Ladakh: Chasing the snow leopard

Nigel Richardson heads to Ladakh in India to seek out the snow leopard, one of the planet’s most elusive – and endangered – creatures.

By Nigel Richardson
Published: 10:12AM GMT 08 Feb 2010

Ladakh: Chasing the snow leopard

Ladakh is rapidly and proudly establishing itself as the Snow Leopard Capital of the World Photo: Alamy

Ladakh: Chasing the snow leopard

Local conviction holds that the snow leopard is uncannily clever Photo: Corbis

Ladakh: Chasing the snow leopard

Snow leopards, like foxes, have a predilection for committing what is known as ‘surplus killing’ Photo: Corbis

She wasn’t visible at first. Then she moved, rippling silently down a gully of rocks and padding straight up to us. This was Uncia uncia, the snow leopard, one of the most endangered species on Earth and one of the most beautiful. She was certainly the most captivating creature I have ever seen: fur like mist, pale jade eyes, the regal and remote air of a monarch whose realm is the roof of the world.

“When you are an old man, remember this moment,” I said to my companion, a six-year-old relative called Elliot.

“Why?” said Elliot, licking his ice lolly.

“Because when you are an old man the snow leopard will not exist.”

The snow leopard, Yasmin, pressed her nose to the glass wall of her enclosure and Elliot pretended to stroke it. In this moment I became obsessed with the desire to see such a star in its natural firmament.

However enlightened and well run, zoos are ersatz. But imagine seeing a snow leopard in the wild rather than in captivity. My heart thumped at the thought – it would be like having cocktails with Marilyn Monroe compared to watching a DVD of Some Like It Hot.

Our encounter with Yasmin the snow leopard took place at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, on a sticky afternoon in August. Three months later I was standing high on a Himalayan mountain in a temperature of 14F (-10C). In front of me was a powerful telescope and it was focused on snow leopard tracks on a distant peak. Marilyn, I felt, was just powdering her nose. Any minute now she would sashay into view.

In truth, you are scarcely more likely to spot a snow leopard in the wild than you are to see a unicorn, or indeed to shoot the breeze with a dead Hollywood star. They are as rare as they are shy, their camouflage is brilliant and their habitat is fabulously remote and inhospitable. So when I heard, shortly after my visit to Marwell Zoo, of a travel company offering the chance to “track the elusive snow leopard on foot”, I thought: pull the other one.

But Steppes Discovery, the Cotswolds-based specialist in conservation and wildlife holidays, is deadly serious. It has found an expert partner on the ground in the Indian Himalayas that credibly claims to offer a chance of sightings in the course of a week-long trek. The trackers are the same as the ones used by the BBC and other wildlife film-makers. Oh, and a snow leopard was seen on the previous trip in March. It was a no-brainer.

The cat with the big tail (it doubles as a scarf) lives high in the mountains of Central Asia, from Mongolia in the north to Afghanistan in the west and China in the south and east. I headed for the former Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh is rapidly and proudly establishing itself as the Snow Leopard Capital of the World. Some thrilling film footage has been shot here and the enlightened way in which the authorities are trying to marry snow leopard conservation to the needs of local communities is a model of its kind.

It is also an appropriately other-worldly place to live out the dream of becoming one of just a handful of people on Earth to have seen a wild snow leopard. Cradled in the Himalayas, just an hour’s flying time north of Delhi, this high-altitude desert of crag-top temples and fluttering prayer flags is a stronghold of Tibetan Buddhism, oracles who babble in tongues and kindly, contemplative people.

When our flight touched down on a mid-November morning the temperature was 1F (-17C). The water pipes had frozen solid in our hotel in the Ladakhi capital, Leh, and hot water for washing was delivered to the room in steaming plastic buckets. For three days we gazed on a sunlit mountainscape from the south-facing windows of our rooms as we acclimatised to the altitude (Leh is 11,500ft above sea level).

On the third day we were driven south-west for an hour to the very mountain range we had been gazing on. This is Hemis National Park, 1,300 square miles of prime snow leopard habitat. No one knows for sure how many snow leopards there are left in the wild. The figure could be as low as the hundreds but is probably between 3,500 and 7,000, with a further 700 or so in zoos around the world. In Hemis there are reckoned to be between 40 and 75.

They share these valleys, ridges and peaks with more than a thousand people, 4,300 head of livestock and hundreds of wild bharal, or blue sheep, the snow leopard’s natural prey. The idea of coming at this time of year is that as the bharal seek warmth in the winter months by dropping into the valleys from those high peaks, so the snow leopard follow and make themselves more visible.

It’s a good theory. Walking up from the park entrance to our first camp we passed an American sunning himself against a drystone wall as he waited for his lift back to Leh. He had been in the park for nine days and had not seen a sausage. “I think they’re up there laughing at me,” he said ruefully.

But we felt different, chosen. Obsession has this effect. We were a trio of strangers brought together by the belief that the snow leopard would reveal itself to us. David was the retired MD of a trust company in the Cayman Islands and Gail was an engineer at a British nuclear power station. Here were, literally, Power and Money seeking something from life that is more precious than either of these things: a beautiful creature on the brink of extinction.

Our trek leader and main tracker was a pair of finely attuned eyes called Dorje Chitta, a 35-year-old snow leopard expert with many of the qualities of our quarry, being enigmatic, stealthy and short on unnecessary vocalisation.

“Now you can start looking,” he said, setting up one of the expedition’s three powerful telescopes. “On ridges, on ledges. He is sitting in the sun for hours, just looking around, thinking: ‘Where is my dinner?’ ”

We had just pitched camp at a confluence of valleys 12,000ft above sea level. Our tents were huddled among a grove of leafless willow trees and a Buddhist shrine fluttering with prayer flags. The mountain walls and fantastical rock formations that surrounded us climbed another 8,000ft into a sky that was dazzling blue by day and electrified with stars at night, when the mercury headed south like a runaway lift.

I spotted the snow leopard tracks on a high peak almost a mile to the north, looking like a zip fastener in the deep snow. It was an extraordinary-shaped mountain, like an Elizabethan ruff, and Chitta pointed out the snow leopard’s favoured route of descent, through the frills of the ruff. It had been at least a day since he passed that way, but it was a promising start.

And so the quest began. Each morning and afternoon we headed out from base camp to a different valley, took up position on a new ridge, clambered high onto a fresh saddle. And looked. Bent to the scope, Chitta would pore for many minutes over a single section of mountainside – cover one eye, rub his eyes, corroborate what he had seen through binoculars, go back to the scope. Ten minutes would pass. Twenty. The mountain silence was so pure and profound it sang in one’s ears.

Surely he had seen something? Then, before we knew it, he had lifted the scope and padded off silently through the snow.

Two days passed. Three. Then I spotted a soft, roundish object on a sunlit ledge half a mile above us. It was, I convinced myself, a snow leopard’s head. Any second now it would move. Those vertical pupils would be locked on to us, far below. “Hey Chitta!” I could hardly get the words out. He crouched and looked.

“It’s a bush,” he said.

On the fourth morning, having got no nearer to a sighting than old pug marks in the snow, I arrived in the mess tent with a thought that conveyed the scale of our task. “You know what we’re doing?” I said. “We’re looking for a cathedral-coloured beetle in a cathedral.” My fellow obsessives, David and Gail, barely looked up from their breakfast omelettes.

That morning our team of four guides and cooks struck camp, loaded our gear on to mules and moved higher up the valley to a site at 12,500ft. This brought us near to the village of Rumbak, an area rich in snow leopard where many researchers and film teams have stayed over the past 15 years.

This was a last throw of the dice. By now I was trying to adjust to the possibility of failure but, goodness knows, it was a hard thing to accept given that we were currently existing at the extremes of human endurance for the sake of just a flash of that ermine-like fur. The next day, like half-mad mystics, all three of us started beseeching the mountains to reveal their feline fugitives. “Just once, dear God,” I found myself murmuring.

On the penultimate day Chitta found pug marks that were only a few hours old and beetled off across the valley like a bloodhound as we returned to camp in deep snow. But he lost the trail among rocks and returned with an expressionless face. That evening we drowned our disappointments with a bit of a knees-up in Rumbak.

Over momos – spicy dumplings – and army-issue rum the villagers talked about snow leopards. In the winter, they said, they bring their livestock down from the high pastures and corral them in front yards and in the ground floors of their flat-roofed, mud-brick houses. Last year, while a party was going on (there is little else to do in these ferocious winters), they had a visitor. And if you subscribe to the local conviction that the snow leopard is uncannily clever you will believe that his choice of evening to come down off the mountain and raid the village was not random.

“The leopard came inside the yard,” explained a leather-faced man, making stealthy swoops with his hand. “He kill 12 out of 19 goats and sheep.”

Snow leopards, like foxes, have a predilection for committing what is known as “surplus killing”, especially in confined spaces. “He drinks so much blood, he gets drunk,” Chitta said. The woman who owned the slaughtered livestock said the snow leopard had made its escape before the villagers discovered the bloodbath.

In times past, the village would have made a trap for the snow leopard and stoned it to death. Now they contact the local wildlife department and register for compensation. The scheme is not perfect but this and other educative measures have changed the attitude of villagers to the cats on their doorsteps.

Slithering back to camp that night beneath mountain walls and a waxing moon, I knew that failure was my friend, that I was not yet ready to see the snow leopard. But my obsession burns brightly and I will return to the snow leopards’ rocky domain. Meanwhile, one can dream. Bartender, another glass of Dom Perignon 53 for Miss Monroe.

On the trail

The 14-day expedition was arranged by Steppes Discovery (01285 643333; It costs from £2,720 per person including full board in tents and/or village accommodation on the week-long trek and four nights in a hotel in Leh, the services of expert guides and porters, sightseeing in Ladakh and internal flights from Delhi to Leh. Depending on internal flights, two or three nights will be spent in Delhi, where meals are not included. A percentage of the cost (depending on group size) is donated to the Snow Leopard Conservancy ( International flights are extra. The next treks are March 7-21 and November 7-21. Steppes Discovery can also arrange a tour for a private group.

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