What were the chances to see snow leopard in the wild?
Our group of six landed in Leh, the capital of Ladakh and we spent a few days acclimatising to the Himalayan altitude (3600m) by visiting stunning Buddhist monasteries and walking the hills. As we prepared for our 9 nine nights sleeping in tents out in the Rumbuk Valley I was thinking each day, the snow leopard will teach me patience. I will need to trek gasping for breath and sit watching on high ridges in snow and ice for hours.
Although this beautiful mountain area, the Hemis National park, is prime snow leopard habitat, I knew it would be unlikely I would see a hint of the cat local people call the ‘Ghost of the Mountain’, the ‘Ghost Cat’. I thought to myself, I will be happy, no, ecstatic, with a sight of a whisker or a tail. No way could I know beforehand the amazing sighting our small group was to have. Later people would say we had been not just lucky, but blessed.
Our leader, Jigmet Dadul from the Snow Leopard Conservancy India is the number ONE snow leopard tracker in Ladakh. He is a charming man who was born and bred in these mountains and spent years learning the secrets of the snow leopard’s world. He has seen more snow leopards than anyone. That was a great start.
Looking for scats, scent and pugmarks
Once we left the township of Leh and were trekking out on the trail in Hemis National Park our days had the same pattern. At 7 am Jigmet goes off scouting in the valleys, either alone or with one or two of our group. His young son Gyaltsen is also with us, a snow leopard tracker in the making and he often went with his dad, whistling and almost running up the steep hills.
But Jigmet’s morning was always the same. He walks the valley floor looking for snow leopard sign like pug marks (paw prints), scat (feces) or better still, cat movement. Once he’s walked past rocky outcrops where cats may linger he smooths over the snow to cover his tracks. If a snow leopard makes a track later it is easier to see. Once he showed me a pugmark in the sand near a rock. He indented his fingers into the sand next to it so he could tell how old the mark was. “Only one day”, he said with a smile.
Sleeping in tents in the snow
Meanwhile at 7 am Samstang, our most gregarious kitchen staffer, would wake us with a cup of tea each in our own tents. A luxury, cradling the hot cup in the hands as the wind howled outside and dawn slowly broke over the mountain tops. A precious few minutes snug in the warm sleeping bag before the race to get up and dressed with chattering teeth. The tent was always freezing and I soon learnt to put the tooth paste in the sleeping bag so it would not be frozen in the mornings.
At 8 am we’d have a huge hot breakfast in our blue communal dining tent, the most amazing scrambled eggs, porridge, toast and jam. When Jigmet came back around 8.30 would give us a report of any sign. Usually he had good reports, a pugmark here and there.
After Jigmet had his well deserved breakfast we’d start off, each day in a different direction, up to a different ridge up a different valley, but all long slow treks through thick snow and on icy rock. The frozen river beside us girgled underneath its layers of ice.
The days were cold, often we guessed around minus 10 degrees. I found the going tough, trekking up to high ridges and sitting on rocky outcrops in the snow, scanning 360 degrees around us for hours in the cold. It had definietly been a lot easier dowing this on my first treks thirty years ago. The mountains were older and so was I. But the aluring prize of seeing one of the most secretive and seldom seen wild cats was worth the effort of bursting lungs, leg cramps and exhausted muscles.
Each day, when we reached our scanning ridge, we would sit for many hours on cold rocks or tree stumps with binoculars and scopes poised. Although there was a lot of snow on the ground we were lucky that during our entire trek no fresh snow fell and despite being whipped by winds on these ridges, we were at least dry.
How many people have ever seen a wild snow leopard?
As we scanned we made many jokes about seeing a nose, an ear, a tail? How many people have seen this cat in the wild, I wondered? I knew many snow leoaprd biologists, dedicated and hardy people who had spent years doing their research out in the field but had never seen a wild cat. Why would I get to see one in the 9 days I had available?
Jigmet radioed back to camp at lunchtime, telling our team where we were. A little while later, up came Choespang, the oldest of our kitchen staff, shuffling at great speed in his rubber boots, carrying 2 thermos flasks, one for soup, one for tea. Amazingly he also carried a pressure cooker full of hot rice. We were so happy to see him. His hot goodies kept us going till about 5 pm, close to when the sun went down and it became even colder.
The snow leopard’s companions. Counting other wildllife,
The first four days we saw lots of Blue Sheep. These delightful animals are actually wild goats although they look like a type of deer. They are primary snow leopard prey. We also saw two beautiful red foxes, with their rusty colored body fur and white plume tails. One day we saw 4 Golden eagles, beautiful birds. They take baby Blue Sheep and throw them onto the rocks below to kill them before they eat them.
Each day we saw tantalising pug-marks, snow leopard tracks in the snow. We also saw spray scent marks on rocks, telling us that snow leopards were moving through the valley. Snow leopards like to keep out of each others way and they communicate via these sprays, telling the few that share the range habitat, where they are, are they male or female.
It’s estimated there are about 30 snow leopards in Hemis National Park (at 4000 square km the largest NP in India). Jigmet said where we were searching there were 5 to 6 cats. A big job to find a cat the size of a large dog, with fantastic camouflage in a hundred-square km of high altitude valleys.
On our first day we had met a group of trekkers who’d seen a cat way in the distance for a short time. We hoped that their luck would rub off on us. Even with their 600m lenses it was tiny sighting but I thought to myself, I’d be happy with that. We heard of another group here recently for 17 days that didn’t see a cat at all.
The nights were freezing, around 20 degrees below zero. The condensation from my breath froze into tiny icicles around the top of my sleeping bag. Luckily the bag was excellent, made for the Indian Army that had to sleep on glaciers up here in the Himalayas. I had never in my life seen such a thick sleeping bag, the thickness of a huge bed mattress, but it did the trick.
Friday the 25th February started like all the other days.
Jigmet had gone out with Thomas and John at 7.30 trekking up the Tarbung valley looking for sign. Katie, Jamie and I were sitting down to breakfast when KC Namgyal, Jigmet’s colleague at the SLC ran into our tent, yelling “Shan! Snow Leopard!”. OMG! I dropped my breakfast plates and the cup onto the ground without thought. I grabbed my stocks and camera, almost fell over trying to pull boots on quickly. I ran with Namgyal, along the frozen river. Every now and then we had to run on the river rather than at its frozen edges. I heard the water rushing beneath the ice and was petrified. I guessed we ran about 300m along the river, then 300 m along rocky scree with a ridge that was only about 20cm wide and past a boulder hanging in thin air. I ran, walked, almost crawled and dragged myself 500m along the valley and up an incline for 200m. It all seemed like a hundred km to me, as my lungs were bursting and my boots filled with snow (in the rush I’d forgotten to tie on my gaiters). But all I could think about was seeing this snow leopard! What if it moved before I got there? Would a cat stay still in one place for so long?
Finally I got to the long telescope.
I looked up at the rocks across the valley and saw the most beautiful cat in the world and immediately burst into tears. Jigmet was sitting further up and he called to me. Another 5 mins of breathless climbing and I looked into his scope which had an even better view. I burst into tears again!
Jigmet said it’s a female, about 7 to 8 years old. The scope made her look as if she was about 50m away, we saw her lie and stretch and look up. At times she was asleep and her front paws would push up into the air and make little running movements as if she was chasing Blue Sheep in her sleep. Then she’d open her eyes and peer at us, if one of us walked down the hill. She could see us but it was obvious she felt no fear. Then she’d wrap her enormous tail around herself like a scarf.
I could not believe my luck in seeing this beautiful beautiful cat. It was my sixth trek into high altitude snow leopard territory and today was the one day I had been hoping for for so many years.
Altogether we watched our magnificent snow leopard for 8 hours.
Jigmet thought she’d just eaten a Blue Sheep and so would rest for a few days before moving on. Occasionally she’d stand up and put her rear end down as if about to nestle, then suddenly turn around and lay down in the opposite spot staring out at the wind, at birds, at scents across the valley until she fell asleep again.
Late in the afternoon the others started going back down to our camp. I couldn’t bear to tear myself away, she was still in that spot, sleeping calmly. Finally close, to 5 pm, Jigmet said we had to go. It was getting dark and we negotiated the hills down and the trek along the frozen river with a torch and finally came into camp in the pitch dark. I had spent as much time with this queen of the mountain as I possibly could.
That night in the dining tent we toasted the snow leopard
We toasted Jigmet and toasted ourselves. The fact that we’d had such a day with this mystical cat was remarkable and special. But more importantly we toasted the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the local people of this region who were now helping to protect their spectacular and iconic “Ghost of the Mountain”. May there be many many more generations of snow leopards in the cold valleys of Hemis National Park.
Thanks Jigmet, thanks to our hardworking staff team who made fabulous food, kept the ‘hottie bottie’s’ coming into our sleeping bags at night and looked after us so well. Thanks to KarmaQuest for their great organisation. And thanks to Thomas, Katie, Andrew, John and Jamie for being such charming companions on this incredible trek. I’ll never forget this day.