Saturday, December 29, 2018

Life on the Roof of the World, Part II

Greetings Everyone,
We’ve been exploring the Tibetan Plateau for animals and birds along with our Greentours group. We’re in Nangqian, the southernmost point on our circuit and about halfway through our journey. On the morning of October 11, we were off to visit nearby Baixha Forest Reserve. We drove down into a canyon stopping where Jesper had spotted a flock of Blue Sheep nimbly negotiating the rocky cliff above the river. The youngsters were encouraged to follow in the footsteps of their elders.

Blue Sheep

While waiting for breakfast, Jesper noticed a very obliging Glover’s Pika sitting on a log to warm up in the morning sun.

Glover’s Pika

The following day we continued our exploration of the southern end of our route in the beautiful Kanda Shan Mountains.

Kanda Shan Mountains

We were on the lookout for White-lipped Deer, a vulnerable cervid that makes these forested ridges home. We located a herd grazing on the open slopes above the road. At this time of year males and females come together for the annual rut. Males jealously guard their harem of females against competitors. 

White-lipped Deer

On October 13, we returned to the main circuit and continued toward the western reaches of our route. We stopped along the way to search for Blyth’s Voles that so far had eluded us. We found a colony but no one appeared to be home. Our patience paid off when Erling spotted a brave fellow who dared to venture above ground.

Blyth’s Vole

We stopped for lunch in the bustling town of Zhiduo where many of the locals still wear traditional dress among a backdrop of modern automobiles. Change is coming fast to the Tibetan Plateau.


Just outside of town a herd of Argali, the largest wild sheep, was grazing close to the road. They were all females who are much smaller than the males with sport massive corkscrew-shaped horns. We did see a few males a long distance off. They tend to avoid humans as they are hunted for trophies leading in part to their endangered or threatened status.


One more surprise awaited us before arriving in Qumalai for the night. We were in the lead vehicle and spotted a lone Tibetan Wolf standing next to the road. He saw us and tore off at breakneck speed. Why was he so terrified? When we examined our photos later, Cathy noticed that half of his left rear leg was missing! Although hunting is banned, no doubt he was the victim of a snare set by humans. Wolves are persecuted because they kill livestock. No wonder he fled at our approach. We were happy to see that he could get around just fine on three legs.

Tibetan Wolf 

The next day it felt as if we had finally reached the “Roof of the World” and our day was full of iconic Tibetan Plateau wildlife! Early in the morning, a Tibetan Fox paused to give us a wide-eyed stare. 

Tibetan Fox

Tibetan Gazelle were plentiful and this male gave us a stunning view.

Tibetan Gazelle 

The scenery was spectacular with the Chang Tang mountains looming over the vast Tibetan Plateau.

Tibetan Plateau

Finally, Chiru or Tibetan Antelope, one of the animals I most wanted to see appeared in the grasslands along the highway! There are only 150,000 Chiru left in the world and they reside exclusively on the Tibetan Plateau. Chiru have long been hunted for their soft and warm underfur called shahtoosh. Traditionally this fine wool had been transported to Srinagar in Kashmir, where it was woven into fabric used to make shawls. It takes 3-5 hides to make a single shawl, and since the wool cannot be sheared or combed, the animals have to be killed to collect their fur. Fortunately, hunting is now controlled and the trade in India has been banned. The numbers of Chiru are slowly increasing. We set off on foot to get a closer look. As expected the antelope were wary and moved off. We noticed two males lying down and unaware of our presence. We were able to approach closely to get a great view of their impressive spiral horns and beautiful black faces.

Male Chiru

We arrived at Budongquon, a bustling truck stop at the junction with the main route from Beijing to Lhasa. We weren’t expecting to see much wildlife here but surprisingly there were many animals nearby. When we stopped for lunch, Marc and I set off on foot to check out a small herd of female Chiru a short distance away.

Female Chiru

After lunch, we went off in search of more mammals. Just outside of town a herd of Kiang was lounging right next to the road.

Herd of Kiang

Amazingly a large herd of Wild Yaks was grazing under a power line quite close to the main highway, another species that I most wanted to see! I was thrilled by our close encounter. Much larger than their domestic cousins, Wild Yaks have long shaggy black coats and in males especially, the undercoat may form a long "skirt" that can reach the ground. Horns on the males are much longer than those of domestic yaks. They are considered vulnerable by the IUCN with less than 10,000 individuals left in the wild.

Wild Yaks

What an amazing day of wildlife viewing! Jesper tallied 647 Tibetan Gazelle, 31 Tibetan Fox, 224 Kiang, 325 Tibetan Antelope, and 149 Wild Yak! 

The next day we went off to explore “Wild Yak Valley” and Jesper warned us that the gravel road may be a bit bumpy. I joked that it may very well be paved since it had been two years since Jesper had been in the valley. To our surprise, the road had been paved! More change had come to the Tibetan Plateau. While eating breakfast we heard Tibetan Wolves howling. Erling was the first to spot them on a ridge a great distance away. A pack of 7 wolves reunited with a lot of tail wagging and muzzle licking. We wanted to get a closer view but an icy river blocked our path.

Blocked by an Icy River

We opted to take a walk to look for voles instead. We found one but amazingly it was in the jaws of an Altai or Mountain Weasel!

Mountain Weasel with a Vole

There were many Woolly Hares scampering among the bushes and we finally got good views and photos.

Woolly Hare

We stopped to check out a small herd of Tibetan Gazelle. Phil and I were watching one end of the herd and completely missed the two sparring females that Marc was able to capture in an amazing photo!

Tibetan Gazelle Sparring 

The next day’s drive from Golmud to Dulan wasn’t very eventful as far as mammal viewing was concerned. We did manage to pick up a new species, Black-tailed or Goitered Gazelle. We had seen them earlier on our trip in Mongolia but these were the first spotted in China.

Black-tailed or Goitered Gazelle

On October 17 we set off on foot to explore the Dulan Mountains. We struck out on the Chinese Red Pika but Marc spotted a lone Tibetan Wolf high on a ridge. It was the rutting Kansu Wapiti that stole the show. The same species as our North American Elk (Cervus canadensis), Kansu Wapiti stags sporting massive antlers were bugling across the valley to attract potential mates. At one point 3 stags had come together ready to rumble but a serious confrontation never took place.

Kansu Wapiti Stag

During our last drive from Chaka to Xining on the Tibetan Plateau we didn’t encounter many mammals but by now we had seen so many amazing species that we were thoroughly satisfied. We were happy to see so much wildlife coexisting alongside humans and their livestock but we also realized that big changes are coming to the Tibetan Plateau. We were surprised to pass through many large cities connected by newly constructed 4-lane motorways. A high-speed rail now cuts across the plateau and there are many more herders grazing yaks, sheep, and goats on the grasslands. All this will pose new challenges to the wildlife who now have to compete with livestock for dwindling resources. Highways and rail lines cut off traditional migration routes and more people mean increased hunting or poaching. 

The Chinese Government is starting to acknowledge these threats to wildlife and hopefully will put in more controls to mitigate their harmful effects. The Tibetan Plateau is truly a magical place with animals found nowhere else on the planet. May humans find ways to coexist with these magnificent creatures!

Our sincere thanks go to our Greentours trip leaders Jesper Hornskov and Phil Benstead and to our intrepid drivers who worked hard under tough conditions to get us to all our destinations.

Our Drivers

We hope all is well with everyone.
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

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