Face to Face with Snow Leopards: A Close Encounter in China

A research team from our Chinese partner organization, Shan Shui, was taking a break from exhausting field work in the mountainous Sanjiangyuan region, when Edward, a young Chinese-American volunteer, dropped his binoculars. He climbed back down the steep slope they had just come up to recover them – only to suddenly find himself face to face with a snow leopard family. Xiao Lingyun, a PhD student who led the expedition, recalls their close encounter with the cats in the cave.

By Xiao Lingyun, PhD student, Shan Shui Conservation Center

Scroll all the way down to see a slideshow of the snow leopard family in the cave


rocky cliff
A cliff with hidden surprises...

All three of us were exhausted. Wenzha, our Tibetan driver, was silently sitting on a rock, staring at a flower in front of his feet. A few feet below, Edward, our 16-year-old Chinese-American volunteer, leaned back on the steep slope, his head down. It had been a long day of collecting data for our biodiversity assessment, and we still had to cross a mountain range to get to the neighboring valley. With almost vertical cliffs around us, the only way to go was up, once again. I raised my eyes to measure the distance for the 101st time. The slope was about 40 degree, and it seemed to be a hopelessly long way to the top. With a sigh, I stood up, getting ready to go.

As I looked back to check on my partners, I saw Edward starting to walk down the slope, going the wrong way. What was he thinking? He climbed down a rock and disappeared – only to clamber back up the slope again a few seconds later, with an astonished look on his face, waving frantically. What had he seen? Not a bear please. I turned back and walked down as fast as possible. As I got closer, I read it on his lips: “Snow leopard!” I charged down without considering the 40-degree slope. Excitedly, Edward whispered to me: “I dropped my binoculars, so I went back down to pick them up. I climbed down a rock and found myself in front of a cave. Then suddenly, I heard a noise and saw a huge tail disappear into the darkness…”

Snow Leopard Family
cozy in their cave

We immediately climbed onto a rock facing the cave, and raised our binoculars. Nothing happened. After a few minutes, I started

to doubt Edward’s story… but then, suddenly, a head poked out. Then, slowly, an adult snow leopard emerged from the shadow of the cave, its chest close to the ground, its eyes staring at us. In order not to scare the cat away, we hid our faces, trying to avoid eye contact. After a few seconds, we carefully raised our heads again. Three cubs had joined their mother at the entrance to the cave!

We sat, motionless and completely silent, watching this snow leopard family for several minutes, until they made their way back into the darkness of the cave.

The feelings we experienced in that moment are impossible to describe. None of us will ever forget it though!


See the slideshow with photos of this amazing snow leopard family!


One Comment

  1. Stunning! I can well imagine the feeling of validation. Here is proof your work is not in vain. What a glorious moment and to be allowed to watch at a close distance must have felt like a gift!

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