On a quest for sighting the snow leopard in the wild
By Abhik Dutta
Jigmet, our guide, peered into the scope and began diligently scanning the hill opposite the plateau on which we stood. We peered through our binoculars checking every spur, ridgeline and saddle where the supposed ‘movement’ had been spotted by the villagers earlier in the afternoon. The excitement was palpable. We had braved the severe temperatures of a wintry February in the high altitude of Ladakh on a quest to sight the snow leopard in the wild. It looked like we were close to seeing the elusive ghost of the Himalayas in its natural habitat. “Jigmet, kuch dikha?” we kept murmuring to him. He just shook his head without looking up from his scope. Through our sights, every brown rock in the distance held promise. Against a background of white, dotted with various shades of brown rocks, gazing at a mountain a good 1.5kms away, and searching for a 50kg animal that doesn’t want to be found was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. What were our chances of seeing this creature when, recently, a Nat Geo team spent the first 5 weeks in the region without spotting it?
On its final approach, the aircraft flew high above the airstrip, perilously close to a hill on the left and then banked sharply to the left, circling around the ridge and aligning itself to the runway. Down below, the expanse of Leh opened up, snow draped with shades of brown and grey breaking the monotony. As the flight taxied towards the airport building, from my seat 10A, I saw a red fox scampering along the airport fence and disappearing behind a mound. Aditya Singh, seated behind me, saw it too. It was a good omen, we thought.
The idea of the trip first occured to me during an earlier trip to Ladakh in summer a few years ago. My wife and I were driving from Tsomoriri to Tsokar, two high altitude lakes in the region, when we offered a lift to an elderly Changpa herder (the nomadic migratory shepherds who stay in the Changthang plateau). He wanted to return to his family members who were camping in the plains somewhere to the East of the dusty highway we were traveling on and he kept looking at the hillside to our right. He spoke animatedly to our driver and when I quizzed the latter, he said the elder was talking about a snow leopard which he had seen a few days ago. He was anxious as it had attacked his sheep the previous year and he believed that these ridges on our right is where the leopard roamed. We got talking through our interpreter, the driver. He said that the best time to spot the same would be the winter months, when these leopards came down from the higher reaches following their natural prey, the bharal (blue sheep), ibex and Ladakhi urial which too came down searching of grass, shrubs and other plants at lower altitudes. But sometimes they chose easier prey..the sheep that these herders and locals kept in the corrals. But to come to the Changthang region in winter would literally be an uphill task as the region would be inhospitable, the roads snowed out and the passes shut. Maybe we should concentrate on villages closer to Leh or even the Hemis National Park, where sighting was said to be occasional. And so the seed, of catching a glimpse of the snow leopard in the wild, the Holy Grail of wildlife photography, was planted in my head.
Joining me early on in this adventure were my friends Ajay and Sharon, two avid trekkers who didn’t need coaxing as they wanted to visit Ladakh in winter, having been there a few times before including on the Chadar trek. Aditya Singh, a wildlife buff and passionate photographer, jumped at the idea as soon as I suggested it to him. We planned a 11 day trip, from 9th to 19th Feb 2017, with 3 days in Leh for acclimatisation, followed by 7 days at the Hemis National Park (HNP) where we would camp. But as the date approached, we got news that there had been sighting near the Village of Ulley, 20kms away and 2000ft above Likir. So we adjusted our fluid plans accordingly, and decided on spending the first 3 nights in Ulley at a homestay and the other 3 nights in HNP, camping at Rumbak. We had to watch out for 2 things in particular. Acclimatising to the altitude and embracing the severe cold that we would have to endure, ranging from minus 22 to minus 8 deg C. It was something that I was really looking forward to!
The snow leopard, is one of the most elusive cats and very little is known of its behaviour in the wild. In India, their main habitat are the upper reaches of the Himalayas where they stay at altitudes ranging from 3000m to 4500m. Their estimated population in India is about 200-600 (so elusive is the animal and so inaccessible its habitat that a more accurate figure is not available) and Ladakh alone is said to have more than half of that. During the winter months, with heavy snowfall in the upper reaches, its natural prey climb to lower altitudes in search of food and the leopard follows them, sometimes to grave consequences as it enters villages and attacks the domesticated sheep and goats. Earlier, the villagers retaliated pushing the cat further away from human settlements. But over the last few years, due to some excellent work by a local conservancy unit, the man-animal conflict has sharply declined and now the villagers take active part in the conservation efforts as it supplements their winter income with wildlife photographers and nature lovers keen to stay with them on their quest to see the animal.
On 12th Feb, our motley group of 10 consisting of the 4 of us plus Jigmet our guide, Namgyal our local travel partner & his 10 year old son and the support staff of 3 left for Ulley. The drive in winter is quite different from a summer trip when Ladakh sees 95% of its tourist traffic from May to September. Winter tourism consists of the now very popular Chadar trek and the snow leopard quest which is still in its infancy. The landscape was surreal, the mountains bathed in white, the occasional brown patches of land peering through the snow. We stopped at the confluence of Zanskar and Indus river, a sight so spectacular that its nothing like what it is in summer. The Zanskar was frozen solid and the Indus was a narrow streak, the rest of it frozen almost to the centre of the river.
We soon turned right to Likir and began the treacherous 2okm uphill drive to Ulley. Our vehicle put on the chains as the road was covered in snow. It was a narrow track, with space only for one vehicle to pass by, with sheer drops on one side and like most Himalayan roads, no safety rails on the curbs. En route we stopped to see a herd of 15 Ladakhi Urials, an endangered animal with an estimated population of only a 1000 in the wild.
A lone lammergeier circled high above the blue skies. Near a stream, we spotted the White winged redstart (Guldenstadt’s Redstart), a winter visitor in Ladakh. By 2pm, we reached our destination, the sparsely inhabited village of Ulley (approx 20 persons staying in 6 houses spread over a 4 km radius) surrounded by high mountains. We settled into our rooms with our bed & sleeping bags on the floor, the bukhari in the main room lit up for much needed warmth to our numbed bones. A simple meal of rice, dal & sabzi had been cooked for us by the owner of the house and after lunch we settled for a short rest. At 4.15pm, we headed out through a snow covered track to a vantage point above the village from where we began scouring the surrounding hills for signs of life. We spotted 3 ibex sitting on a snowy patch on the hill opposite the village. Another solitary ibex grazed on another ridge. At 6.30pm, the sun having vanished behind the faraway mountains, we decided to pack up and return to the lodge. The temperatures had dipped sharply and staying on that exposed plateau would serve no further purpose in fading light. We settled around the warmth of the Bukhari and chatted for a while. At 8pm, dinner was served and soon after we crept into our sleeping bags.
13th Feb: 6am: Jigmet woke us up. I had slept in fits and starts at night. While my down sleeping bag had kept me warm, the room temperature had dipped drastically once the genset died at 11pm and the heater was turned off. We changed quickly into our outdoor gear (I was wearing 5 layers with a down jacket, I had bought from the local market in Leh, serving as the 6th layer) and after a hot cup of tea, we headed out with Jigmet to the same vantage point of the previous day. The air outside was icy cold, the sun rays had just begun to fall on the upper reaches and the valley was still cast in shadow. The warm rays were still an hour away.
Jigmet set up the scope & we organised our binoculars and cameras, Aditya his “Bazooka,” a 500mm zoom that he was carrying with him. We soon spotted a red fox dancing up the village road that disappeared quickly in the undergrowth before we could take a photo. An hour later, the sun hit the sweet spot & gave us much needed warmth. The temperature was around 20 deg C below zero and inspite of the protection we had, our toes and finger tips were becoming numb in the vicious cold. Hot tea/coffee arrived soon. At 9.30am, we decided to return to the lodge for breakfast. Except for the 3 Ibex of the previous evening and the red fox that we sighted, we drew a blank when it came to any sign of the leopard. At 11.30am, we left again, this time walking down the village road where we had seen the red fox. We soon spotted a herd of over 15 Asiatic Ibex, grazing quietly, digging through the snow with their hoofs, bending down on their knees to search for roots of plants hidden beneath the snow. We set up our scope here again following the Ibex herd as it slowly moved Northwards towards a parallel ridge, hoping to see signs of predators as well. Characterised by their stout bodies and short legs, the Ibex’s long horns curve backwards gently unlike the Urial and Argali whose horns curve backwards sharply.
We decided to go further up the hill, beyond our original vantage point and trudged through shin-deep snow to reach the spot. Every upward step was a task for me and my shortness of breath coupled with the cold made the simple task of climbing 300ft a laborious affair. Once again, except for the same herd of Ibex, which had now settled down on the slope above our guest house, we had no luck with any predator sighting. Lunch was served at the spot by our ever smiling kitchen staff who had brought it all the way up. It consisted of rice, dal, sabzi, tuna, boiled eggs. It was welcomed by all of us. Post lunch, we went further up the trail to another spot above some chortens. The scope was set up again and the place offered a 360 deg view of the surrounding ridges. We scanned the horizon continuously but detected no further animal movement. At 4.30pm, the sun dipped behind the ridge and an icy cold descended on us. We trudged back to the comfort of our lodge.
14th Feb: We woke up late. Had slept better during the night as we had all settled into a routine. Today we would be exploring a parallel valley. Our vehicle took us to the roadhead and then we trudged up the snow draped valley, up the left flank. Shortly, Jigmet showed us the pug marks of the snow leopard, about 3 days old, its scat below a jutting ledge. This was our first sign of leopard movement in the valley. We walked on for another 20 minutes and pitched our scope there scanning the valley for movement. High above us, a Golden Eagle soared, dipping in and out of sight as it circled a sharp ridge to our right. After 30mins Jigmet decided to climb higher to a better vantage point, approx 200 ft higher. I followed him. We stayed there for an hour but we drew a blank. In the distance, at the head of the valley, I saw our camp staff approaching with our lunch packs. That was our cue to climb down. After a hearty lunch of tuna pasta, we decided to walk back following a trail on the other side of the narrow valley. The path climbed up steeply, curving 300 ft above the valley floor. Here again we saw fresh pug marks of the snow leopard, a day old, and this gave us renewed hope of seeing the elusive cat.
We reached the road-head and boarded our vehicle and returned to the village. There was considerable excitement at the lodge. The landlady and her family members were gesticulating wildly at the opposite ridge and speaking to Namgyal and Jigmet. Earlier in the afternoon, while we were away, they had spotted some “tell-tale movement” pointing to the presence of a snow leopard in the opposite mountain. This steep ridge was at least 1.5kms away and 1000-1500ft higher than where we were. We needed a better vantage point. We quickly boarded the vehicle & drove above the village to a spot 500mtrs up the road. From there Jigmet and Ajay scurried up the mountain while Aditya, Sharon and I brought up the rear, plodding through knee deep snow and panting up the slope.
“Jigmet, kuch dikha?” we kept murmuring to him. He just shook his head without looking up from his scope. Through our sights, every brown rock in the distance held promise. Against a background of white, dotted with various shades of brown rocks, gazing at a mountain a good 1.5kms away, and searching for a 50kg animal that doesn’t want to be found was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
And then, he shouted the magic words, “Snow Leopard!”
Sharon spotted it through the scope but by the time our turn came, it had vanished from sight. The scanning began in right earnest with 3 binocs and a spotting scope. There were just 2 colours on the faraway ridge. The white of the snow and the brown of the rocks & boulders. Only a trained eye could spot something that far away. Jigmet’s scanning continued and once again he shouted “Snow leopard” and this time Namgyal and Ajay saw it in the distance before it vanished from sight again. Our binocs were just not picking up any movement. I peered through the scope. Nothing.
And then, suddenly it appeared in my line of sight. A ghost that was moving to our left high up on the ridge. Graceful and unhurried. And then it moved behind another boulder, out of sight. Excitement in our group was sky high. The sun was behind us and the light was perfect. But it was still too far away for a clear shot through the cameras. It was impossible to see it with the naked eye. We couldn’t even figure out which exact point in the ridge it was traversing. Once again Jigmet picked up the leopards movement through the scope. This time it was wading gracefully through the snow. I saw the lithe creature moving up the slope, the long tail swishing in the snow. And so, on it went, a cat and mouse game as it moved in and out of sight. Each of us got to see the cat in the wild, in its natural habitat. A poignant moment in our lives. We had braved the altitude, the severe temperatures and stay in basic facilities to come to Ladakh when most travellers shy away from visiting the region in winter. But our effort was worth it.
Meanwhile, I was photographing blind on my Nikon P-900, and even with its massive 2000 mm zoom, I couldn’t figure out where it was, so well camouflaged it was in the mountains. Later, much later, when I studied the photographs in detail, I saw the leopard, framed on the edge of the photographs, trudging through snow. The last of the photos had it silhouetted against the sky, standing atop the ridge, the king of the Himalayas in its snowy lair.
Postscript: On our way to Hozing Nallah in Hemis National Park the next day, I called home and found out about a family emergency and had to rush back to Leh to catch the flight to Mumbai the next day. Aditya, Ajay and Sharon carried on and were extremely fortunate to sight the snow leopard from a much closer distance, 500 mtrs away. They watched it for almost 6hrs that day standing atop a narrow ledge.
Essential viewing: National Geographic’s outstanding documentary of the snow leopard in Ladakh with veteran wildlife film maker Hugh Miles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwPIr-AvHRM