Big Game of Mongolia and Tibet

by W. W. Rockhill


From remote antiquity hunting has been a favorite pastime of the emperors of China, but at no time has it been conducted with such magnificence as under the Mongol dynasty in the thirteenth century and during the reigning Manchu one.

Marco Polo's account of a hunt of Kublai Khan reads like a fairy tale. The Emperor left his capital every year in March for a hunting expedition in Mongolia, accompanied by all his barons, thousands of followers and innumerable beaters. "He took with him," says Polo, "fully 10,000 falconers and some 500 gerfalcons, besides peregrines, sakers and other hawks in great numbers, including goshawks, to fly at the waterfowl. He had also numbers of hunting leopards (cheetah) and lynxes, lions, leopards, wolves and eagles, trained to catch boars and wild cattle, bears, wild asses, stags, wolves, foxes, deer and wild goats, and other great and fierce beasts.

"The Emperor himself is carried upon four elephants in a fine chamber, made of timber, lined inside with plates of beaten gold and outside with lions' skins. And sometimes, as they may be going along, and the Emperor from his chamber is holding discourse with the barons, one of the latter shall exclaim: 'Sire, look out for cranes!' Then the Emperor instantly has the top of his chamber thrown open, and, having marked the cranes, he casts one of his gerfalcons, whichever he pleases; and often the quarry is struck within his view, so that he has the most exquisite sport and diversion there, as he sits in his chamber or lies on his bed; and all the barons with him get the enjoyment of it likewise. So it is not without reason I tell you that I do not believe there ever existed in the world, or ever will exist, a man with such sport and enjoyment as he has, or with such rare opportunities."

In the latter part of the seventeenth century, during the reign of the Emperor K'ang-hsi, Father Gérbillon followed the Emperor several times on his hunting expeditions into Mongolia, and has told us in his accounts of these journeys of the enthusiasm and skill displayed by the Emperor in the pursuit of game, which he usually shot with arrows, though he also had hawks and greyhounds with him.

I find no mention of the use of firearms in these imperial hunts, nor do I believe that it has ever been considered, by the Tartars and Mongols, sportsmanlike to use them.

Coursing and hawking were probably introduced into China and Mongolia after the Mongol conquest of Western Asia, where those royal sports had then been in vogue for a long time. At present the Manchus keep great numbers of hawks, caught for the most part in the northern portion of the province of Shan-hsi, and with them they take hares and cranes. Greyhounds are no longer numerous in Mongolia and China, though they are much prized, and I have seen some among the Ordos Mongols and in Manchu garrisons. They were short-haired, of a clear tan color with black points, and showed good blood in their small tails and depth of chest.

Besides the great annual hunts on the steppes—which, leaving aside the sport and incidental invigorating influence on the courtiers, helped, by the vast numbers of troops which took part in them, to keep quiet the then turbulent Mongol tribes—the emperors of China have had, at different times, great hunting parks, inclosed by high walls, at convenient distances from their capital, or even in close proximity to it, where they could indulge their fondness for the chase. Several of these parks (called wei chang) are still preserved for imperial hunts, and one I visited in 1886, to the north of Jehol and about six days' travel from Peking, is some ninety miles long from north to south, and over thirty miles from east to west. It is well stocked with pheasants, roebucks, stags, and, it is said, there are also tigers and leopards in it. The park is guarded by troops, and any person caught poaching in it, besides receiving corporal punishment, is exiled for a period of a year and a half to two years to a distant town of the empire. During my visit to this park, I and my three companions camped just outside one of the gates, and, by paying the keepers a small sum, we were able to get daily a few hours' shooting in a little valley inside the wall and near our camp. Though we had no dogs, and lost all the winged birds and wounded hares, we bagged in nine or ten days over 500 pheasants, 150 hares, 100 partridges and a few ducks.

A mile or so south of Peking is another famous hunting park, called the Nan-hai-tzu, in which is found that remarkable deer, not known to exist in a wild state in any other spot, called Cervus davidi. Of late years a number of these deer have been raised in the imperial park of Uwino at Tokio, and also in the Zoölogical Garden of Berlin, where a pair were sent by the German Minister to China, Mr. Von Brandt. This deer is known to the Chinese as the ssu-pu-hsiang-tzu, "the four dissimilarities," because, while its body shows points of resemblance to those of the deer, horse, cow and ass, it belongs to neither of those four species—so say the Chinese.

The Chinese proper show but rarely any great love for sport. They are fond of fishing, and I have seen some very good shots among them, especially at snipe shooting, when, with their match-locks fired from the hip, they will frequently do snap shooting of which any of our crack shots might be proud. But the Chinese are essentially pot hunters, and have no sportsmanlike instincts as have the Manchus and Mongols, with whom sport is one of the pleasures of life, though it is also a source of profit to many Mongol tribes. In winter they supply with game—deer, boars, antelope, hares, pheasants and partridges—the Peking market, bringing them there frozen from remote corners of their country.

Among the big game in the northern part of the Chinese Empire the first place properly belongs to tigers and leopards. In Korea tigers are quite common, and a special corps of tiger hunters was kept up until recently by the Government. The usual method of killing tigers is to make a pitfall in a narrow path along which one has been found to travel, and on either side of it a strong fence is erected. When the tiger has fallen into the pit, he is shot to death or speared. The skin belongs to the king, and the hunters are rewarded by him for each beast killed. The skins are used to cover the seats of high dignitaries, to whom they are given by the king, as are also the skins of leopards; and tigers' whiskers go to ornament the hats of certain petty officials.

Leopards are so numerous in Korea that I have known of two being killed within a few weeks inside of the walls of Seoul.

Tigers are also found in Manchuria, and, as before mentioned, in parts of northern and southeastern China. I have seen the skin of a small one hanging as an ex voto offering in a lama temple near the Koko-Nor, and was told that it had been killed not far from that spot. Colonel Prjevalsky, however, says that the tiger is not found in northwestern China; so the question remains an open one.

Leopards, at all events, are common in northeastern and northwestern China, in the hunting parks north of Peking, in the mountains of northwest Kan-su and to the south of Koko-Nor. Bears are common from northern Korea to the Pamirs. The Chinese distinguish two varieties, which they call "dog bear" or "hog bear," and "man bear." The first is a brown bear, and the latter, which is found on the high barren plateaus to the north of Tibet, where it makes its food principally of the little lagomys or marmots, which live there in great numbers, has for this reason been called by Colonel Prjevalsky Ursus lagomyarius. I killed one weighing over 600 pounds, whose claws were larger and thicker than those of any grizzly I have seen. Its color is a rusty black, with a patch of white on the breast.

Besides these two varieties of bears, there is another animal, which, though it is not properly a bear, resembles one so closely that it is classed by the Chinese and Tibetans in that family. It is known to the Chinese as hua hsiung, or "mottled bear," and Milne Edwards, who studied and described it, has called it Ailuropus melanoleucus. This animal was, I believe, discovered by that enterprising missionary and naturalist, Father Armand David (who called it "white bear"), in the little eastern Tibetan principality of Dringpa or Mupin, in western Ssu-ch'uan.[1] Five specimens have so far been secured of this very rare animal: three are in the Jardin des Plantes of Paris, the other two in the Museum at the Jesuits' establishment, at Zikawei, near Shanghai.

The stag or red deer ("horse deer" in Chinese) is found in Manchuria and northern Korea, and the Tibetan variety, called shawo, must be very abundant in portions of eastern Tibet, to judge from the innumerable loads of horns which I have passed while traveling through eastern Tibet on the way to China, in which latter country they are used in the preparation of toilet powder. There is also a small deer in the mountains of Alashan, in western Kan-su and Ssu-ch'uan, and in the Ts'aidam; but I know nothing concerning it save its Mongol name, bura, and its Chinese, yang lu, or "sheep deer." Prjevalsky, however, gives some interesting details concerning it. Some Chinese mention a third variety, called mei lu, or "beautiful deer," said to live in the Koko-Nor country.


The musk deer is found in most parts of the Himalayas and Tibet, and as far northeast as Lan-chou, on the Yellow River, in the Chinese province of Kan-su. It is hunted wherever found, and nearly all the musk ultimately finds its way to Europe or America, as it is not used to any great extent by either Tibetans, Chinese or any of the other peoples in whose countries it is procured; the Chinese only use a small quantity in the preparation of some of their medicines. They distinguish two varieties of musk deer: one, having tusks much larger than the other, is called "yellow musk deer."

Next in importance among the game of this region we find the Antilope gutturosa and the Ovis burhil, or "mountain goat," which range from eastern Mongolia to western Tibet. But more important than these from a sportsman's point of view is the argali, of which Col. Prjevalsky distinguishes two varieties: the Ovis argali, ranging along the northern bend of the Yellow River, between Kuei-hua Ch'eng and Alashan; and the white-breasted argali, or Ovis poli, ranging from the Ts'aidam and western Ssu-ch'uan to the Pamirs.

The name argali is, I think, an unfortunate one to give to this species, as it is a Mongol word solely used to designate the female animal, the male of which is called kuldza.

The Antilope hodgsoni, called orongo in Mongol, has about the same range as the Ovis poli. It is by far the most beautiful antelope of this region—the long, graceful, lyre-shaped horns, which it carries very erect when running, being frequently over two feet in length.

Although, to my mind, what are commonly regarded as cattle should no more be considered game when wild than when tame, still, as I am perhaps alone of this opinion, I must note, among the game animals of this part of Asia, yaks and asses, which are found in western Mongolia, Turkestan and in many parts of Tibet, especially the wild northern country, or Chang-t'ang.

The wild yak is invariably black, with short, rather slender horns (smaller than our buffalo's), bending gracefully forward. The head is large, but well proportioned, and the eyes quite large, but with a very wild look in them. The legs are short and very heavy, the hoofs straight and invariably black. The hair, which hangs down over the body and legs, the face alone excepted, is wavy, and on the sides, belly and legs is so long that it reaches within a few inches of the ground. The tail is very bushy and reaches to the hocks, all the hair being of such uniform length that it looks as if it were trimmed. When running, the yak carries its tail high up or even over its back, and when frightened or angered holds it straight out behind.

The calves have a grunt resembling that of the hog, hence the name Bos grunniens, but in the grown animal it is rarely heard; it is at best only a dull, low sound, unworthy of such a big, savage-looking beast. The bones of the yak are so heavy that it is nearly impossible to kill one except by shooting it through the heart or wounding it in some equally vital spot. Although I have shot a great many of these animals in northern Tibet, I have never bagged any except when shot as above mentioned, nor have I ever broken the limb of one. It is true that I have done all my shooting with a .44 caliber Winchester carbine, which was entirely too light for the purpose.

The yak is not a dangerous animal except in the case of a solitary bull, which will sometimes charge a few yards at a time, till he falls dead at the hunter's feet, riddled with bullets. When in large bands yaks run at the first shot, rushing down ravines, through snow banks and across rivers, without a moment's hesitation, in a wild stampede.

Mongol and Tibetan hunters say that one must never shoot at a solitary yak whose horns have a backward curve, as he will certainly prove dangerous when wounded; but the same beast may be shot at with impunity if in a band. In fact, the natives never shoot at yaks except when in a good-sized bunch. Natives usually hunt them by twos and threes, and, after stalking to within a hundred yards or even less, they all blaze away at the same time.

The number of yaks on the plateaus north of Tibet is very considerable, but there are no such herds as were seen of buffaloes on our plains until within a few years. I have never seen over 300 in a herd, but Col. Prjevalsky says that when he first visited the country around the sources of the Yellow River, in 1870, he saw herds there of a thousand head and more. Yaks are enormous feeders, and, in a country as thinly covered with grass as that in which they roam, they must travel great distances to secure enough food. As it is, it is the rarest thing in the world to find even in July or August fine grazing in any part of this country; the yaks keep the grass as closely cut as would a machine.

In some of the wildest districts of western China a wild ox (budorcas) is still found. Father Armand David thus describes it (Nouvelles Archives du Museum de Paris, X., 17): "It is a kind of ovibos, with very short tail, black and sharp horns, with broad bases touching on the forehead; its ears are small, and, as it were, cropped obliquely. The iris is of a dirty yellow gold color, the pupil oblong and horizontal. The fur is quite long and of a dirty white color, with a dash of brown on the hind quarters."

The wild ass is no longer found, I believe, to the east of the Koko-Nor, but from that meridian as far west as Persia is met with in large numbers, and in the wilds to the north of Tibet in vast herds, quite as large and numerous as those of yaks.

The wild ass (called kulan or hulan in Mongol) stands about twelve hands high, and is invariably of a tan color, with a dark line running down the back, and white on the belly, neck and feet. The tail is rather short, and thinly covered with hair; the head is broad, heavy, and too large for the body of the animal. It carries its head very high when in motion, and when trotting its tail is nearly erect. Its usual gait is a trot or a run. A herd always moves in single file, a stallion leading. As a rule, a stallion has a small band of ten or twelve mares, which he herds and guards with jealous care day and night. Frequently these bands run together and form herds of 500 or even of 1,000.

One often meets solitary jackasses wandering about; they have been deprived of their band of mares in a fight with some stronger male. These have frequently proved most troublesome to me; they would round up and drive off my ponies—all of which were mares—to add to the little nucleus of a band they had hidden away in some lonely nook in the hills. I have frequently had to lose days at a time hunting for my horses, and I finally made it a point to shoot all such animals that came near my camp; though I had a strong dislike to killing them—they looked so like tame asses—and I never could see any sport in it, though the meat was good enough—much better than yak flesh.

The hulan is very fleet and has wonderfully acute hearing, but it possesses too great curiosity for its own safety; it will generally circle around the hunter if not shot at, and come quite near to have a look at the strange, unknown animal.

It is said that wild camels and horses are found in some of the remoter corners of southwestern Turkestan and south of Lob-Nor, and specimens of them have been secured by Prjevalsky, Grijimailo and Littledale. The question is now whether these animals are domesticated ones run wild, or really wild varieties. Naturalists will probably disagree on this point. For the time being these animals are too little known for me to express an opinion on the subject, and, not having seen any, I can add nothing to what has been written on the subject.

My own shooting in Mongolia and Tibet has always been under difficulties. Traveling without European companions, and my Asiatic one not knowing how to handle our firearms, I have been able to give but little time to sport. When pressed for food, however, I have killed yaks, asses, argali, mountain sheep and antelope; I have also bagged a few bears and leopards; but, as my only rifle was rather for purposes of defense than for shooting game, I never went much out of my way to look up these animals, though I felt great confidence in my good little Winchester, having killed the largest yak I ever shot at, and a fine bear, each with one shot from it.

The game I mostly shot while in Tibet was yak; but, as I never killed any save for meat—not believing in the theory of destroying animal life for the sake of trophies to hang upon the wall—I made no phenomenal bags, though big game was so plentiful in many sections of the country that even with a native match-lock it would have been possible to have killed many more animals than I did.

The yak I approached at first with considerable trepidation, as I had read in various books of their savageness and of the danger that the hunter was exposed to from one of these big animals when wounded; but now I am wiser, and I can reassure those who would kill these big beasts; they look more dangerous than they really are, and will hardly ever push their charge home, even when badly wounded. The first time I saw them we were traveling up a rather open valley beside a frozen rivulet, where, upon reaching the top of a little swell, some six or eight hundred yards off, were a couple of hundred yaks coming down toward the stream to try and find a water hole. I made signs to the men behind me to stop, and, jumping from my horse, I crawled along to within about 200 yards of them, when I blazed away at the biggest I could pick out, standing a little nearer to me than the rest of the herd. They paid hardly any attention to the slight report of my rifle; only the one at which I shot advanced a short distance in the direction of the smoke and then stopped, waving his great bushy tail over his back and holding his head erect. I fired again, when he and the rest of the herd turned and ran on to the ice, where I opened fire on them once more. They seemed puzzled by the noise, but my bullets did not seem to harm them. Finally one charged and then another, and at last the whole herd came dashing up in my direction; but "I lay very low," especially as at this seemingly critical moment I found that I had no more cartridges in my gun. After awhile they turned and trotted back to the river, and I made for my horse, much disappointed at my apparent failure to do any of them any injury.


In the meantime my men had pushed on about half a mile, and we stopped in a little nook to take a cup of tea. Having here supplied myself with cartridges, I thought I would try to get another shot at the yaks, some of which I could still see on the mountain side beyond the stream. My delight was great when, coming up to the place where I had last seen them, a big bull was lying dead, shot through the heart.

The only time I ever encountered a solitary bull he bluffed us so completely that I do not know but my reputation as a sportsman will suffer materially by mentioning the incident. One day, as we were rounding the corner of a hill, we saw an immense fellow, not 200 yards off; and my two big mastiffs, which by this time were getting hardly any food—as our stock of provisions was running very short, and who passed most of their time while we were on the march vainly chasing hares, marmots and any other animals they could see—made a dash for the yak and commenced snapping at him. He trotted slowly off, but soon, becoming angry, turned on the dogs, who came back to the caravan. He followed them until within twenty yards of us. All my recollections of the dangers encountered by Prjevalsky with yaks, all his remarks of the extraordinary thickness and impenetrability of their skulls, of the difficulty of killing these monstrous animals, and of their ferociousness when wounded, came vividly to my mind in an instant. I saw my mules and horses gored and bleeding on the ground, my expedition brought to an untimely end, and a wounded yak waving his tail triumphantly over us, for I was certain that with my light Winchester I could never drop him dead in his tracks. We did not even dare so much as look at him, but kept on our way, and the yak walked beside us, evidently rejoicing in his victory. The dogs, now thoroughly cowed, took refuge on the side of the caravan furthest from the infuriated animal, and so we marched on for about half a mile, when, in utter disgust, he turned and trotted off to the hillside where he stood watching us, his bushy tail stretched out as stiff as iron behind him, pawing the ground, and thus we left him.

Shooting wild asses was much tamer business. We saw them sometimes in herds of five or six hundred. They would mix with our mules even when grazing around the camp, and often took them off five or six miles, when we had great difficulty in getting them back. We frequently, however, killed one for meat, which we found to be very savory; though most of my men, who were Mahomedans, would only eat it when very hard pushed by hunger, as their religion forbade them to eat the flesh of any animal without cloven hoofs. I always felt, however, in shooting these animals, as if I were destroying a domestic mule, and could never bring myself to look upon them as fit game for a sportsman. This was strongly impressed upon me one day when, desiring to get a fine specimen, whose skin and bones I could bring back for the National Museum, I shot a very large jack which was grazing some distance from our line of march, and broke its hind legs, and was then obliged to go up to the poor beast and put a ball into its head. After accomplishing this disagreeable duty in the interest of science—though to no purpose, as it turned out, for I was obliged to throw away the skin and bones a few days after, because I had no means of transporting them—I made a solemn promise to myself that I would never shoot a kyang again; and, I am pleased to say, I broke my promise but twice, and then I did so only to give us food, of which we stood in great need.

Shooting antelope in Tibet is not more exciting—or interesting, for that matter—than shooting them elsewhere, and I do not know that anything special can be said about this sport beyond the fact that the number of Hodgson antelope which we met in parts of northern Tibet was sometimes extraordinarily great. These animals suffer greatly, however, from some plague, which frequently sweeps off enormous numbers of them. I have passed over places where the bones of a hundred or more of them might be seen, one near the other; and districts which I had visited in 1889, and where I had found great numbers of them, were absolutely without a sign of one when I was there again in 1892.

Of bear-hunting I can say but little. On different occasions, in various parts of northern Tibet, I killed six or eight pretty good sized brown bears; but a man would have to be blind not to be able to hit one at twenty-five or thirty yards, and it is always possible to get as near them as that, even in the open country which they frequent. They have apparently no dens, but live in the holes in the ground which they dig to get the little marmots on which they feed. These bears are, however, very fleet, as I once or twice found out when trying to ride them down on horseback, and when they nearly proved a match for the best ponies I had. The natives stand in great dread of them, and will never attack them except when there are three or four men together, when they approach them from different directions and open fire all at the same time. They say these bears are man-eaters, and even when the men with me saw them lying dead they showed great repugnance to touch the body, or even to come near them; though they might have made eight or ten dollars by splitting them open and removing the gall—a highly-prized medicine among the Chinese, who also find a place for bears' paws in their pharmacopœia.

On the whole, though Korea, Mongolia and Tibet have plenty of big game, they are not countries for a sportsman, and unless he has some other hobby to take him there, he had better seek his fun elsewhere in more accessible quarters of the globe.


[1] See Nouvelles Archives du Museum de Paris, X., pp. 18 and 20.