Capturing the elusive cat

Ashwin Aghor / DNASunday, June 21, 2009 2:50 IST When Aishwarya Maheshwari saw a sudden cloud of dust rising along the slopes of the mountains he was surveying in the Kargil and Drass sector of Jammu & Kashmir, his hands immediately reached for the binoculars. What he saw made him tremble and smile in anticipation.He had spotted the snow leopard, one of the world’s most elusive creatures, which was giving chase to a herd of Asiatic Ibex, a species of mountain goats. “Unfortunately the memory of the 1999 conflict has overshadowed the region’s rich wildlife. It is here that one of world’s most elusive creatures, the snow leopard, roams wild and free,” said Maheshwari who is a researcher with WWF-India. During his interaction with locals, Maheshwari also learnt about the tremendous decline in wildlife sightings, post the 1999 war. So much so that even the common resident birds had disappeared.“This is the first photographic evidence of snow leopard in Kargil and Drass sector of Jammu and Kashmir. Though locals claim to have seen the animal, there was no evidence of presence of the big cat,” said Ameen Ahmed, senior communications manager, WWF-India, adding that there has been no study of wildlife done in this violence hit area. Maheshwari, in fact, is part of the WWF team that’s carrying out a base line study of wildlife in Kargil and Drass sectors. On June 13, Maheshwari was observing the hills at Kanji village, located 3850 meter above sea level, and 70 km from Kargil town. He was on my way up with three field assistants. Four km into the trek, they came across a herd of Asiatic Ibex, species of mountain goat and pug marks and scat of what looked like a carnivore.“Soon, a huge cloud of dust rose from where the Ibex were grazing. The view through my binoculars suddenly became hazy. All I could see was the wild goats running helter-skelter, in almost every direction. I desperately panned my binoculars in all directions. But, the dust that made it difficult to see anything clearly,” Maheshwari recalled.Soon, amidst the confusion, he saw a snow leopard. But after the failed attempt, the snow leopard went to a cliff.The snow leopard stayed put in front of the group for seven minutes. “As it was barely 300-400 meter away, I was tempted to go closer and capture the animal on camera. At the end of the shortest seven minutes of my life, it got up and went to the other side of the hill, out of our sight,” Maheshwari said. Early next morning, fresh scat and unclear pug marks were found on the same path. Maheshwari climbed the same hill, which he had ascended the evening before. But the snow leopard had disappeared.