through a meadow making the tough downward journey much easier. When I arrived at the Foot of the mountain, the news of the team members and Dr. Schaller’s return to the camp came From the walkie-talkie. We were scheduled to go down the mountain at 3:OO pm to transfer the survey site. My late return made others worried. I reported my safety immediately.
My late return reminded me of what Dr. Schaller often taught us and also the main reason he has had no accidents in the held For decades-do not take risks in the wild. Personal safety comes first. Only he who remains safe in his endeavors can be a nature protector.