TIBETAN ANIMALS AND BIRDS: WILDLIFE AND DOMESTIC
With over 140 species of mammals, the most popular and famous animals in Tibet are yak, snow leopard, Tibetan antelope, gazelle, Himalayan tahr, Tibetan fox, Himalayan bear, and kiang (wild ass). Among over 470 species of birds, the most notable are black-necked cranes, bar-headed goose, Tibetan eagles, Himalayan ravens, and vultures. In addition, there are over 50 species of reptiles and 45 species of amphibians, and more than 2,300 species of insects.
While many of the animals mastered their skills to hide and avoid humans, there are some animals that you can see when visiting Tibet.
In this article, you will find information about the most famous animals and birds in Tibet, their habitat, where you can see them, and the wildlife protection efforts in the region.
ABOUT TIBETAN PLATEAU
With an average elevation of 4,500 meters / 14,700 feet and many of the tallest mountains in the world, the Tibetan plateau has unique conditions, to which animals, birds, and plants had to adapt. As a result, we see many species that are endemic to this region. Animals living and striving in Tibet all successfully adapted to the high altitude and frigid air of the Plateau. For example, snow leopards have small rounded fur-covered ears to reduce heat loss and wide nostrils for deeper breaths and to warm up the air when inhaling, small pikas don’t hibernate, Tibetan antelopes have extremely light and warm underfur to keep them warm, and yaks have smaller red blood cells and larger lungs than other cattle that help them to process and transport oxygen more efficiently.
A harsh climate with a narrow window of abundant food also determines the reproduction cycle of animals in Tibet. All ungulates have their offspring between May and September when the plant growth is at its peak. Animals migrate from higher altitude areas in summer to lower altitude zones in winter to stay warm and forage. Marmots hibernate during the colder months of the year hiding in burrows that can go 10 meters / 33 feet deep into the ground.
Below is more information about the most common animals inhabiting Tibet, their characteristics, and where to see them.
WILD ANIMALS IN TIBET
TIBETAN ANTELOPE – CHIRU
Species name: Pantholops hodgsonii
Status: Near Threatened
Habitat: North-Western Tibet and Qinghai Province – Changtang Nature Reserve, at elevations ranging from 3,700 to 5,500 meters. (12,000 to 18,000 feet). Endemic to the Tibetan Plateau
Gorgeous Tibetan antelopes can be seen in the Western and Northern regions of Tibet. Tibetan Antelopes or Chiru are some of the most incredible animals in Tibet. Leaving at high elevations where average annual temperatures are below freezing, they adapted by having a warm soft underfur. That underfur called shahtoosh (from Persian for “king of wool”) is used to produce luxurious shawls so light and thin that you can thread them through the wedding ring. Because of the high demand for their underfur, many of the antelopes were killed in the second half of the 20th century, and their numbers went from an estimated 1 million to about 75,000 animals. That’s why there are strict protection measures prohibiting the hunting of antelopes and the trade of shawls made of their undercoat. In recent years, the number of Tibetan antelopes started to increase, but they remain under protection.
Tibetan antelopes live in North-Western areas of Tibet, Western Qinghai, and Southern Xinjiang. In summer, female antelopes with their female offspring leave males and migrate to breeding grounds further in the North. They will give birth to usually a single calf in June-July, and return to reunite with males in the fall.
Male antelopes are larger than females. They stand 80cm high at the shoulder and weigh about 40kg. They have long slender horns reaching 54 to 60 cm in length. Females are hornless. Their fur is dense with 4-6 cm long hairs. In summer, the coat is reddish-brown turning into light gray in winter. Their faces and the front side of the legs are grey. During the rut season, males’ faces become almost black creating a striking contrast with the pale coats. Antelopes have 13-14 cm long tails.
Species name: Bos mutus
Habitat: Steppe meadows and alpine tundra areas of the Tibetan Plateau at elevations ranging from 4,000 – 6,000 meters / 10,000 – 20,000 feet.
The wild yak is an ancestor of the domestic yak, however, they are nowadays treated as different species. For example, wild yak is much larger than domestic yak, standing up to 2 meters tall at the shoulder, and can weigh 500 – 1200 kg / 1,100 – 2,600 lbs. Males have larger horns than females, usually about 80 cm long vs 50 cm in females.
Despite their large size, yaks are fast and can run up to 40 km per hour at the top speed.
Yaks adapted very well to life in a cold high altitude environment. Their lungs capacity is 3 times larger than the lungs of other cattle. In addition, they have more red cells that are smaller in size, allowing them to transport oxygen more efficiently. Wild yaks have soft underfur and longer hair that keeps them warm even in freezing temperatures reaching -40 C / -40 F.
Most wild yaks live in Northern Tibet and in Western Qinghai, including the Changtang Natural Reserve and Kekexili.
Excessive hunting caused a rapid decline in the numbers of wild yaks in the 20th century. With wildlife protection acts in Tibet, the number of wild yaks started to increase. However, they still face competition for food with livestock and often have to retreat to areas with less available food.
TIBETAN WILD ASS – KIANG
Species name: Equus kiang
Status: Least Concern
Habitat: alpine grasslands, mountain regions of Tibetan Plateau, Northern India (Ladakh), and Nepal, elevations between 2,700 and 5,300 m (8,900 and 17,400 ft). Endemic to Tibetan Plateau
These large, strong and gorgeous animals roam the steppes and meadows of Tibet. We often see them when traveling through Western and Northern Tibet. They are quite curious and sometimes chase the cars, letting us admire their strength and stamina. However, don’t try to approach them. Most often they will just take off and run away.
Tibetan wild ass, also called Kiang and gorkhar, inhabits alpine grassland, meadows, and steppe areas of the Tibetan Plateau, a few of them roam some areas of Nepal and Ladakh. Many of them also graze in Changthang National Reserve. Recent estimates showed around 80,000 animals living in Tibet. They are usually seen in valleys and low hills covered by grass, low plants, and sedges. In winter they can eat more shrubs and herbs, and can even dig the ground for roots. Tibetan kiangs usually graze during the daytime and can travel vast distances during the dry season.
ABOUT TIBETAN WILD ASS
Kiang is the largest species of wild asses. Males are slightly larger than females. Males stand up to 142 cm high at the shoulder and weigh up to 350-400 kg. Females are slightly shorter and weigh up to 250-300 kg. The newborns weigh about 30 kg and stand 90 cm high at the shoulder. They can walk a few hours after their birth. In August, when food is abundant, kiangs can gain 40-50 kg. The body is about 210 cm long.
In winter, their coat is dark brown. After they shed some of their furs for summer, it has a lighter and reddish-brown color. Their belly is white, the mane is short and dark in color, and the dark dorsal stripe extends from the mane to the tail. The color camouflages them well in their natural habitat.
The lifespan of kiang is about 20 years. Himalayan wolves prey on kiangs. They in turn stay mostly in open areas that help them to detect predators. If attached, kiangs form a circle and kick. That’s why wolves usually go after sole kiangs or young foals.
Tibetan wild asses are good swimmers. They can cross large rivers when traveling between grazing grounds. In addition, they enjoy bathing in rivers during the summer months.
Kiangs usually stay in herds, sometimes including several hundred animals. The herd typically includes females, their foals, and young males. However, mature males prefer to stay solitary. Younger males often form smaller herds, especially in winter.
The breeding time is July-August. During it, older males form a harem and defend it from rivalries. The gestation period lasts about 10-12 months, and a female kiang usually has one offspring.
Species name: Procapra picticaudata
Status: Near Threatened
Habitat: Tibetan Plateau, elevations ranging from 3,000 to 5,750 m. Endemic to Tibetan Plateau
The graceful species known as Tibetan Gazelle or Goa are actually antelopes. According to the most recent estimate, there are 100,000 gazelles. Almost all of them live on the Tibetan plateau, and only about a hundred live in bordering areas of Ladakh and Sikkim in India. Many of the gazelles graze in Changtang and Kekexili Natural Reserves. They prefer to stay in open areas.
Goa or Tibetan gazelle live in very diverse habitats, such as alpine meadows and steppes, high-altitude plains, and in wetlands, at elevations up to 5,750 meters /18,850 feet, often above the treeline.
Goa usually stays in small herds with 3 to 20 animals in each. During migration to summer pastures, they can congregate in larger groups.
The Tibetan gazelle is quite small, standing about 60 to 65 cm at the shoulder and weighing 25 to 35 kg. Males have thin ridged horns averaging 29 cm / 11 inches in length. In summer, their fur is gray, turning into light brown in winter. Although not a subspecies, gazelles living in the Western Tibet area around Mount Kailash are larger than their Eastern counterparts.
The rut season is in January and February. After that, the gestation period lasts for about 6 months and most births occur in July and August. Following birth, newborns hide for a couple of weeks with their mother before they become strong enough and rejoin the herd. Many males are solitary.
Tibetan gazelle usually eats shrubs, legumes, seeds, and forbs, and less grass and sedges.
GAZELLES IN THE WILD
Unfortunately, the number of gazelles in the wild has been decreasing since the second half of the 20th century. The main reason for that is human activity, affecting their natural habitat and illegal hunting. Gazelles face competition for food with livestock and fragmentation of their habitat because of farming and fencing. According to the IUCN, the status of the Tibetan gazelle is Near Threatened. Currently, Tibetan Gazelles are under category II of the China Wild Animal Protection Law.
Species name: Cervus albirostris
Habitat: Tibetan Plateau, elevations ranging from 3,500 to 5,100 m / 11,500 – 16,700 ft. Native to the Tibetan Plateau
The glorious large and strong white-lipped deer, also called Thorold’s deer, Przewalskium albirostris, or White-faced Maral, forages in remote areas, at the high altitude areas of the Eastern Tibetan Plateau. The deer has white patches around his muzzle and lips that gave him his name. Only about 7000 of these beautiful animals remain in the wild.
The deer inhabits alpine grasslands, conifer forests, and shrubland, often seen above the treeline at elevations ranging from 3,500 to 5,100 meters / 11,500 – 16,700 feet.
ABOUT WHITE-LIPPED DEER
The white-lipped deer is one of the largest deers, standing between 115 and 140 cm at the shoulder. Males are larger than females and can weigh up to 230 kg / 500 lbs, while females’ weight ranges from 90 to 160 kg / 200 to 350 lb. The male’s gorgeous antlers are white or light brown and can grow up to 130 cm / 51 inches and can weigh up to 7 kg / 15 lbs. The male deer shed their antlers in March, and new antlers reach their peak length by the end of summer. Most of the deer’s body is covered in dark brown hair that becomes paler in winter. The deer’s hairs are hollow offering insulation and protecting the deer from cold.
Their broad and round hooves allow deer to climb steep and uneven mountain terrain. When the deer is walking, its hooves make a clicking sound.
The deer usually live in herds of up to 10 animals. Except for the breeding season, males live separately from females. The rut season is from September to November, and the calving season is between May and June. The newborns can stand after only 40 minutes of their birth. Calves hide for about 2 weeks before rejoining the herd.
The white-lipped deer usually eat grass, shrub, leaves, herbs, lichens, the bark of trees and bushes, and sedges in summer.
WHITE-LIPPED DEER IN THE WILD
The status of the deer is vulnerable, as its population declines. Shrinking areas of its traditional habitat and degradation of the territories affect deer numbers. In addition, excessive hunting for their meat, antlers, and organs for traditional Chinese medicine lowered the number of animals. However, strict laws protecting deer from poaching help to restore the population. They are currently listed as Class I protected species under China Wild Animal Protection Law.
Snow leopards and Himalayan wolves hunt white-lipped deer, although not very often. The deer can make a very loud call alarming about the danger. They can run at a speed up to 55 km / 35 miles per hour. The deer lifespan is estimated between 12 and 20 years.
Species name: Panthera uncia
Habitat: mountain ranges in Central and South Asia
Gorgeous snow leopards or ibexes are some of the most eluded animals in the world. First of all, they live and thrive in remote regions with such harsh environments that very few humans ever meet snow leopards. Second, their gorgeous thick gray fur with dark rosettes camouflages them well in the mountain ranges, making it very difficult to spot them. The pattern of these spots is unique to each animal and helps to identify them. Finally, there are unfortunately not so many snow leopards left. According to IUCN, their status is vulnerable with an estimated population of 3,900 – 6,500 animals worldwide.
Snow leopards also called ounces, live in alpine and subalpine zones at elevations ranging from 3,000 to 4,500 meters, and travel up to 5,500 meters in summer. These strong, powerful animals easily navigate steep mountains and cliffs, able to jump up to 9 meters, that’s about 6 times their body length!
ABOUT SNOW LEOPARDS
Snow leopards have warm and soft undercoats and warm coats with hairs about 5cm long on the back and up to 12sm long on the belly. They are about 55-65 cm /22-26 inches high at the shoulder, 90 – 115 cm / 36 – 44 long without a tail. Males weigh about 45-55 kg. Snow leopard’s gorgeous thick tail can be between 80 and 105 cm long. They use it for balancing, and also wrap themselves around with the tail to keep them warm when they are sleeping or resting.
Their wide fur-covered paws act like snowshoes, allowing them to easily walk on deep snow.
Snow leopards are solitary animals. They are most active at dawn and dusk. Each animal has its own territory that can be quite large. If there is little prey, the territory of a leopard can be hundreds of square km.
We can see males and females together only during the mating season.
The mating season is from January until March. Females usually give birth in June-July. In the beginning, the cubs stay in a den. Their eyes are closed for the first week, and they can start eating solid food only after about 2 months. When cubs are 3 months old, they start joining their mother and learning how to hunt. The mother stays with the cubs until they reach maturity at about 2 years of age.
Snow leopards are top predators. They hunt blue sheep, argali (mountain sheep), hares, marmots, and pikas. Snow leopards usually hunt every 8-10 days. When hunting, they can cover long distances, as much as 25 miles in only 1 night. They will eat large prey within 3-4 days.
Their main threat comes from human activity. Illegal poaching, habitat destruction, and loss of prey cause a decline in the number of snow leopards. Snow leopards don’t attack humans, they prefer to run away. The snow leopard’s current status is Vulnerable.
The lifespan of snow leopards in the wild is about 10-15 years.
TIBETAN / HIMALAYAN WOLF
Species name: Canis lupus filchneri or Canis himalayensis
Status: Vulnerable (in China)
Habitat: Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas at elevations above 4,000 meters/ 13,100 feet
Tibetan wolves also called Himalayan wolves are beautiful and skillful hunters, capable of hunting during the day or at night, alone or with a pack. While attacking, they can run as fast as 40 miles per hour.
There are different researches about the species of Himalayan wolf. Some indicate that it is a subspecies of the gray wolf, others conclude that it is a separate species called Canis himalayensis. Himalayan wolves have adapted to the high elevation, low oxygen level, and harsh environment where they live. Due to adaptations in their genes, Tibetan wolves can process and absorb oxygen more efficiently than gray wolves.
Tibetan wolves prefer living in steppes, semi-deserts, and some forests.
Compared to gray wolves, Tibetan wolves are larger, standing 27 to 30 inches high and weighing 65 to 70 lbs. They have long thin muzzles.
The wolves are native to China and live primarily in Tibet as well as in Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Also, sometimes seen in the Northern areas of India and Nepal.
Himalayan wolves are carnivorous, most commonly hunting argali – mountain sheep, Tibetan gazelles, yaks, blue sheep, Tibetan antelopes, and horses. If their preferred prey is not available, they will hunt marmots, hares, and pikas.
Tibetan wolves are social animals living in packs. The pack is territorial, and they protect their area from other wolves. Himalayan wolves can even hunt yaks but mostly prey on solitary males. After a successful hunt, wolves can eat up to 9 kg of meat each, and go without food for the next few weeks. Because wolves usually attack old, weak, or sick animals, they play an important role in regulating the health and quality of the herds of their prey. Unfortunately, sometimes they attack livestock. That’s why farmers and herders sometimes hunt wolves to protect the livestock.
The breeding season is usually spring. Within a pack, only the dominant male and female breed. They will usually have 4 to 6 pups, each weighing about a pound. For a month they will stay in a den and their mother will nurture them for 2-3 months. After that, they will join the pack and start hunting.
The lifespan in the wild is about 6-10 years.
Species name: Vulpes ferrilata
Status: Least Concern
Habitat: arid deserts and steppes at altitudes above 2,500 meters and up to 5,300 meters / 17,400 feet. Endemic to the Himalayan Range: mountains of Tibetan Plateau, Nepal, Bhutan, and Northern India
Tibetan fox or Tibetan sand fox is endemic to Tibetan Plateau. The Tibetan Fox is also known as Wa or Wamo, in the Tibetan language. They live in steppes, semi-desert areas, and grassland plains at elevations up to 5,300 meters / 17,000 feet. They are much smaller compared to European foxes and they tend to stay away from humans and from areas with heavy vegetation cover. Unlike most other foxes, the face of the Tibetan fox is rather square with a shorter muzzle.
Foxes are about 50 to 70 centimeters / 19 to 28 inches long and weigh between 3 and 6 kgs / 6.6 – 13.2 lbs. Foxes have thick fur and an undercoat keeping them warm even in the freezing high altitude areas of the Tibetan plateau. Their fur is usually black, brown, or rusty-colored on the back and white on the belly and tail, camouflaging them well in their habitat.
The foxes live in burrows, by the large boulders, and in rock crevasses. These skillful hunters usually prey on pikas, other small rodents, marmots, hares, lizards, and birds. However, their favorite prey is pikas, and the numbers of foxes depend on the availability of pikas in the area.
Sometimes, Tibetan foxes follow bears who dig the pikas out of their hiding holes. If pika escapes, the fox chases it. They can also scavenge on the carcasses of larger animals if they come across them.
Most often, a pair of male and female foxes live together, hunt, and share food. Foxes are monogamous and stay in the same pair throughout their lives. Pregnancy lasts 50 to 60 days, after which usually 2 to 5 kits are born. They hide in a den for a few weeks, stay with their parents for 8-10 months and leave afterward to look for their mate.
The lifespan of a Tibetan fox in the wild is about 8 – 10 years. The main threat to Tibetan foxes is humans who hunt them for their fur.
Species name: Pseudois nayaur
The Blue sheep or Bharal is endemic to Tibet. The sheep live in mountain regions at an elevation between 2,500 and up to 5,000 meters. During the summer, they form groups of 10-15 animals, led by a dominant male. In winter, the size of the group can be up to a hundred animals. As the grass becomes scarce in the mountains and hard to find because of snow, they congregate in valleys. The blue sheep mostly eat grass in summer, and as the grass becomes scarce in winter, they eat more herbs and shrubs.
Despite its name, the animal is more closely related to goats than to sheep. The males are approximately 60–75 kg / 130–165 pounds with large horns (sometimes over 50 cm/ 20 inches long). The females are smaller, approximately 35–45 kg / 80–100 pounds with smaller horns. They don’t have beards like other sheep and have goat-like short and broad tails.
The blue sheep feed during the day, foraging on grassy mountain slopes, and they become the most active at dusk.
The rut season is December – January, and the pregnancy lasts for 5 months. The youngsters are born in June-July and they are ready to climb steep mountains when they become 10 days old.
The Blue sheep’s dense fur helps them to withstand the harsh climate, frigid temperatures, and strong winds. Its white and light gray color helps them to blend in with the mountain environment and protects them from predators. When they are approached, the blue sheep freezes and waits for danger to pass. If they are hunted, they quickly climb rocky mountains and again stay motionless camouflaged by the environment.
There is also a small population of dwarf blue sheep living in the South-Eastern area of the Tibetan plateau. These animals are approximately half the size of the blue sheep.
Snow leopards, Himalayan wolves, foxes, and leopards prey on blue sheep.
The blue sheep is currently not an endangered species, however, they face competition for food with livestock. In the areas where there is less livestock, the population of blue sheep is the largest.
Species name: Marmota himalayana
Status: Least Concern
Habitat: alpine grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau at elevations ranging from 3,000 – 5,500 meters / 9,800 – 18,000 feet.
The Himalayan marmot is one of the highest leaving mammals on the planet. They are also one of the largest marmot species, weighing from 4 to 9 kg / 9 – 20 lbs. You can see them when trekking in Tibet and even when traveling by car in remote regions. They usually stay in open areas, such as grasslands and deserts between treeline and snowline. Adult animal is 45 – 67 cm / 18-26 inches in length and their tails are 12-15 cm / 5-6 inches long.
Himalayan marmots live in groups, they whistle and chirp to communicate. They excavate burrows where they hide and hibernate during the cold months. Marmots typically eat grass, roots, berries, flowers, seeds, and less often eggs and insects.
Marmots are typically monogamous. The female gives birth to 2-11 offspring. The lifespan is about 12 – 17 years.
Tibetan foxes, wolves, snow leopards, and hawks prey on marmots.
Species name: Ochotona curzoniae
Status: Least concern
Habitat: Tibetan Plateau at elevation ranges from 3,000 to 5,300 meters
Tibetan pika also called plateau pika or black-lipped pika is a small mammal living on the Tibetan plateau, preferring the areas of alpine deserts, steppe, and alpine meadows.
Pikas are essential for an ecosystem for two main reasons. First, they recycle nutrients in the soil. By digging the ground, they help to aerate the soil. Second, they are important and often essential prey for a range of carnivores in the region, such as Tibetan foxes, weasels, owls, falcons, and even brown bears. Third, pikas dig burrows that are also used by birds and reptiles.
Despite their appearance, pikas are not rodents. Pikas are related to rabbits and hares but without a tail. Adult pikas are about 14 to 17 cm long and weigh only around 140 g. Their fur is brown-reddish on the back and white or yellow on the belly. They eat grass and herbs and sometimes eat farmers’ crops. They wake up at sunrise and are active throughout the day. Pikas don’t hibernate.
Unfortunately, many pikas are being poisoned to reduce competition for food with the livestock. The poisoning of pikas can in turn cause a second poisoning when predators eat the poisoned pikas. It can seriously affect the biodiversity in the region.
Species name: Macaca thibetana
Status: Near Threatened
Habitat: forested areas of Eastern Tibet and other South-Eastern areas in China, at elevations ranging from 800 to 2,500 meters / 2,600 to 8,200 feet.
The Tibetan macaque is the largest macaque in the world. Tibetan macaques are common in the South-Eastern areas of Tibet, as well as in Sichuan province. They typically inhabit subtropical or evergreen and broadleaf forest areas at elevations between 800 to 2,500 meters / 2,600 to 8,200 feet. Tibetan macaques adapted to cold temperatures by having thick dense fur.
Tibetan macaques are grayish-brown with lighter beards and whiskers and lighter bellies. Their muzzles are hairless. Males are much larger than females with a body length of 60 – 70 cm / 24 – 28 inches and weighing 14 – 19 kg / 31 – 43 lbs. Females are usually 50 – 63 cm / 19 – 25 inches in length and weigh about 9 – 12 kg / 20 – 29 lbs. They have short tails 5-14 cm / 2-5.5 inches long.
The macaques are terrestrial, they spend most of their time on the ground foraging for food, and prefer to sleep in caves. Tibetan macaques are most active during the daytime. They eat a wide variety of food, such as fruit, leaves, grass, bamboo shoots and fruit, berries, flowers, roots, insects, eggs, mushrooms, and occasionally birds and snakes. Unlike many other macaque species, Tibetan macaques don’t frequent farmlands in search of food.
Tibetan macaques are social, they stay in groups of 10 to sometimes up to 100 animals. They start mating when they reach 5 years and have one offspring at a time. The young macaque would spend the next 4 years with the mother.
Rapid deforestation in their natural habitat dramatically impacted the macaques. Their current status is near threatened.
TIBETAN BLUE BEAR
Species name: Ursus arctos pruinosus. Subspecies of the brown bear
Habitat: alpine regions, mostly in Eastern Tibetan Plateau, at elevations ranging from 4,500 to 5,000 meters
The Tibetan blue bear is also called Himalayan blue bear or Dom gyamuk in Tibetan. They live in the mountain areas at high altitudes around the tree line. These are the rarest bears, it’s hard to meet them in the wild and that’s why they are not studied well.
The bear’s fur is black with a slight blue undertone. Their collar and chest are beige. The adult male can be 6-7 feet long. Tibetan blue bears mostly prey on small rodents, such as pikas. They can also eat vegetation and pine nuts.
Hunting for bear organs used in traditional medicine and development of the habitat endangered bear population. Currently, it is unknown how many bears exist in the wild.
BIRDS IN TIBET
With over 500 bird species in Tibet, the Plateau is a paradise for bird-lovers.
During summertime, many birds nest on the islands of Tibet’s beautiful lakes. In fall, some birds migrate to the South from Tibet, while others, such as majestic black-necked cranes, fly from high-altitude areas to fertile valleys along Lhasa and Brahmaputra Rivers near Lhasa. They will spend all winter foraging on leftover grains on barley, wheat, and rice fields, as well as on small insects, frogs, and snails.
Finally, we cannot imagine Tibet without Himalayan vultures. These large scavengers play a central role in the main funeral practice of Tibet – Sky Burial.
Of course, there are many other birds, especially waterfowls living in Tibet all year round.
Species name: Grus nigricollis
Status: Near Threatened
Habitat: Alpine meadows in the high-altitude areas of the Tibetan Plateau at elevations between 3000 and 4900 meters.
These majestic birds can fly at incredibly high elevations. Adult cranes are about 130-135 cm / 51-53 inches tall, weighing 5-5.5 kg 11-12 lbs.
The black-necked cranes are endemic to the Tibetan Plateau. Tibetans revere these incredible birds, and Tibetan Buddhism prohibits killing. In turn, black-necked cranes depend on local farmlands as they eat left on the fields barley, wheat, and rice grains. Amazingly, birds can recognize locals and don’t feel threatened by them.
The cranes stay mostly in the Central and Northern regions, moving to lower altitude areas in winter. Their nesting grounds are in wetlands. An estimated two-thirds of the population spends winter near Lhasa, by the river banks of Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and Kyichu (Lhasa) rivers.
The current status of the cranes is Near Threatened. Their main threats are environmental changes, such as drying lakes and wetlands, and human activity affecting their natural habitat.
Dogs, leopards, and some birds such as ravens can eat the crane’s eggs.
Species name: Anser indicus
Status: Least concern
Habitat: Indian wetlands and farm fields in winter, and summer in marshes and lakeshores in high altitude areas of the Tibetan Plateau
Bar-headed or gray goose is the highest-flying bird, capable of flying over the Himalayas. When they fly over the Himalayas, they can go as high as 7,000 meters / 23,000 feet. However, they mostly fly at altitudes not exceeding 5,800 meters / 19,000 feet.
They sometimes use higher altitude routes, while other birds use lower-altitude routes to cross the Himalayan range. They make most of these flights at night when the air is denser and it makes it easier to fly.
The geese spend time by the mountain lakes in summer, and before the winter starts fly to the winter grounds in southern Asia. They spend most of the time on farmers’ fields, picking up barley, wheat, and rice grains.
The bird is light gray in color with black bars on its head as the name suggests. The adult goose is about 70–75 cm / 28–30 inches long and weighs about 1.8–3 kg / 4–7 lbs.
Species name: Gyps himalayensis
Status: Near Threatened
Habitat: Tibetan Plateau, Himalayan range, at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 6,000 meters / 3,900–19,700 feet.
Himalayan vulture also called Himalayan griffon vulture is native to Tibetan Plateau. It is the second-largest vulture, being 95-130 cm / 37- 51 inches in length and weighing 8-12 kg / 18 – 26 lbs. Their wingspan is an impressive 270-300 cm / 106 – 118 inches. Himalayan vultures are scavengers, they are flying and gliding over large territories in search of carcasses of dead animals – their only source of food. When they gather at the carcass, their position within the group determines the order in which birds can eat.
SKY BURIAL IN TIBET
Himalayan vultures are well known because of Tibetan funeral practice – Sky Burial when a dead body is fed to vultures. The majority of Tibetans are Buddhists. As they believe in reincarnation and try to do as many meritorious deeds as possible, they offer their dead body that can no longer serve them to the birds. It is also an environmentally friendly way to dispose of the body in the region where cremation is often not possible because of trees scarcity and digging graves is not easy because of rocky terrain and the layer of permafrost.
Foreign visitors are no longer allowed to visit sites of sky burials. However, sometimes you can see vultures flying near monasteries, where there are sky burials.
OTHER BIRDS IN TIBET
Other birds that you can often see in Tibet include Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Eared Pheasant, brown-headed gull, Tibetan snow finch, storks, various ducks, little egrets, ravens, crows, skylarks, ruby-throats, and many others. Bar-headed geese that you can often see nesting on the islands of large lakes in Tibet are famous for flying over the Himalayas on the migratory routes, going as high as 7,000 meters / 23,000 feet. If you would like to know more about birds in Tibet, places where you can see them as well as the best seasons for bird-watching and other tips, please, read the detailed article:
Many of the species currently inhabiting the Tibetan Plateau have been living there long before humans arrived in this region. There is evidence of the presence of wild yaks, Tibetan antelopes, and other species as early as during the Pleistocene.
Unfortunately, because of the excessive hunting fueled by the demand for exotic fur and organs for traditional medicine across Asia, some of the species are endangered. In addition, competition between wild animals with livestock for food causes many conflicts and sometimes drives wild animals away to the areas with less food. Another factor affecting the wildlife is the fencing of the farmland which changes migration routes.
We have to put extra effort to protect these animals in the wild, including preserving their habitat and not intruding into their territory. Some of the endangered species include snow leopard, Tibetan antelopes, wild yaks, and Tibetan gazelles. In the past few decades, many laws were signed domestically and internationally to protect animals and prevent trade. In addition, there are now several large Natural Preserves that protect the natural habitat of many wild species. More rules were imposed in 1991 with the passing of the Tibet Wildlife Act. As a result, some animals such as Tibetan antelopes started recovering and we can once again see the herds of hundreds of animals roaming the Tibetan Plateau.
In recent years, Buddhist leaders have also regularly given public speeches about the importance of wildlife. It inspired many Tibetans to follow their advice and there are even cases of shaming locals for wearing clothes or bags with rare animal skin or fur trims.
AREAS TO SEE WILDLIFE IN TIBET
Due to high altitude, harsh climate conditions and high mountain ranges serving as natural barriers, vast territories of Tibet are uninhabited. It creates perfect conditions for the wildlife not only to survive, but to strive in their natural environment. While traveling in Tibet, we often see wildlife. You have a higher chance when visiting remote areas of North-Eastern, Western and Northern areas in Tibet.
Most of the wild animals tend to stay away from areas with many people, car traffic, and other human activities. We can occasionally see small animals near Lhasa. For example, if we visit nomadic areas near the Ganden monastery, we can see marmots and pikas. Also, in the mountains around Lhasa, you can see chipmunks and some lizards.
In winter, birds migrate from Western and Northern areas to valleys not far from Lhasa. They usually settle on many of the farm fields. During that time, we can see many black-necked cranes and other birds.
The Everest peak is inhabitable. However, there is wildlife in the areas surrounding the majestic mountain. Many of these areas are included in the Qomolangma National Nature Preserve, designed to protect the territory and the wildlife from deforestation and illegal poaching.
Due to its harsh weather conditions, only a few species adapted to living conditions at this high altitude and hostile region. Because of the limited vegetation, only a few animals such as deer and antelopes can forage there for the food.
We often see gazelles grazing on fields with scarce vegetation overlooking Mount Everest. Sometimes, you can see Himalayan Tahr, You can also spot pikas collecting food and rushing to their hiding spots.
Animals that also live in the Everest region, but are hard to see, include snow leopard, Himalayan bear, red panda, and musk deer.
Birds that you can see in the Everest region include snow cocks, griffon vultures, and blood pheasants. Bar-headed goose, the highest flying bird in the world, can fly over the Himalayan range.
Himalayan Jumping Spider
Although most visitors are usually not interested in seeing insects, there is one worth mentioning. The Himalayan Jumping Spider (Euophrys omnisuperstes) hides in the crevices of the mountains. This spider can live at elevations up to 6,700 meters / 22,000 feet, which makes the spider the highest living creature on the planet. The Himalayan Jumping spiders live at altitudes between 5,000 and 6,700 meters. They are found on the Nepalese and Tibetan sides of Mount Everest. The species are 4-5 mm (0.15-0.19 inches) in length, dark brown with some lighter hairs. As the name suggests, the spiders attack their prey by jumping at them.
Himalayan Jumping Spiders are not harmful to humans. Even if it bites, there will be only a mild irritation that quickly goes away.
MOUNT KAILASH AND MANASAROVAR LAKE REGION
The Manasarovar lake region is the favorite spot of birdwatchers. There are birds native to the region as well as migratory birds. You can see many bar-headed geese flying or swimming in the lake. In addition, when you are traveling from Shigatse or Everest to Kailash and Manasarovar or traveling further to the West towards the Guge Kingdom, you can see other wild animals roaming the valleys. We often see wild kiangs and antelopes. Amazingly, some herds of wild kiangs are not afraid of cars and even run along the road competing with us.
If you are trekking around Mount Kailash, you can also see antelopes and many marmots and pikas. You need to pay attention to your surroundings as antelopes are hard to see due to their natural camouflage and watching marmots requires some patience.
NORTHERN TIBET / NAGQU PREFECTURE
Northern areas of Tibet are scarcely populated grasslands. The vast territories almost entirely without any human presence let the wildlife freely roam on these territories. When traveling through these areas, we often see Tibetan wild kiangs, antelopes, and gazelles. If you drive from the Western area back to Lhasa following the northern route, we make stops by several of the beautiful lakes in this region. These lakes attract many animals, making them great places to spot wildlife.
CHANGTANG NATURE PRESERVE
The Changthang Plateau stretches over the vast areas of Western and Northern Tibet, covering high altitude territories over 1600 km from Ladakh in the West to Qinghai Province in the East. Most of this territory is now included in the Changthang National Nature Reserve, established in 1993 to protect vulnerable species. It is one of the largest nature reserves in the world, covering an area of over 330,000 square km / 129,000 square miles.
The altitude in Changthang ranges from 4,300 to 7,000 m / 14,000 to 19,000 feet, and an average altitude is over 4800 meters. It is the highest nature reserve in the world.
There are over many different species living in the area, including Tibetan antelopes, blue sheep, wild kiangs, brown bears, Tibetan sand foxes, wild yaks, and black-necked cranes.
Most of the territory is uninhabited. The conditions of the land are not favorable for farming. Although summers are warm, they are very short. Because of the high elevation, winters are very cold, with temperatures dropping to -40 C / -40 F on some nights. That’s why there are mostly nomads living in these territories. Nomadic settlements are sparsely scattered in the area.
Many wild animals are freely roaming Changthang, and it is one of the best ways to see them in nature. There are 11 lakes in the area that attract wildlife and visitors alike.
The best way to visit Changthang areas and see the wildlife is by joining the 21 days tour going from Lhasa to Western Tibet and traveling through the Northern area of Tibet.
KEKEXILI NATIONAL RESERVE
The Kekexili (also known as “Kokoxili” and “Hoh Xil”) National Reserve located in Qinghai Province occupies 45,000 square km and was established in 1995 to protect wildlife. It lies on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau with an average altitude of over 4,600 meters / 15,000 feet bordered by the Tanggula and Kunlun mountain ranges.
It is home to over 230 species of animals. Many protected animals inhabit the Kekexili National Reserve including snow leopards, brown bears, wild yaks, white-lip deer, Tibetan antelopes, wild asses, lynxes, Tibetan gazelle, and others.
The Tibet-Qinghai Railway and National Highway 109 go along the Eastern area of the Reserve. If you are traveling to Tibet by train, you will be passing through this territory. Many people are lucky to see wildlife when on a train. China National Highway 109 connects Beijing and Lhasa. It goes through Xining to Golmud and then to Lhasa, and this stretch is often called Qinghai-Tibet Highway. The highway goes almost parallel to the railroad. Similar to traveling by train, driving on this highway is also a great way to see the wildlife.
WILDLIFE WATCHING TIPS
DOMESTIC ANIMALS IN TIBET
Tibetans keep farm animals, horses, donkeys, dogs, and cats. The farm animals include domestic yaks and their crossbreeds with cows called dzo, goats, and sheep. Horses and donkeys are primarily used to carry loads. Plowing is mostly done with yaks.
The main farm animal in Tibet is of course yak. They are used to plow the farms, carry loads, and of course for their meat, milk, and hair. Cows and bulls are not nearly as common, however, Tibetans keep dzo – a breed between cattle and yaks. There are also sheep, goats, sometimes pigs, and chickens.
Aside from the wild donkeys (Tibetan ass or Kiang that are actually closer to horses), you can see hardworking domestic donkeys. We saw many of them in areas around Lhasa and Samye monastery.
Tibetans love dogs and you will see many of them when traveling in Tibet. The most popular breeds include Tibetan mastiff, Lhasa apso, Tibetan terrier, and Tibetan spaniel. Aside from these beautiful breeds, you will see many mixed breeds and some stray dogs living on the streets of villages and cities and inside monastery complexes. Most of the dogs are very friendly and locals take good care of them.
Mastiff dogs are truly one of the most famous and impressive breeds known all over the world. Their fierce appearance and large size fascinate people. Tibetan mastiffs are guardian dogs. That’s why you can always see them tied near nomad’s tents to protect the family and livestock from intruders. They are loyal to their master and dangerous to all outsiders. You can meet these incredible giants when traveling from Lhasa to Yamdrok lake. Many locals bring their dogs to the viewpoints and allow tourists to take photos with them for a small fee.
Lhasa Apso is a companion dog. The dogs are quite small, usually standing about 25 cm at the shoulder. Historically, Lhasa Apsos were kept in palaces and monasteries as watchdogs. Opposite Tibetan Mastiffs, they live inside the buildings. This is a great family dog that adapts very well to life in different conditions. They are very energetic, playful, and friendly. Despite their appearance, Lhasa Apso requires a good amount of training. Without training, they will challenge your dominant position, as the dogs can be independent and stubborn.
The Tibetan terriers or as Tibetan call them Tsang Apso are watchdogs and excellent companions. Historically, they were also used for herding and for good luck. This is a medium-size breed. They have adorable snowshoe feet that help them walk through snowy mountains. Tibetan terriers are great family dogs. They are very active and energetic, learn quickly, love being with people, friendly with kids, and easily adapt to different homes.