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


Webinar by Dr Lu Zhi – Progress in Snow Leopard Conservation May 12, 2020

The Snow Leopard Network hosted our first ever Webinar on 12 May, 2020 and we were thrilled to have 162 people register for the event and 83 live participants on the day. Dr. LuZhi was our guest speaker and she was joined by Dr. Sandro Lovari as discussant.

Dr. LuZhi, Professor of Conservation Science at Peking University and the Executive Director of the Peking University Center for Nature and Society, has over 20 years of experience actively working in conservation issues in China; with a strong focus on community conservation in China’s mountainous areas. LuZhi founded the Shanshui Conservation Center, in 2007, which is a leading civil society organization promoting conservation in China. LuZhi is also the Snow Leopard Network’s Committee Chair and has been a pioneer in snow leopard conservation for over a decade.

We also had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Sandro Lovari as our discussant. Sandro brought knowledge and ideas from other areas of the snow leopard range, and is a distinguished scientist from University of Siena.  He is also member of our Snow Leopard Network committee.

LuZhi shared a vivid update on Snow Leopard conservation, seen from the perspective of China’s wider effort on conservation. China is protecting huge areas, (approximately 18% of the countries total land area), as part of reaching its national and international conservation targets.

LuZhi also underlined the vast scale of conservation efforts needed in China for the protection of the snow leopard. For example, similar to other areas of the snow leopard range only 1.7% of the snow leopard range has been monitored through systematic camera trapping. Teams are however coming together, through partnerships such as the Snow Leopard Network-China, in order to cover larger areas and share good practices. Partnerships with governments and the private sector are also helping develop strategies for promoting the co-existence of people and wildlife across high mountain areas. 

Ongoing threats to snow leopards that were discussed included, unmanaged feral dog populations, fencing that limit animal movement and lack of conservation capacity across sectors.

Looking ahead LuZhi described her vision for the future, including the arrival of a new generation of young conservationist to meet the challenge of scale.

We thank LuZhi and Sandro for the fascinating discussions. A big thank you to all our members for coming out in such large numbers to attend this first-ever event of the Snow Leopard Network.


Publication Alert – New Article to Bibliography

Title: Diachronic monitoring of snow leopards at Sarychat-Ertash State
Reserve (Kyrgyzstan) through scat genotyping: a pilot study

Authors: Rode, J., Pelletier, A., Fumey, J., Rode, S., Cabanat, A. L.,
Ouvrard, A., Chaix, B., White, B., Harnden, M., Xuan, N. T., Vereshagin,
A., Casane, D.

Abstract:Snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are a keystone species of
Central Asia’s high mountain ecosystem. The species is listed as
vulnerable and is elusive, preventing accurate population assessments
that could inform conservation actions. Non-invasive genetic monitoring
conducted by citizen scientists offers avenues to provide key data on
this species that would otherwise be inaccessible. From 2011 to 2015,
OSI-Panthera citizen science expeditions tracked signs of presence of
snow leopards along transects in the main valleys and crests of the
Sarychat-Ertash State Reserve (Kyrgyzstan). Scat samples were genotyped
at seven autosomal microsatellite loci and at a X/Y locus for sex
identification, which allowed estimating a minimum of 11 individuals
present in the reserve from 2011 to 2015. The genetic recapture of 7 of
these individuals enabled diachronic monitoring, providing indications
of individuals’ movements throughout the reserve. We found putative
family relationships between several individuals. Our results
demonstrate the potential of this citizen science program to get a
precise description of a snow leopard population through time.


SLN Webinar; special guest Dr. LuZhi

We invite you to our first SLN webinar of this series. Please join us in welcoming our guest speaker Dr. LuZhi, our SLN Committee chair, who will share with us more about the recent updates of snow leopard conservation in China.

Please register through the link below and help us spread the word and share the news with your colleagues and those who would be interested in attending.


Snow Leopard Webinar

An online webinar series from snow leopard experts across the world. Our guest snow leopard experts will share with you the latest developments in both science and conservation policy and practice across the snow leopard range. A brief, inspiring talk will be followed by a discussion period where we can explore ideas in further depth drawing on our experts experience and knowledge.

Date/Time: 12 May 2020 Tuesday (Please log into the meeting 5 min early to set up)

8:00am London time /12:00 Islamabad time/ 12:30 Delhi time/ 13:00 Bishkek time/ 15:00 Beijing time/ 15:00 Ulaanbaatar time/ 00:00 Seattle time

Structure: 60 min webinar- 30 min Guest speaker presentation/30 min discussion. During the talk feel free to write questions in the chat section that we can take forward during the discussion section.

Guest Speaker: Dr. LuZhi

Title: Progress in snow leopard conservation in China

Webinar talk: The Snow Leopard Network is inviting guests from across the snow leopard range as part of a webinar series to offer insights and share the latest developments in snow leopard conservation and science. Our first guest to kick off the series is Dr. LuZhi who will center her talk on China’s recent journey in conserving this remarkable species and symbol of Asia’s high mountains. China is host to an estimated 50% of snow leopard habitat and plays a key role in safeguarding the species for generations to come.

More about our guest: Dr. LuZhi, Professor of Conservation Science at Peking University and the Executive Director of the Peking University Center for Nature and Society, has over 20 years of experience actively working in conservation issues in China; with a strong focus on community conservation in China’s mountainous areas. LuZhi founded in 2007 the Shanshui Conservation Center which is a leading civil society organization promoting conservation in China. LuZhi is also SLN’s Committee Chair and been a pioneer in snow leopard conservation for over a decade.

Location: ZOOM, to join this talk, REGISTER HERE

Please note:
Please register before the event. If you have never used Zoom before, we recommend that you try the ZOOM link 10 minutes before the start of the lecture. This will prompt you to download the zoom software. During the talk, please keep your microphone muted. Please feel free to write questions in the comment area and there will be time for questions/discussion at the end of the talk.

Valley of the Cats; community-based conservation tourism

The “Valley of the Cats” is the name given to a spectacular valley close to the town of Namsei (Angsai) in Zadoi (Zaduo) County, Yushu Prefecture, Qinghai Province. Situated on the Tibetan Plateau, the Valley of the Cats is a special place. The 22 resident families, each with their own herd of yak, hold strict Buddhist beliefs about the sanctity of all life.


Although the Valley of the Cats is situated in the core area of Sanjiangyuan (the source of the three great rivers – the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Mekong), China’s first pilot National Park, and access is strictly controlled (permits are required and independent travel is not permitted), the local government has agreed to low-volume community-based tourism for up to three groups involving a maximum of 12 people at a time. This is a community-based conservation initiative where 100% of the revenue from this project stays in the community.


Wildlife watching tourism, as a community conservation initiative, has been designed to contribute to the local community and snow leopard conservation. 100% of the revenue from tourism stays with the local community. 45% of the income will go to the host family, 45% to a community fund (for public welfare issues such as health insurance) and 10% to snow leopard conservation.

自然体验将助力于当地社区发展和雪豹保护。45%的自然体验收入属于接待家庭,另外的45%将投入社区基金 (用于社会福利事业,如医保),剩下的10%将用于雪豹保护.

The Valley is 3-4 hrs drive from Yushu which, in turn, is a 1-hour flight from Xining in Qinghai Province.


***Please note that professional photographers or film makers, or any filming for commercial purposes, requires an additional special permit from the National Parks Authority. Anyone wishing to film in the Valley for commercial purposes will be required to prove they are in possession of such a permit before an application to visit will be accepted.***


The community-based tourism project in the Valley of the Cats is a community initiative. The community would like to thank 三江源国家公园管理局 (The Sanjiangyuan [Three-River-Source] National Park Administration)、玉树州人民政府 (Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefectural People’s Government)、玉树州林草局 (Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefectural Forestry and Grassland Administration)、杂多县人民政府 (Zaduo County People’s Government) and the 国家公园澜沧江源园区管委会 (Three-River-Source National Park Administration Commission of Langcang-River-Source Zone) for their guidance and support.

The community-based conservation in the Valley of the Cats is implemented by ShanShui Conservation Center 山水自然保护中心and supported by 阿拉善SEE(The SEE FOUNDATION),Panthera,Snow Leopard Trust, 膳魔师 (THERMOS),安迪维特(Advanturer) and 广州博冠(BOSMA).