Ismail Shariff – My Obsession with Snow Leopards

Snow Leopard, Shann, Shen, Irbis,… Whatever you may want to call them, as soon as I hear the name, the first thing that comes to mind is that long fluffy tail. It was the first time I ever saw a ghost, the ghost of the mountains, and I fell in love with it; that splendid tail, blue eyes, thick fur and a true blue cat attitude.

The fact that it is very difficult to photograph, was not the only thing to have drawn me towards the Snow Leopards. It was while researching about them, after seeing a picture by Dhritiman Mukherjee in July 2012, that I found it had this aura of mysticism and secrecy around it. Snow Leopard was a being of legendary stories and sightings; to be blessed by God to be able to see it in a speck, leave alone photograph it. It had this magic around it about how it disappears from right in front of you, perhaps never to be found again. The saintly strength with which it can glide over the snow and climb mountains in a jiffy; and also the fact that not much was known and/or documented about it.


All of the above piqued my interest and the mountaineer, photographer and swashbuckler in me gave in to test not just my luck, but both my mental and physical limits as well.

For those of you who don’t know me yet, I am Ismail Shariff, a Computer Science engineer with a Master’s in IT Project Management and Entrepreneurship from Central European University, Budapest, Hungary. After pursuing my studies in Budapest, I moved to Paris to work there for 2.5 years before wildlife photography took over me and I am currently;

    • An internationally published and exhibited Wildlife and Nature Photographer
    • Featured photographer on the Snow Leopard Network’s website
    • Being a conservation photographer, I partnered with the Snow Leopard Trust on a number of projects including SLT’s annual Snow Leopard calendar
    • A certified Fine Art Printmaker
    • And a bespoke photography expedition leader, concentrating mainly on Snow Leopards and other wild cats of the world.

And what I intend to achieve with all of this, is to show the world the amazing nature and its beings created by God, and to help in the conservation of the habitats of threatened species. Coming back to my obsession for Snow Leopards, my first and still the most memorable and favourite sighting, was in Hemis National Park, Ladakh, India. It was a male walking on the top edge of the mountain opposite to ours. It was so far that even after zooming in 100%, it was still a speck in my picture.

In hindsight, I feel all our experiences in life are but lessons, preparing us for what is to come. And on this first expedition I learnt about determination and never giving up, however tough it might be. I met a British gentleman of 84 years, who taught me this by example. He was supposedly coming to see the Snow Leopard for over a decade and this was his maiden sighting along with mine. And believe you me, he just looked into the spotting scope for a whole minute, moved back and said “Now I can stop coming”. That just blew my mind and for reasons still unexplainable, after that day it kind of became my goal to know more about it; for I saw the power it holds to make people dedicate over a decade only to have a glimpse of them. I had been photographing the big cats of India for over 5 years then, but felt, this trekking in the snowy mountains, in freezing temperatures, sleeping under the stars in a tent with just a hot water bottle for warmth; somehow gave me more satisfaction.

Since then, I have been obsessed with Snow Leopards and have seen, photographed, filmed and lead photography expeditions for Indian and European companies in Hemis National Park in Ladakh, Ulley in Ladakh, Kibber in Himachal Pradesh, and Altai Mountains in Mongo- lia. The more I see them, that much more I want to see them, and that much more I fall in love with them, and hence, that much more I want to help in protecting and conserving their habitat and prey-base for their survival.

Photography and Tourism ethics:

As a dear friend of mine put it – “Ethics means moral principles, or moral code or behaviour. Especially when it comes to wildlife, shouldn’t that be common sense – “to keep distance, to not instigate, to not be in private space of any animal or bird, to keep calm and not make noise, so as to not to disturb them”

I couldn’t agree more, but alas, so is not the case with quite some wildlife photographers. And it’s not the case of country, but I have seen it in India, Malaysia, USA, Mongolia and Europe. Let me also come clean here and be upfront on this, for when I started photographing wildlife in 2007, even I went on elephant safaris and paid a little extra to mahouts to get a closer picture of a Tiger in Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh, but thankfully and gratefully, its just been about that much, since, and the credit for that goes to my friends whom I would accompany for these wildlife safaris, for they never encouraged any such behaviour.

But what you see increasingly within snow leopard habitats is bewildering.

If we want to summarise the do’s and dont’s, then this is what I feel could make a good difference. It would be great to hear from others on anything more/else that we can do to make a difference for both photographers/tourists and the locals.

Maintain distance! Always!

Every being, including us, has our own personal space, intruding upon which, gets us agitated and even angry, and we all have dif- ferent ways of handling it. For most animals, the typical response if you get too close, is to either run away or literally ‘take matters in their hands (or claws and teeth)’. And what’s the fun in disturbing them so that they run away.

If you maintain the distance, not only will they hang around for a bit longer, giving you the opportunity to observe them and their behaviour, but if they get comfortable with your presence, they might just go about doing their usual thing, which gives you more to learn about them from.

Do not disturb the animals or birds!

Be it talking loudly, or trying to get attention of the being by mocking sounds and/or throwing things at them; its a strict NO! Be patient and wait, and you might get a much better moment than you have anticipated.

Try to stay away from baiting.

I do understand that some uber rare species like the Siberian Tiger or Amur Leopard cannot be observed/photographed without it, but baiting makes the mammals get used to it if done frequently, which alters their natural behaviour of predation. Failing to find these baits at a later point in time might even provoke them to attack the cattle, and in cases of big cats, like the Tigers and Leopards, they might even attack humans in desperation.

Also, when you book your expeditions or tour, do inquire about the credibility of the home stay owner, your tour leader, and the lo- cal support there. Just because they have been going there or leading expeditions or have a home stay there for a long time, doesn’t mean that all their practices are ethical. If you know people who have gone with them, talk to them and ask more details.

No drones in national parks!

Its strictly not allowed by the forest department in just about all the national parks and wildlife regions/reserves in India. If you DO want to fly them, make sure you have written permissions and approvals from the relevant forest offices.

Considering that most of us travel far and wide to reach such beautiful places, why make it a hassle and waste precious time in dealing with why, where, how and landing up in the station for a few hours; and also paying hefty fines and getting the drones con- fiscated.

No Camera traps!

No rocket science here too. No camera traps without prior written permission from the relevant forest offices.

When the animal/bird comes close.

There have been many instances where the animal or bird you are observing/photographing gets interested in you and comes closer to take a look-see. When that happens, please stay calm and restrict your movements to bare minimum and as gentle as you can. Getting excited to see them come close to you, might just startle them, and they might end up running/flying away or take you as a threat and attack you in defence.

Lastly, speak up!

Speak up wherever you see something wrong or not-right happening. Oppose it at the least, even if you have to submit and succumb to it. If we don’t stand up for what is right even vocally, then it becomes a norm, and at times even the guides and naturalists think it to be THE way of going about it.

Hopefully this forced reset that we are in, gives us all a positive perspective on how to take on life henceforth, and bring most positivity on field and conservation results. With all the new ‘necessary developments’ for which we are stripping out our natural resources, its still just a positive dream!

Ismail Shariff


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