Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Search of the Snow Leopard

Mission 2:  See a Snow Leopard

The Prelude

One fine autumn evening last year while sitting at an outdoor table at the Tip Top Teashop in Mussourie, three Hindi students began to discuss how awesome it would be to see a snow leopard in the wild.   For me, the conversation was entirely theoretical at first.  I mean, come on, how many of those things are there left in the world anyway, like six?  Such an expedition would involve expensive things like guides and good outdoor gear.  And not least of all, it’s flippin’ cold in Ladakh in February. But as we continued to discuss and research, the idea began to seem more feasible. 

The Background

Snow leopards are found in the high reaches of the Himalayan mountains and on the Tibetan plateau.  Their range stretches from eastern Afghanistan in the west, through Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan to Mongolia and Siberia in the east, and from China in the north down through the Himalayan mountains to Nepal and India in the south.  The best place to see snow leopards in India is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the district of Ladakh, a land north of the main Himalayan range. The landscape here is extreme - cold, precipitous, and high, as can be seen in this photo taken from the airplane. Looking for a snow leopard here is like looking for a flea in a farmyard.  

Snow leopard county, as seen from an airplane
The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) is a big cat weighing  between 27 to 55 kg  Usually a solitary beast, snow leopards only travel in pairs during the late winter mating season.  Their main prey in their Indian range is the bharal (Himalayan blue sheep) that also frequent the high mountain passes of Ladakh.  Various estimates put the world-wide snow leopard population in the wild between 4,000 and 7,000, while the Indian population of snow leopards is estimated to be between 100-200 animals. (In contrast, according to the results of the 2010 tiger census, India has an estimated 1,706 tigers.) Snow leopards are notoriously difficult to study.  Their mountainous habitat, secretive nature, and perfect camouflage make sightings rare. Considered the holy grail for wildlife spotters, only around 1,000 foreigners have ever had the privilege of seeing a snow leopard in the wild.  We would be exceedingly lucky if we were to see one.

Most people who get a bee in their bonnet about snow leopards sign up for expensive guided expeditions run by a handful of eco-tourism companies.  These 10-12 day trips can set you back around $4,000, not including international airfare from your home country.  We, being cheap, decided to free-style it.  We found several sample snow leopard trip itineraries online, and from these determined that our best bet was to plan an expedition to the Rumbak valley within Hemis National Park, south of Leh.  Hemis National Park is a massive mountainous landscape, understandably one of the least visited national parks in the country.  It provides critical territory to IUCN red listed endangered animals, including the Tibetan wild ass, the black-necked crane, and wolves.  In the summer snow leopards live above the tree line between 3,000 and 6,000 meters, but in the winter, follow prey to lower altitudes.  So although it’s a bit counter-intuitive that mid-winter is the best time for snow-leopard spotting, this is when the animals are most accessible. 

The Plan

We returned to Leh after our aborted Chadar River trek and immediately began to gear up again for our second expedition.  This time we would be less mobile – one fixed camp would be set up in the Rumbak valley, midway between two side valleys called the Tarbung and Husing valleys.  These two valleys and the Rumbak valley between them is the closest thing around to a snow leopard super-highway.  Which is to say, maybe 5-7 snow leopards are sighted there a year - after thousands of man-hours of searching. Not such great odds. Like many big cats, snow leopards are most active in the morning and evening.  Every day we would rise early and be scanning the slopes in one of the two valleys by 6am.  We would return to camp for breakfast around 9:30am, and then spend the late morning and afternoon roaming the valley floors for fresh tracks and other signs.  Around 4pm we would again take up our station on a hillside, watching the boulders and snow slopes for movement or a rock at appeared to have ears.

After hiring two experienced guides and a cook, we repacked our bags and set off from Leh to Hemis National Park.  We had rented a larger kitchen tent in anticipation of needing a space to stay warm in the evenings.  It was such a bulky thing that we had to hire three tiny donkeys at the base of the valley where the road ended to carry our gear up to the camping spot.  Our first morning was spent setting up camp on one of the few flat spots in the narrow valley.  We found another group already there – a well-equiped expedition of seven clients, three guides and a number of porters organized through Zegrahm Expeditions

Our campsite in the Rumbak valley
The Chase

On our first morning we rose early and by 6:30am were scanning the slopes from a high vantage point up the Husing valley.  The grey, cold morning was utterly quite, the silence broken only by the occasional call of a bird.  We divided the hillsides around us into sections and each took responsibility for searching one area.  Around 7:30 one of the guides saw something; what he originally took to be a blue sheep was suddenly revealed to have a long furry tail. The animal disappeared behind a rock before anyone else got a look. Suddenly excited, we bounded further up the hill to try to get a look. Several minutes later, R. found tracks in the snow from two leopards travelling together – likely a mating pair. One set of tracks had a reoccurring spot of blood in one of the prints, an injury sustained from the sharp rock scree covering the slopes at that altitude.  We followed the tracks over the mountainside and the chase was on!

Knowing the snow leopards were travelling much faster than we were over the steep and rocky terrain, we still felt compelled to follow them in the hopes of catching a glimpse of them in the distance.  We trailed them for 3 hours, gaining and losing hundreds of meters in elevation as we picked our way over the shoulders of the mountains.  R., with the fortitude and sure-footedness of a young goat, bounded ahead with the guides, following the tracks as they passed over snow, scree and boulders.  I lagged behind, lacking the energy for this type of extreme trekking before breakfast.   Finally around mid-day, high on the mountainside, it became evident that we could follow no further.  The tracks disappeared down a slope too steep to follow.  Regretfully we turned back, picking our way hundreds of meters back down the mountain to camp.
The view from our highest vantage point on the trek, and where we had to turn back
The Sighting

Upon reaching camp close to 2pm, we fell upon our neglected breakfast like a pack of ravenous wolves.  My shoes were wet and my clothes were all torn up from our morning’s adventures, so after getting a little food in my belly I pulled the insoles out of my boots to dry and removed my shredded wind pants, settling down to eat in my long underwear.  Suddenly there was a commotion outside of the tent – shouts echoed up and down the valley, and suddenly people seemed to be moving, running.  I tossed aside my plate, and shoving my feet into my sole-less boots, took off down the valley with my shoe laces flapping, wearing only my long underwear and a thin sweater.  I wasn’t exactly sure what had caused the sudden urgency, but members of the other expedition were headed down towards the Husing valley, and the only thing I could think was “SNOW LEOPARD!”.

Finally reaching the opening to the valley, I could see the guides and the faster members of the two groups already sitting 50 meters up the scree slope with binoculars and spotting scopes trained high up the hillside.  They obviously had something in view, and so, pausing ever-so-briefly to tie my boots, I flung myself up the slope, terrified that whatever they were looking at would disappear before I could get a look.  I reached the group dirty, cold and half-dressed, and peering through a spotting scope at the opposite side of the valley, I saw it.  The snow leopard. 
Snow leopard spotting
The handsome beast was almost a kilometer away, stalking right along the top of the ridge line on the opposite side of the valley.  Silhouetted against the sky as it was, I could even see puffs of its hot breath condensing in the cold afternoon air.  The leopard’s enormously long and thick tail curved up elegantly behind it.  After a moment it sat down just behind the ridge line, leaving only its head visible.  I attempted to take some pictures through the spotting scope, with the following result.

You can tell that's a snow leopard, right?  Fortunately, we don't have to rely entirely on my inadequate camera technology. Our friends in the other expedition had far better equipment and were generous enough to share some of their images.  Here they are, folks.  Our view of the snow leopard, one of the rarest wildlife sightings in the world.

Photo credit: Jonathan Rossouw 
Photo credit: Jonathan Rossouw 
After resting on top of the ridge for a few minutes, the snow leopard came back towards us, descending just a little down into our valley. At one point it stopped to spray urine on a rock in a territorial scent-marking behavior.  We continued to watch, sharing the few spotting scopes between us.  Finally, after almost an hour, as dusk began to fall, the leopard disappeared into the gloom between two boulders, and we did not see it again.  Happily, we shuffled off to our camps, ecstatic to have been so lucky.

Snow leopard tracks
Shockingly, our sighting occurred on the first full day of the trip. We still had 4 days in the valley to try to replicate the experience.  Every morning and evening we braved the sub-freezing temperatures to sit on hillsides, scanning the slopes for movement.  Signs were everywhere. Most mornings we would find fresh tracks in the snow on the valley floor, sometimes passing within a hundred meters of the tents. One evening we were up on the hillside in the gathering dusk, preparing to return to camp, when we heard a low moaning cry echoing through the valley. Our guides, Jingmet and Panchok, recognized the noise as the call of a male leopard searching for a female.  We ran up the hill to a viewpoint and spent the last half hour of light scanning the valley below.  Although we heard the call several more times, landscape was completely still. The same call, kind of a choking moan, was heard during the night on several more evenings.  But we never saw one again.  After our early success this was disappointing, but we were very cognizant of our extreme luck in seeing one so early on.  It was very exciting to see the tracks and hear the calls, daily evidence that the cats were still there, slipping like ghosts through the scree and boulder fields.

And that, friends, is how we were able to join the small group of westerners who have seen a snow leopard in the wild.  Pretty awesome.

For another account of our snow leopard experience, see the blog of another trip member here.

Scanning for movement after hearing a mating call

The team: We three, our guides Jingmet and Panchok, and our cook/camp manager Samstan