Margarita Steinhardt of The Wildlife Diaries takes us to the Tibetan Plateau in search of the elusive Chinese Mountain Cat and other fascinating wildlife.
Located on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, in the north-west of China’s Sichuan province, Zoige county was historically part of the Tibetan Amdo Region.
If it is adventure you are looking for, this final frontier the explorer’s paradise.
In Search of Wildlife and the Chinese Mountain Cat on the Tibetan Plateau
You will not find Ruoergai grassland on Google Maps. Nor will Ruoergai town – the capital of the county, come up in a search.
Both the town and the grassland are completely lost in translation.
To Google, the area is known by its traditional Tibetan name of Zoige, while Chinese road signs welcome you to Ruoergai at the end of a 10-hour drive from Chengdu.
The Chinese Mountain Cat and Pallas's Cat
Ruoergai grassland is a vast expanse of sparsely-populated high-altitude prairie, that is home to unique and rare wildlife, including two species of elusive wild cats: the Chinese Mountain cat and the Pallas’s cat.
It was the wild cats that brought me to Ruoergai. A few years ago, I set myself on an ambitious quest to see all species of wild cats in their natural habitat. That's 40 instances of sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time. And with cats as elusive as the Chinese Mountain cat, I would need all the luck I could get.
Led by Sid Francis from Sichuan Birding, I spent four nights on the grassland searching for rare wildlife and exploring the world of the Tibetan nomads
On the first night, Sid took me to an abandoned rock quarry about 40 kilometres out of town. When we arrived, I stepped out of the car into complete darkness and immediately felt the chill of the Tibetan Plateau.
We scanned the area with a powerful spotlight and straight away spotted two bright green dots – an animal’s eyes reflecting back at us from halfway up the face of the quarry. Sid called it straight away – a Pallas’s cat, sleeping in a small crevice in the rock face.
Carefully, we approached the quarry and got a fantastic view of the cat. It was snuggly curled up inside the crevice with its fur all fluffed up against the chill of the night.
It didn't seem to mind our presence, barely looking in our direction once every few minutes. Pallas’s cats are masters of camouflage. They rely on their ability to remain motionless to avoid detection. Perhaps it thought we couldn’t see it.
We admired the cat for a good while and then after taking a few photographs, slowly returned to the car, not wanting to disturb it further.
Chasing the ghost – The Chinese Mountain Cat
Our next challenge was to find the ghost. At least this is what it felt like. The Chinese Mountain cats are so rarely seen, that even their exact distribution range is not properly understood. But against all the odds, Sid had found not only the Pallas’s cats but also the Mountain cats at his birding sites, here on Ruoergai grassland.
We turned the car around and started driving back towards the road, spotlighting as we drove along. Within about five minutes we picked up a distant eyeshine on the grassland. Examining the animal through a pair of binoculars, I was stunned to realise that I was looking at a Chinese Mountain cat.
We left the car and followed the cat deeper into the grassland. Hunting some unseen prey in the grass, it remained on the edge of our spotlight beam. I managed to take a single photograph of it before it disappeared completely, just to remind myself that it wasn't a dream. Two elusive felines in a single night – talking about the right place at the right time.
The world of Tibetan Nomads
The next morning, Sid and I decided to explore the grassland in the daylight. We travelled across the yellow-hued meadows and rugged hills interspersed with greener, wetter patches of marshes and bogs.
White nomads’ tents with smoky chimneys dotted the landscape on the sides of the road, surrounded by the obligatory herds of domestic yak and protected by the menacing Tibetan mastiffs. The smell of burning yak dung hung in the air, mixed with the pungent scent of the animals themselves.
Soon it became obvious that it wasn’t only the town’s name that got lost in translation on Ruoergai (Zoige) Grassland. We passed a number of road signs warning us of approaching Zoology Channels (animals crossing) and later, a Tool Gate (toll gate).
The next road sign proudly announced that we had arrived in a ‘Garbage free demonstration area’ – aka Ruoergai Wetland National Nature Reserve – one of the last remaining breeding strongholds of the Black-necked crane.
And again, it appeared that the concept of a protected area was another thing lost in translation on the Tibetan Plateau. The cranes shared the wetland with the ever-present herds of yak and occasional nomads’ households. Although, the plateau is so sparsely populated that the entire expanse of the grassland felt like a national park.
The final surprise of the day was a basketball hoop standing by the side of a remote road, with no human settlements for kilometres around. I was happy to leave this one as an unsolved mystery – one of many I faced on the Tibetan Plateau.
Margarita Steinhardt is a travel writer, blogger and photographer. She is the voice behind “The Wildlife Diaries,” a collection of stories, images and field notes from her wanderings around the world in search of wildlife and wild places.