Its unique topography and floral diversity has made the “Tooshi Game Reserve ” one of the potential habitats of the Snow Leopard and its prey-base i.e. Markhor (Capra falconri kashmiriancis) in Chitral district. It lies in the foothills of the Hindukush Mountain range, at the distance of about a half hours’ drive from the town of Chitral. The important buffer zones are Kuju Gol/Paran and Gohtan Gol; the former is the project site of the ISLT/WWF-Pakistan’s Snow Leopard Conservation Project.
Snow Leopards have regularly been sighted in Toshi Game Reserve in the buffer zone of Kuju and Parsan since 2001, mostly in winter i.e. from January to late February. Last year the BBC team was able to film two cats. The team came again to the Chitral this year hoping to have a glimpse of the elusive cat a second time.
On 27th January 2006, the sighting of a female Snow Leopard in the vicinity of Kuju, a project site of the snow leopard conservation project of ISLT, was reported by the wildlife official. Meanwhile, I contacted my friend Mr. Shujaat, resident of Balach Chitral, to provide his video and still camera. He was not only willing to provide the camera but also got ready to be part of the team. His volunteerism was indeed appreciable. As it was late to visit the spot that day, it was decided that the team would visit the area next day.
Before going to the proceedings, here I will share the behavior of Snow leopard as its occurrence in the aforesaid area is concerned. According to locals, wildlife watchers and the studies so far conducted, the cat enters in the buffer zone (Kuju) when the cubs are able to move with their mother in late August. From August to November the depredation of livestock in the periphery of Kuju and Parsan is common and a mother with one of two cubs has frequently been sighted during this period. Perhaps this period is the training session for the cubs, as the livestock, which mostly consists of goats, are much easier to hunt than natural prey. Also, secondary food is readily available as the livestock move to the summer pastures during this period. In November 2005, an adult Snow Leopard with a cub entered a corral of Mr. Azam of Sin (near Kuju) and damaged 14 goats and injured 10. The same thing happened in Bokhtoli in December 2005.
On January 28, we reached in the Toshi in the buffer zone of Kuju in the morning and were happy to see that Mr. Mark, a BBC filmmaker, had focused his camera to a ridgeline. He saw me and very carefully showed the exact spot through pointing his finger. After a short discussion with my team, selected a suitable place and mounted the movie camera on the spotting scope. The Sow Leopard was resting on a big boulder. We stayed there till late evening.
The next day we went early in the morning and stayed until evening, but the cat wasn’t there. On the third day there was no sighting until afternoon. We were on the ridgeline opposite to the Game Reserve. It had been raining slowly since morning and the day was getting colder and colder. How ever, Mr. Siraj Khan, our efficient cook, was making coffee at regular intervals to help us cope with the cold. While talking to a local wildlife watcher, it was revealed that a Snow Leopard den is locating near the site. I was eager to go there but the watcher said that the particular place is inaccessible, and in the current situation the area would be slippery as well. However, at last I was able to motivate him and we started trekking towards that place. When we reached the area, it was confirmed that the cat has rested on numerous occasions in this place. Feces were seen in the cave and the surrounding area was covered by broken rocks and boulders. Some of the feces were very fresh, indicating the cat has recently spent few nights there.
Early in the evening, a Snow Leopard appeared on the ridgeline. She was slowly moving downwards to get into position for the prey. But before she got into position, one of the wild goats saw her and ran in opposite direction. Thus the snowy again missed the hunt and had to spend another night with empty stomach.
On 31st January, we decided to go early to the area and reached it at about 6:45 am. The Snow Leopard had changed hunting zones and was seen on another ridge situated at the gateway of the Game Reserve at the distance of about one and half kilometers from the previous place. Mark, a filmmaker of private channel, hadn’t arrived yet, so we sent a message to him via a watcher and within ten minutes he reached us. All of us were confident that the cat would now hunt, as the Markhors were browsing in her range. However, the cat mounted on a boulder and slept. After an hour or so, the snow leopard again woke up and moved behind the rock. Now she was no longer visible from our current position; therefore, we had to change our place and we climbed onto another mountain. Having fixed the spotting scope, we saw the cat sleeping near prey which she already had just killed, shattering our expectations.
She slept till 2:25 pm and during this period we were continuously observing her, as it is very difficult to spot a snow leopard once the binoculars are dropped, due to its superb camouflage with the surroundings. Then, she woke up and stretched, moved a little, gazed up and came back to eat the remaining portion of her kill. She ate for about two hours and again went to sleep until evening.
The next day, the cat was sighted about five hundred meters uphill from the place where she had hunted the previous day. At about 4:30 pm when the Markhors came closer to her, she came down and waited for them to come into her range underneath a big boulder. However, before her attack, a yearling saw her and communicated the message to its colleagues. Thus, within no time all the Markhors (about 16) were out of her range of attack. This scene was visible to the naked eye; therefore, hundreds of people, including many local residents, conservationists and tourists, enjoyed these thrilling scenes from the roadside.
On 15th February, we had the last glimpse of the cat. She moved slowly on the ridgeline, stayed there for a while, and then disappeared. My wish to make a movie and snap some pictures of the elusive cat had been fulfilled.
Jaffar Ud Din
Snow Leopard Field Biologist