Aussie faced death filming cats in the clouds

By Marianne Leitch for Foreign Correspondent

Posted Mon May 4, 2009 7:01am AEST
Updated Mon May 4, 2009 10:19am AEST

Snow leopard stands in Himalayan snow

Snow leopard: like many other big cat species, snow leopards are endangered, due to pressures on their habitat and poaching. (Supplied: Snow Leopard Conservancy)

A program to save snow leopards in the Indian Himalaya could be a template for saving big cats around the world.

Australian film-maker Mitchell Kelly can no longer visit his beloved big cats in the wild, but his ground-breaking documentaries are helping to keep them alive. After suffering two life-threatening cerebral oedemas while filming the giant cats in the Indian Himalayas, he can never again risk going to altitude. He does not know whether he will work full-time again. His films continue his conservation work though, being shown regularly in the Himalayan province of Ladakh where he filmed between 1999 and 2003. They are part of a successful conservation program that is convincing local farmers the leopards can be an income provider, rather than a pest that threatens their livestock and their livelihoods. Snow leopards roam the harsh mountain terrain of 12 countries, including China, Afghanistan, the 'stans' of Central Asia, India and Russia. In many places they are hunted for their pelts, and for their body parts, for use in Chinese medicine. But until the last few decades, little was known about how they live due to the remoteness of their territory and their extreme shyness. "If we know something, if we understand it, we're more likely to love it", says Mitchell Kelly, and that is really the basis of the program that was started in Ladkah by the NGO, the Snow Leopard Conservancy. The program works to help local farmers protect their livestock from predators such as wolves and snow leopards, by providing materials such as wire netting and posts for the pens where the animals are kept at night. It may not sound like much, but cash is a rare commodity in rural Ladakh, where it is a daily struggle just to get through the long winters on what can be grown in the warmer months. There is little spare money for luxuries, and the farmers depend absolutely on their crops and their animals. The loss of even one or two animals to a snow leopard represents a disaster to most farmers. Ladakh is in the trans-Himalaya, and is a high altitude desert with less rain than the Sahara. Only the toughest survive here, and that includes the Ladakhi people, who are as smart and hard-working as they come. Whilst they have farmed in traditional ways for generations, they are quick to adapt to new technologies when they become available, and relish any opportunity to improve their situation.

Homestay programs

The Snow Leopard Conservancy trains locals to educate Ladakhi children about biodiversity, and helps families run homestay programs in remote villages. Local women host tourists in their own homes, providing traditional accommodation and food. Not only does this give the women some money of their own, often for the first time, it also means less pressure on camp sites in remote regions. Traditionally, tourists have camped, and that means bringing a lot of pack animals into the fragile mountain environment. The pack animals compete with the domestic animals for the scarce resources. So the homestay program helps in a multi-layered way; providing cash, reducing the ecological impact of campers, and showing the villagers that the snow leopards can be an asset, rather than a dangerous pest that should be eliminated. Mitchell Kelly first became interested in trying to film snow leopards after reading Darla Hillard's book Vanishing Tracks: Four Years Among the Snow Leopards of Nepal, first published in 1989. The book is Hillard's vivid personal account of the first scientific expedition to successfully radio collar and study wild snow leopards. Hillard was a secretary who fell in love with wildlife biologist Rodney Jackson and together they pioneered the study of snow leopards, over four seasons in an extremely isolated region of western Nepal. In that four-and-a-half years they made just 18 snow leopard sightings but with the help of locals they were able to capture and sedate five of them, and attach radio collars. Information from this project is still the main source of data about how snow leopards live. Their work convinced Mitchell Kelly that with a lot of perseverance and luck, it might be possible to capture the animals on film. And after a year trying in Ladakh, he finally succeeded. For his second film Kelly teamed up with Rodney Jackson, Rinchen Wangchuk and other Snow Leopard Conservancy staff and they used remote camera traps positioned on high ridges to track down the leopards. They even managed to film a mating.

Touch and go

But when Kelly went back to Ladakh to make a third documentary - this one about the conservation program - he nearly died from altitude sickness. Filming above 5,000 metres he became disoriented and did not realise he had a high altitude cerebral oedema - a condition where the brain swells from excess fluid and begins pressing on the skull. "I just thought it was an off day," he tells Foreign Correspondent. "And unfortunately when you do start to succumb to altitude one of the first things that goes is your judgement." He got out his first aid book and self-diagnosed hepatitis. He kept on filming, but when he could not even sit up or manage to finish a sentence coherently, his local guide finally managed to convince Kelly he had to descend or he would die on the mountain. They had to go higher to get over a pass before they finally got back to camp four hours later, and it was touch and go. "Another 20 or 30 minutes more and I wouldn't have made it out". Amazingly, Kelly went back to the same region a few months later to try again. Almost immediately he had another attack. He knows he is lucky to be alive, and six years on, he is still recuperating. He spends his days painting and taking photos in the Australian bush on his family property outside Perth, but he never forgets the mountain, the people who helped him, and the cats he filmed. The locals are unlikely to forget him either. Kelly says that when he first went to Ladakh in the late 1990s few locals had ever seen a snow leopard in the wild. They were also convinced he had not really filmed them even after all those months up on the mountain - "and it wasn't until I took the film back and showed them that they finally admitted they had thought I was a bald-faced liar!" Foreign Correspondent's program on the conservation program in Ladakh can be seen on ABC1 at 8:00pm on Tuesday May 5.

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