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.

The dragon devours the tiger: Environmental Investigation Agency report includes snow leopard

<By Indrajit Basu
UPI Correspondent
Published: February 01, 2010 Kolkata, India — The year 2010 may be an auspicious year in the almanac of the Chinese. But as China enters the “Year of the Tiger” on Feb. 14, tiger conservationists have renewed their fears on the future of this fast-dwindling wild animal. No animal holds more fascination for the Chinese than the tiger, which is identified with progress, luck and charm, while its body parts are believed to hold high medicinal properties. Consequently, even as the demand for its body parts is already high, it is slated to go up dramatically in the Year of the Tiger. Conservationists fear that the burgeoning demand in the Middle Kingdom will not only increase illegal poaching in Asia, particularly in India, but it also threatens to push tigers to the brink of extinction. “The findings of our most recent investigation in China, concluded around the end of last year, revealed that illegal trade in Asian big cats in China and the availability of tiger skin, bone and teeth, leopard skin and bone, and snow leopard skin is going on unabated despite many efforts to curb that since 2004,” said Debbie Banks, head of the Tiger Campaign of the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency. “During these investigations we had encountered traders in China selling tiger parts, and those involved in the illegal trade said that they were anticipating an increase in profits in 2010. They said everyone will want a tiger skin in the Year of the Tiger.” Banks added that all countries in the region – including Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal and Myanmar – that have wild tigers are targeted by poachers having connections with Chinese traders. But since India has the largest number of wild tigers, it is at the center of poaching. “There is a well-established network operating in the trans-Himalayan region,” she said. Chinese traders, allege investigators, are buying tiger parts from poachers in the region at exorbitant prices, and have particularly established extensive contacts and well-organized smuggling routes along the porous India-Nepal- Myanmar border. According to Peter Pueschel, the Germany-based wildlife trade program manager of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Asian tigers are not the only ones under threat. “Chinese demand is also increasing the poaching of tigers in the eastern Russian region which shares its borders with China,” he said. Wild tigers face unprecedented threats today, including reduction of habitat, depletion of prey and continued poaching. Recent reports have found that areas occupied by tigers have shrunk by as much as 41 percent in the last 10 years. Much of this is due to the doubling of the human population since 1965 in Asia’s 14 tiger-range countries. The biggest reason for the alarming reduction of the tiger population, however, is the explosive demand for tiger parts from the Chinese. Sixty years ago over 100,000 tigers roamed the wild; now the global population has dwindled to less than 3,200. India, with about 1,400, has the largest share of wild tigers, but this population is also fast depleting. India’s national tiger census figures released last year recorded a 60-percent drop since 1997, when there were 3,508 tigers. The New Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India recorded 85 cases of tiger mortality in 2009. Of these at least 32 tigers were killed by poachers; 12 were found in the field and parts of 20 others were seized. In the first few weeks of this year six tigers have been found dead already. “Wild tigers must also die from natural circumstances, but the poaching and seizure figures account for 38 percent of the tiger mortality in India for 2009, which is simply unsustainable for a species which is already in dire straits,” said Belinda Wright, the founder-director of WPSI. WPSI started tracking the mortality rate of Indian tigers in 2008, but the poaching and seizure figures for years 2008, 2007 and 2006 were 29, 27 and 37 respectively. “There is a certain demand for tiger bone medicines in some mainly Asian countries but the rampant demand comes from China, which is the only country that processes tiger bones,” said Wright. This is not to say there is no awareness of the threat to tigers in China. In fact, following a total depletion of its wild tigers, China banned trade in wild tiger parts and started seizing and arresting “tiger criminals” from 1993. However, conservationists say that tiger parts are so central to Chinese culture that enforcement officials are often willing to turn a blind eye to trade in tiger parts and products. “Although China has laws prohibiting the import and export of Asian big cat parts and there is a domestic trade ban as well, there isn’t the commitment, investment and also enforcement to stop the trade. We find there is big gap in China’s enforcement efforts. Our concern is that the basic elements of investigation and enforcement in China are not happening. They may react to information but there is no proactive effort to control trading of tiger parts,” said Grace Gabriel, the Beijing-based Asia Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. That may be due to the typical attitudes of Chinese toward the consumption and conservation of tigers. According to a study released in July 2008 by a group of researchers from Save the Tiger Fund and other groups, most Chinese said they continued consuming tiger parts despite the local ban. “We surveyed 1,880 residents from a total of six Chinese cities to understand urban Chinese tiger consumption behavior, knowledge of trade issues and attitudes towards tiger conservation. We found that 43 percent of respondents had consumed some product alleged to contain tiger parts. Within this user group, 71 percent said that they preferred wild products over farmed ones,” the study said. The other reason why enforcement is lacking in China is the existence of large tiger farms that currently rear close to 7,000 tigers in captivity. “These farms are owned by very influential people who would like to see the trade ban lifted and tiger trade legalized, since those people have invested large sums of money in the farms. They are almost waiting for the wild tiger to be extinct so that they can make a killing on their stock pile. They are also lobbying the Chinese government to change the law,” said Banks. Conservationists say driving wild tigers to extinction actually serves the tiger farmers’ economic interests because, while it takes between US$7000 and $10,000 to raise a farmed tiger to the size where it is worthwhile to kill it, killing and smuggling in a wild tiger costs no more than $3,000. The Chinese government too is sending mixed signals. “China is not backing down from the tiger farming issue, and does not intend to follow the wishes of the international community on the total banning of tiger farms and tiger parts trade. By allowing breeding and the stockpiling of tiger parts, they are sending a clear message – to the world, to the tiger farm industry, to consumers in China, and to enforcement authorities – that tiger bone trade will one day be legalized,” said Wright. Worldwide bans on tiger trade have helped Russia‘s tiger population recover and other wild tiger populations to persist. Similarly, stopping the tiger trade and the farming of tigers in China can also save wild tigers, say conservationists. “We have been urging the Chinese government not to legalize trade in farmed tiger products because that can only expand opportunities to sell parts and products from wild tigers,” said Grace Gabriel. “As a Chinese I think it is important that we use the Year of the Tiger as an opportunity to educate other Chinese that we do not want the tiger to be the dragon, the only animal in the Chinese zodiac that does not exist anymore,” she added.

Snow leopard tracks possibly found in Kashmir ski area

The call of Kashmir

How this troubled corner of the Himalayas has gone from war zone to ultimate ski destination

Wow, life really can be a bummer. It’s 14 January and I’m sitting on the Heathrow Express, reading in the paper that Scotland is buried under snow, its ski resorts rejoicing in the best conditions for a decade. Meanwhile, Scandinavia has epic amounts of powder, the Alps are having a superb month and there’s so much of the white stuff in London that people are skiing on Hampstead Heath. And this is the year I choose to go all the way to India, to ski in the Himalayas where, for the first time in 15 years, there’s no snow.Well almost none. At the airport Jon, the photographer, fills me in on the grim situation. Bizarre as it seems, the Highlands’ gain seems to have been the Himalayas’ loss – the same dominant northerly weather system that brought the Arctic cold to Britain has meant India‘s peaks have been getting dry north winds from across parched expanses of Russia and the ‘Stans, instead of wet snow-packed clouds from the Arabian Sea. I succeed in being philosophical about this for about eight minutes, then drown my sorrows courtesy of Qatar Airways to such an extent that the inflight showing of Gavin & Stacey has me sobbing my eyes out.Twenty hours later, I emerge from Srinagar airport, blinking in the bright sunshine. Even without the hangover, the scene would be surreal. Before me is a huge billboard that says “Welcome to Kashmir, Paradise on Earth” above a scene of lakes and snow-capped mountains so pretty it would have you humming jolly ditties about lonely goatherds, were it not for the fact that beneath the poster is a machine gun emplacement, from which Indian army commandos peer through camouflage netting. More soldiers are on patrol outside the arrivals hall, toting machine guns and looking on as our group, a dozen skiers in bright puffa jackets, sunglasses and luminous bobble hats, wander out and start to hoist skis onto the roofs of taxis.It’s a sight the soldiers are getting increasingly used to. A couple of years ago stories about Kashmir started to spread through the ski bars of the Alps, rumours of a powder paradise, where a metre of fresh, light snow falls like clockwork every week throughout the winter. And could there be a more compelling subject for a traveller’s tale? Kashmir has been romanticised by everyone from the 16th-century Mogul emperor Jahangir (who, when asked on his deathbed if he wanted anything, whispered “Kashmir, only Kashmir”) to Salman Rushdie (who spoke of “the lush valleys, the lakes, the streams, the saffron meadows – the intense physical beauty and culture of enormous harmony”) and Led Zepellin (“Ooh my baby, let me take you there”).Add the spice of danger, the years of violent border disputes between India and Pakistan that have kept it off limits, and you have the delicious prospect of a beautiful forbidden valley at the edge of the world’s highest mountains. Compare that with the familiar, never-changing Alpine round of chalets and fondues, lift queues and après-ski, and it’s little surprise that keen skiers weary of St Anton and Val d’Isère are making the long pilgrimage here.Our procession of jeeps with skis and snowboards piled on the roofs leaves the airport through multiple army checkpoints, swerving around barbed wire-encrusted barricades and then heads out through the dusty, grey, dirt-poor villages. We feel like some over-privileged colonial-era hunting party, pursuing not big game but our prized powder snow.An hour-and-a-half later we arrive at Gulmarg, India‘s leading ski resort, and the feeling of returning to the days of the Raj only intensifies. Sitting on a plateau at 2,600m, Gulmarg grew up as a hill station in the 19th century, when British civil servants and soldiers would come up to escape the summer heat, hunt and play golf. By the early 20th century there were three golf courses here, including one for women only, and in the middle of the fairways was St Mary’s Anglican church, which still stands today.“Here the happy fugitive from the sweltering heat of the lower regions will find a climate as glorious as the scenery – he can enjoy the best of polo and golf, picnics and scrambles on foot or on horseback, coming home to wind up the happy day with a cheery dinner and game of bridge,” wrote one visitor, a Major TR Swinburne, in 1907.We are staying at the Hotel Highlands Park, opened in 1966 by retired cavalry officer and golf fanatic Major Benjie Nedou. Though it is now owned by his granddaughter and her husband, who gave up legal and banking careers in London to return to Kashmir, Benjie would still feel very much at home. In the dining room hangs the bear that he shot after it attacked someone in the village, a sign by the lounge politely asks guests to leave weapons at the door, while the wood-panelled walls are covered in watercolours of St Andrews and plaques, medals and pendants presented by his friends in various Indian and British regiments (plus, strangely, one from Oldham Rotary Club).Today, though, the lounge is filled with ski bums, not top brass. Around the fireplace there are dreadlocks, baseball caps, and big North Face down jackets. They’re peering into laptops, poring over the latest weather forecasts. And no one is looking very happy.Next morning I’m woken by a rustle in the bedroom. It’s Ahmed and Mushtaq, who tiptoe in to leave a tray of sweet milky chai and stoke up the bukhari, the wood-burning stove in the corner of the room. The hotel is made up of several wooden cottages scattered along a ridge, each with a few rooms, and each with a couple of staff who are modelled on the army officer’s batman, right down to the olive green and burgundy wool uniforms.
It’s a brilliant morning and monkeys are playing on the grass terraces just beyond our verandah. To the right, above the forest, the summit of Mount Apharwat is sparkling in the early sun. Even Ahmed telling us that there is usually snow up to the eaves at this time of year, and that the hotel has to keep a team of five on round-the-clock shovelling duties to keep the paths clear, can’t dent our spirits.And so we’re off to see Gulmarg’s main claim to fame – its ski lifts. Well actually, its ski lift. Gulmarg has only one serious lift (the other three are tiny, ancient drag lifts for beginners). Building work for the main lift, the Gulmarg Gondola, began as far back as 1989, but after a major escalation in violence Gulmarg effectively shut down for almost a decade and construction was put on hold. The gondola was finally completed in 2005, taking skiers up to 3,979m, just below the summit of Apharwat, making it the world’s highest ski lift. (There are two higher lifts in China but neither is in an ski resort, while higher lifts in Venezuela and Bolivia have shut down.)The locals are, unsurprisingly, proud of this fact and around the resort are posters showing the lift with catchlines like “Gulmarg Gondola – a tryst with nature”, “Gulmarg Gondola – a step closer to heaven”, and “Gulmarg Gondola – a masterpiece of French engineering”. The reality is a little less awe-inspiring. The gondola is French-built, made by lift company Poma, but given the 16-year construction period, it isn’t what you’d call state of the art. As we queue up inside, the signs become more prosaic (“spitting or scratching inside the gondola is strictly prohibited”) and a man scrambling in the machinery above our heads opens the doors of each cabin with a kick. The racks are too small for today’s fatter skis, so we have to stick them half in, half out of the cabins, which means the doors can’t close properly. The lift also breaks down regularly, doesn’t open much before 10am, and won’t run in high winds. We make a few nervous gags about it getting us a bit too close to heaven and decide not to think about it too much.On the upside, it is cheap – 150 rupees (£2) up to the mid-station, 250 rupees to the top – and as we ride up, we can see there is some snow around. Nick Parks, our British guide, explains that so far in this freakish winter there have been only two snowfalls, one in November and one on New Year’s Day, dropping a total of about 90cm. This is a monumental challenge to my positive mental attitude. On one hand we are going to be able to ski, it’s sunny, we’re in India, I haven’t got ill yet and we’ve seen a monkey. On the other, there is less than half the snow here than they have in the Cairngorms!Disembarking at the top station (which seems to be made largely from corrugated iron) we see our first, fabulous Himalayan panorama. Here, above the haze that hangs in the valley, we spin around to take in the chain of peaks that stretches around the horizon, from Pakistan into India and north to China, with Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth-highest peak, dominating the view.We take a few runs, and though the snow is old and crusty rather than the fabled powder we’ve come searching for, we can quickly see the potential of the place. Apharwat is a big, wide, whale-backed mountain, with a dozen or so ridges coming off the front face at right angles, like the teeth of a comb. The top lift station is bang in the middle and so from it you can traverse left or right along the top, and choose to ride any of the ridges or drop into any of the bowls and gullies between them. Only a small central section is avalanche-controlled, patrolled and prepared; the rest of the mountain is off-piste. Glass half full: this is an amazing place, the perfect skiers’ mountain, and in a normal year you could spend all week lapping the lift and riding every gully in a glorious frenzy of powder. Glass half empty: it’s not a normal year.Thankfully, Nick has a plan. At lunch in the Kongdori restaurant at the gondola mid-station (my first curry above 3,000m), he explains that instead of repeatedly taking the lift and skiing the front side of Apharwat, we’ll head over the top and explore the back, looking for unskied routes, hunting out stashes of powder, and attaching sticky skins to our skis so we can climb up slopes and press out into the wilderness.On day two we put the plan into action. From the lift we climb for 40 minutes to the summit of Apharwat, at 4,124m, ski down into a deserted valley, then trek up to another col, first on foot, clambering up through bushes, then on skis. From the top we can make out a strange, distant line in the snow, stretching away across every mountain we can see – the barricades that mark the start of the demilitarized zone before the “line of control”, India and Pakistan‘s disputed border.From here we begin our descent, first on open slopes, then into glades of paperbark trees, a type of pink-tinged birch. No one has been this way for at least three weeks – the snow is untouched, in places hard and icy, and in others deliciously powdery. Then the paperbarks start to blend into the forest of Himalayan pines, colossal trees shooting straight up for 30m or more. The trees are so old and tall they seem to suck up the sound as well as the light, and we dart through them shouting at each other so as not to get lost.Then suddenly we pop out, back into the sunlight on an open slope which Nick calls Snow Leopard Couloir because of the animal’s tracks he’s seen in the snow there. (We never manage to spot one, but we do encounter its more common relative, the Himalayan Leopard – two of them skinned on the walls of the Highlands Park, one alive, seen by some of our group in the lights of a taxi at night.)The snow in the couloir is a delight, turned sugary because it has sat untouched on the hill for so long, and we whoop as we ski down it, stopping occasionally to take photos, before we eventually reach a snow-covered road in a forgotten side valley. It’s a military track off-limits to the public, used by soldiers heading for their border look-out posts. As we take off our skis to begin the hour-long walk back to town, there’s a distant rumbling and a khaki truck lumbers around the corner, the three soldiers in the cab looking bemused at the skiers standing in the road before them. It’s as if a wormhole has opened up between the frivolous slopes of Courchevel a
nd this troubled corner of Asia, which Bill Clinton once dubbed “the most dangerous place in the world”.
I’m not sure whether we should ignore them, run away or just smile, but Imtiyaz, a local who’s come with us for the day, flags them down with a winning smile and pleads for a lift. The driver looks unsure, but then, with a wobble of the head, breaks into a huge smile, and we run round the back and clamber inside. We have done only one run in the whole day, but it’s been more memorable than any day’s skiing I’ve ever had.“There’s no polish here, this is a wild mountain,” says Yaseen Khan, 54, owner of the Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop, a 12ft-square Aladdin’s Cave that is the de facto hub of the resort. Inside it’s dark but the walls are lined with ski gear, some ancient and battered hand-me-downs, others surprisingly new. In the back, Yaseen’s son is repairing my skis by melting plastic onto them with a candle, while his father discusses how the resort’s prospects have ebbed and flowed according to the intensity of India‘s border disputes with Pakistan and China, and the activity of Kashmir‘s insurgents and terrorists.Now, after four years of relative calm, some are daring to dream about a new golden era for the resort. Plans for a second gondola are advanced, and a group of New Zealanders are planning to start a heli-skiing operation here next winter, catapulting Gulmarg into a new league, where the super-rich will pay more than €6,000 a week to avoid the temperamental gondola and the skinning uphill.Yaseen is not keen. “If heliskiing comes it will be hell – far too much noise. People come here because it is so natural, so wild, and it should stay like that.”So is it safe? The Foreign Office says no, warning against travel to “rural areas” of Kashmir, and its website lists numerous clashes in Srinagar between protestors, insurgents and the police.Of course, everywhere “feels” safe until you get into trouble, but it’s hard to imagine much harm coming to a tourist in Gulmarg, high up on its secluded plateau. In fact, it is one of the most relaxed, convivial places I’ve ever been in India. There are no beggars, hawkers, or hassle. Indian and Western tourists mix, and the ski patrol and avalanche forecast team is a happy international blend of Canadians, Kiwis and Indians. Even the soldiers from the big army base on the edge of the village look like they are having fun, as they have their first faltering goes on the nursery slopes.And so the week continues, in some ways like a normal ski holiday, in others totally different. The sunset stroll is accompanied by the call to prayer, we eat curry, not raclette, every night, we spot bear and leopard tracks in the snow, ski past monkeys and watch huge birds of prey circling. One afternoon, we ski down to find the village full of Indian tourists from Gujarat coming up to see snow for the first time. Dressed in rented fur coats, they sledge along the paths, screaming with glee, then make each of us pose with them for photographs. But the biggest difference, the strangest thing of all, is the sense of space, the lack of people. On this vast mountain, there are perhaps 50 skiers per day, and as we push out into distant corners of the range, we only ever catch glimpses of them.“This is the worst year I have ever seen here, but, you know, it makes you change your rythym, adapt,” says John Falkiner, a guide from Verbier who first came here in 1989. “Places like Chamonix and Verbier are getting ridiculous these days. There are so many people you just feel like another number.“Here you get to know everyone else on the mountain – you’ll probably play backgammon with them in the bar. It reminds me of growing up in Australia and going to the local ski club. It’s not about ripping up as much powder as possible – the skiing is just the vehicle that lets us experience this exotic place.”And so we convince ourselves to stop yearning for snow, to forget about the long runs down to the valley-bottom villages of Drang and Babareshi that are impossible because of the snow drought, and we start to relish the trip. The group bonds, we relax, we take après-ski tea with Yaseen, chat with Ahmed and Mushtaq, and have the most interesting, unusual, fabulous ski trip. Perhaps the glass really is half full after all.And then, literally as we get into the taxi to start the long journey back to Srinagar, Delhi and London, it starts to snow. Big, heavy, Himalayan snow flakes. Positive thinking flies out the window. Life really can be a bummer.• Mountain Tracks (020 8123 2978; offers skiing adventures around the world. Its 10-day Kashmir trip costs £1,525, including half-board accommodation at the Hotel Highlands Park, seven days’ skiing with a guide, lift pass, transfers and flights from Delhi to Srinagar. Qatar Airways (0870 389 8090; flies to Delhi via Doha, with four flights a day from Heathrow, and daily flights from Gatwick and Manchester, from £348 return.

Kashmir: Avoidable loss of a leopard (most likely not a snow leopard)

 Editorial Posted On Thursday, January 28, 2010Kashmir is notorious for clean felling of jungles and all, from ministers down to forest rangers, are into this business. Militant activities over a period of two decades have also adversely impacted the forests- Proloy Bagchi
A national daily reported the other day that a leopard was shot dead in a village close to Pulwama, a town in western Kashmir.
It seems it strayed into the village and injured a female child and several other persons. The villagers were able to confine it into a cowshed and then they called for the wildlife officials. Since the latter couldn’t reach the village before sundown, afraid of further injuries to people the villagers persuaded the resident police officials to kill the big cat. The wildlife officials arrived from Srinagar much later having been held up in a series of traffic snarls.
A leopard was thus needlessly lost.
Pulwama is a pretty little town in Kashmir located 31 kms south of Srinagar. Situated in the shadows of mighty Peer Panjal ranges, it is surrounded by verdant pine forests and is known for its saffron and milk production. The fact that a leopard had strayed into a nearby village and that it had to be killed due to inability of the wildlife officials of Srinagar to reach the place in good time due to traffic jams raises at least three questions.
The report in the newspaper did not indicate whether it was a snow leopard or an ordinary tropical leopard found in the jungles in India. One wonders whether it was a snow leopard, which is a dwindling species and is under great threat. Though their habitat is at elevations of more than 9000 ft, they could climb down to around 5000 ft which is the elevation of Pulwama if they happen to be chasing a prey. That, however, seems to be highly unlikely, as snow leopards prefer rugged terrains, rocky outcrops and ravines and not a lush valley like Kashmir.
The leopard that was shot down was most probably of ordinary kind generally found all over India in lower elevations. Unless it was chasing a prey, its foray into a village would be indicative of its degrading habitat. Human encroachments in its domain and cutting down of the jungles may have diminished its prey-base making it to stray into a human settlement looking for food. Kashmir is notorious for clean felling of jungles and all, from ministers down to forest rangers, are into this business. Militant activities over a period of two decades have also adversely impacted the forests. Be that as it may, a leopard straying into a human settlement is a highly unusual incident and needs to be taken serious note of. It may be indicative of disappearing forests along with their wildlife and an oncoming water scarcity – already evident – in the Valley.
The inability of the wildlife officials to reach the village on account of traffic jams raises the third question. The report says they were repeatedly held up at various stages of their journey because of jams. Apparently, vehicular traffic that was sparse a few years ago has risen manifold causing traffic jams even in winters. Besides, the jams on way to a place which is not known for hectic industrial or commercial activities would seem to be alarming. Earlier only the army convoys would put a squeeze on the traffic. Are the roads in Kashmir chock-a-block with vehicles choking all movement? It should be a matter for concern both for the State Government as well as the Centre. Being the hotbed of militancy free vehicular movement is essential.
Leopards in India, like other big cats, are a vanishing species. Almost every month there is a report or two of one being killed having strayed into a village or a town. Kashmir is a state with few leopards and even fewer snow leopards. And, one of the species seems to have been killed quite needlessly. Such avoidable killings adversely impacts on the state of wildlife in the country. Hopefully, the keepers of wildlife in Kashmir will look at all aspects of this sorry incident and initiate appropriate conservational measures.

LE JOURNAL DE LA CONSERVATION: new French online journal features article on snow leopards

A new magazine called “LE JOURNAL DE LA CONSERVATION” has just been published online. “Le Journal de la Conservation” is the first French language magazine informing the general public about the commitments of public and private French zoological parks towards saving wild animal species in their natural habitat (in-situ conservation).

It also details the commitments of these parks towards international ex-situ conservation programmes and the research that entails and which allows us to broaden our knowledge of wild animals. In brief it gives news about zoological parks.

In this first issue, which can be downloaded by clicking on the link below, you will also find a concise article about the Snow Leopard and discoveries made about this very discrete animal, written by Grégory Breton, zoological director of the Parc des Félins.
PS: For easier reading, we suggest you save the document on your hard disk and modify the display by selecting the options “Facing” in the menu ‘View>Page Layout’ of Acrobat Reader.

Support a polar bear or a snow leopard for that matter

Support a polar bear
Monday December 7, 2009

Or a snow leopard for that matter. A ski company is sponsoring the animals and we’re backing them here at PlanetSKI. The new company, Zenith Holidays, is donating funds to the World Wildlife Fund to support the polar bear and will give £10 for every £1,000 of revenue raised through one of its sponsored rooms.“It’s no secret that the Polar Bear’s environment is under threat and as we have a Chalet L’Ours Blanc (Polar Bear) in Montgenevre we thought we should support the Polar Bear so we sponsored it with the World Wildlife Fund,” says Stuart McLeod, the managing director of Zenith Holidays.

For how much longer? “As for the Snow Leopard, there are not many of them left and they can only be found in the mountains of central Asia and the Himalayas so we sponsored them too.”Regular readers of PlanetSKI will know that we are following the plight of the snow leopard as their numbers decrease and watching the breeding in captivity programme too.Sometimes it is succesful and sadly other times not.So if you want to help Zenith Holidays help the animals then see here.

Snow Leopard Vodka Management Change

Graeme Lindsay, marketing director of Whyte and Mackay has left with another job to go to.

Whyte and Mackay has confirmed that Lindsay left his role at the Glasgow whisky brand this week and will take some time out over Christmas and New Year before beginning a new role in February.

At the time of writing it was unclear what the new role was.

He joined Whyte and Mackay as marketing director in December 2007 from rival Glenmorangie.

A spokesperson for Whyte & Mackay said: “Graeme chose to leave the business to pursue other opportunities and we wish him all the best. He worked for us for two years, and helped build the international capability of our marketing team and also of some of our brands. At this stage we have no plans to replace him or that role.”

Meanwhile, The Drum has also learned that luxury vodka Snow Leopard, which partners with Whyte and Mackay has appointed Lutchford APM without a pitch.

The London-based agency has been tasked with handling the PR, event management and product placement for the vodka brand and work beginning to appear early next year.

Snow Leopard, which was launched three years ago by founder Stephen Sparrow, sells 1,000 cases a year but is looking reach nearer the 100,000 cases to reach its aim of saving the animals, of which only 3,500 remain.

Material Marketing, which was recently appointed as Whyte and Mackay’s marketing agency, created the sales and support collateral for Snow Leopard earlier this year.

Indian trail of ‘the ghost of the mountains’

A tourism initiative is helping Indian farmers learn to love the endangered predator that targets their flocks. Adrian Phillips reports

Sunday, 6 December 2009I’m sitting on the floor wrapping dough round my fingers. Alongside me, my hostess pulls and pinches her paste into delicate bows, all the while watching my fat-fisted efforts with a gap-toothed grin you could post a parcel through. As dinner is served, we’re joined by the head of the house, wearing a mauve sweatshirt that remains unchanged during the three days I spend in the village. His has the furrowed face of an elderly man, but his body is as lithe as a meerkat’s and his broad hands could crack walnuts. Both he and his daughter (my amused pasta partner) have the gentle, feline features typical of those from this part of India. As we eat cross-legged on cushions, they nod and smile at me, and I nod and smile back, and in between nods and smiles and chews and swallows I struggle to imagine these people crushing the skull of a snow leopard. They may not have done, of course, but other farmers in the region have. I’m in the village of Rumbak, high in the Ladakh range of the Himalayas, near the border with Tibet, and this is the terrain of the snow leopard. Nobody knows precisely how many of the creatures live here – not for nothing is the cat called the “ghost of the mountains” – but possibly 50 in Hemis National Park and 500 in the Indian Himalayan range as a whole.This is a globally important population of a precariously endangered species, but its presence hasn’t been welcomed by all. Picture the scene. You wake one winter morning, head out to check on your livestock, and find your enclosure a gory smear of slaughtered animals. During the night, a snow leopard has broken through the roof and jumped down among the sheep and goats. Unable to get out again, it now cowers tight to the wall in a corner, wide-eyed and spitting up at you. It has wiped out your entire livelihood in a few minutes of frenzied bloodlust. Graceful animal or destructive pest? Is it impossible to sympathise with those distraught villagers who raise sticks and stones to the cause of such devastation?A survey in 1999 revealed that 12 per cent of farmers’ livestock here was killed each year, the snow leopard the primary predator. Shortly afterwards, the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust was established to resolve this conflict between the interests of man and beast. What was required was an economic incentive to shift local attitudes towards the leopard. Rinchen Wanchuk, co-founder of the trust, gathered the villagers together and put an idea to them: why not set up a network of traditional homestays that would provide trekkers with an alternative to canvas, and an authentic local experience to boot? The scheme has proved a roaring success. A co-operative spirit infuses the whole enterprise; each of the village houses takes its turn to receive guests, and a portion of the income is put into a central pot that is used for programmes of land management, conservation and even insurance against livestock losses. A family might host 30 visitors a year, and earn three times more than it did in the past. Villagers guide visitors to the leopard hot spots, and sightings are now greeted with excitement rather than worry – the animal embraced as an asset more valuable alive than dead. And the leopard appears to be prospering as a consequence. In the late 1990s, a BBC camera team took more than six weeks to capture one on film; now the trust estimates that half of the week-long winter trips it organises in search of leopards are successful. It’s 7am and I’m sure I’m crouching over a pile of snow-leopard droppings. My patient guide, Chosgan (Chos for short), is equally sure I’m crouching over a pile of donkey droppings. I put his muffled sigh down to the breeze through the willows. Life starts early in Rumbak. When I rose from my bed at 6am, the day was already in full swing. Our hosts had herded the animals from their pens beneath the house, and the village was filled with a bleating flow of sheep heading to pasture. Chos and I are on a trek along the Jingchan Valley, aiming for the peak of Ganda La, a few kilometres away. I’m told there’s no realistic chance of seeing a snow leopard in autumn – the leopards don’t venture this low until winter – but I’m undeterred, and Chos has assured me earnestly that he’ll keep his eyes peeled for clues. A stream babbles alongside us and mountain partridges skit away as we approach, sending trickles of pebbles in their wake. The bare rock of the valley flashes in the sunlight, its colour changing with every step – now white as a seagull’s feather, now the polished grey of a gun barrel, now the rich hue of lavender. On the slopes above, a nervous herd of sheep stands rigid as we pass; golden eagles hang in the air as if on strings. It’s hot work and sweat runs into the crooks of my elbows. This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. And then a rustle and a snap and a shadow in a clump of bushes to our left. Please – surely – it must be? Is that the shape of a snow leo …? “Cow!” Chos says, without a backward glance. Our quest continues …COMPACT FACTSHow to get thereAdrian Phillips travelled to Ladakh courtesy of Mahindra Homestays ( 020-3140 8422 020-3140 8422; mahindrahome, which offers rooms for £35 per night, inclusive of all meals. Adrian also stayed at the Trendy B&B in Delhi, which charges £56 per room per night, including breakfast, and at the Hotel Kang-Lha-Chen in Leh, which offers rooms for £50 per night, including all meals. Jet Airways ( 0808 101 1199 0808 101 1199; offers return flights from Heathrow to Delhi for about £450, and return internal flights between Delhi and Leh from £145.>

Photographer Steve Winter’s snow leopard photographs currently on display in London

December 1, 2009

Story behind the picture: Snow Leopard, 2008

Photographer Steve Winter on his candid picture of the elusive cat

The editor of National Geographic asked its photographers: “What would be your dream project?” I wrote “snow leopards”. I’d read a book about them years before I started photographing animals. We did a recce in Hemis National Park in Ladak, northern India, and met local people. Standing in the valley, it felt like being on the Moon: no trees, just rock. I’m a jungle guy, used to hot and steamy but I thought, I can do this. It took us four days to get our equipment in by horse and set up a base camp. Snow leopards are habitual: they mark locations by rubbing their necks on rocks to leave a scent, especially during the mating season. To see one, you have to find a trail: you won’t see one just walking around. I found a trail with the help of a local man named Tashi. We set up 14 remote cameras that use an infrared system with a laser beam. I wanted the photograph to be composed the way it would have been if I were lying on the ground, taking it myself. I wanted to make people say “wow”. This project was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. We spent six and a half months in the valley and at night, it reached -50C (-58F). I spoke to my wife at night on the satellite phone until my hands were freezing. We would check the cameras every one to two weeks so that we didn’t leave our scents there and put the leopards off. There was one camera with a frame that I loved, but the cats never went past it. Then one day there was this shot of a leopard in a snowstorm at night. I couldn’t have asked for better. You look at it and your jaw just drops. Steve Winter’s Snow Leopard is on display at the World Press Photo exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, London, until December 13, 2009.

Tiger skin trade in China exposed (snow leopard skins noted)

Tiger skin trade in China exposed By Jody Bourton
Earth News reporter

An undercover investigation has revealed the continued trade in tiger skins in China. Covert filming by the Environment Investigation Agency shows traders selling skins of tigers and other rare animals such as snow leopards. The skins are sold as luxury items and are used for clothes and home decor. The campaigning group has published its investigation a few days before an international summit on big cat conservation in Kathmandu, Nepal. Buying and selling big cat skins and body parts is illegal in China. People are buying them for prestige, skins are very expensive and tend to cost around 20,000 US dollars each
Alasdair Cameron Environmental Investigation Agency
However, a team from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), based in London, UK and Washington DC, US says its investigations reveal the trade in big cats still occurs in many parts of the country, including Tibet. Between 25 July and 19 August 2009 the EIA carried out investigations in markets in five cities in western China. Skin sale In just 21 days the team was offered four full tiger skins, 12 leopard skins, 11 snow leopard skins and two clouded leopard skins as well as associated bones and teeth from the species. “It’s really quite significant,” says EIA spokesperson Alasdair Cameron. “What’s interesting is the market has changed. Previously the market was for skins amongst the Tibetan community, that market has largely collapsed and what we’re seeing now is skins bought for decoration and taxidermy amongst Chinese businesspeople,” he says. “People are buying them for prestige, skins are very expensive and tend to cost around 20,000 US dollars each,” Mr Cameron explains. “We’re also being told skins are being used for non-financial bribery within China, so the demand is increasing outside of the Tibetan areas.” The EIA says the animals are being smuggled into China from various places including Tibet, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Covert operation The team captured the illegal trade on film using a hidden camera while they enquired about animal skins on sale. What surprised the team was how easy it was to find and purchase the endangered animal products. “There is some law enforcement in China, in a few regions, but there are whole swathes of the country where this trade is allowed to carry on with almost no fear of detection,” Mr Cameron says. “Some of the places we have been to, skins are openly displayed in shop windows while police cars drive past.” Debbie Banks, lead campaigner of the EIA, believes not is enough is being done by the Chinese authorities to combat the trade. “If China can put a man into space, they can do more to save the wild tiger,” she says. Tiger meet On the 27 October a summit is being held in Kathmandu, Nepal to discuss how best to save wild tigers from extinction. The Kathmandu Global Tiger Workshop will bring together tiger experts and conservation organisations from around the world to further efforts to protect the animal, especially running up to the Chinese calendar’s year of the tiger in 2010. However, Mr Cameron has mixed feelings about the forthcoming year of the tiger. “We’re hoping to use the year of the tiger as a way to highlight the threats faced by the animal but traders in China are actually saying that next year is going to be great because people will want to get a piece of the tiger in the year of the tiger.” “There could actually be a spike in demand.” Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2009/10/23 12:51:09 GMT