Snow leopard tracking in Ladakh, Himalayas

Spotting the elusive Snow Leopard

Natural World Safaris

Natural World Safaris

15 May 2018

NWS Harry recounts her encounter with the world's most mysterious big cat

The first time I set eyes on him, my heart stopped.

There, reclining on a rock halfway up a cliff face, was the "grey ghost of the mountains", the elusive snow leopard. It was a sighting I never imagined having outside of a safari park or a zoo, and yet here I was, shivering in the -8°C wind chill, inadequately dressed and inadequately prepared for how powerful an effect the presence of such a noble animal would have on me.

Snow leopard in Ladakh, India

The snow leopard, Panthera uncia, occupies the high mountains of Central and South Asia and is currently found in increasingly fragmented landscapes across 12 countries, including India, China and Mongolia. Little is known about these big cats in comparison to their cousins, mostly due to their solitary and elusive nature and the challenging terrain (both physically and politically) in which they live – indeed, they are the least studied large cat in the world. As a result of the challenging research conditions, population estimates are extremely vague, despite the species being downgraded from Endangered to Vulnerable in 2017. In fact even the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) themselves acknowledge that there is a lack of hard data on overall population trends across the species range, with studies focussing on smaller and more accessible areas.

This is primarily due to poaching for its pelt and other body parts, a decline in its natural prey base (largely due to increased competition for grazing between naturally occurring wild herbivores and livestock), and human encroachment. With our ever-growing human population, impacts on the environment such as mining, hydroelectric projects to power our cities, and the changes to the planet’s climate caused by human activities are all having an impact on the snow leopard, either directly through loss of habitat, or indirectly through reduction in prey, etc. Human-leopard conflict is also a major threat to the snow leopard. Retaliatory killings of leopards due to predation of livestock is one of the biggest threats that snow leopards face in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, and is one that the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC-IT) is working hard to address.

Ladakh, India

Based in the town of Leh, the SLC-IT was founded in 2003 by Mr Rinchen Wangchuk, a Ladakhi mountaineer and conservationist. I was lucky enough to visit the SLC-IT office when I was in Ladakh last month and met with Mr Wangchuk. He is a passionate man, strongly focussed on the preservation of the snow leopard in Ladakh’s mountains and improving awareness in the region.

The SLC-IT carries out ecological research, but puts most of its resources into spreading awareness and building local stewardship through community-based tourism and education. It seems that their goal is being met too, with species such as the snow leopard and Himalayan wolf previously being considered pests by the local communities now considered ‘Ri Gyancha’, or ‘Ornaments of the Mountains’. This change in opinion has not come easily, but through huge persistence and an empathy for the challenges that the local people face on a daily basis. The SLC-IT has implemented an insurance scheme in conjunction with local stakeholders, providing financial assistance to farmers that have lost livestock to leopards so that they may buy more livestock and replenish the herd. 

They also provide community outreach services, assisting in reinforcing livestock enclosures with wire roofs to prevent access by predators. A little like foxes, snow leopards are known for going on a bit of a killing frenzy, killing multiple animals within a single attack, so the provision of roofing materials for the enclosures has seen a significant reduction in livestock attacks at night. Another initiative that is seeing success in the region is that of para-vet training, whereby the local herders are trained in animal first aid to assist those lucky goats and sheep that manage to escape the clutches of predators, but may have sustained an injury in doing so.

In Ladakh, the ability for locals to diversify their income by providing homestay accommodation to tourists has been instrumental in changing the way that the local people think about snow leopards. The presence of snow leopards now has the ability to earn the local people money, and therefore assists in reducing the negative impacts that the odd loss of livestock to predation has on each family.

Confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, Ladakh, India

It was in one of these wonderful homestays that I was based, with comfortable beds, plentiful hot water bottles, a clean shared bathroom and some of the best food I encountered during my entire trip. Snow Leopard Lodge is probably one of the more "luxurious" options for staying in the Ulley Valley – one of the best locations for spotting snow leopards in Ladakh – and it was really a very special spot. The lodge enjoys the best views in the village too, and I was lucky enough to have them directly at the foot of my bed – straight down the valley to the snow-topped mountains beyond!

Ulley is home to one of the best snow leopard trackers in Ladakh, Norbu, and with his widespread network of spotters in various villages in the area, he is able to provide you with the best chances of spotting these majestic and elusive big cats. 

Red fox, Ladakh, India

So, there I was, shivering at the bottom of a big cliff, with Norbu and his guides, waiting for the snow leopard to return to the carcass of a young yak that he had killed the previous day. I must admit, I gave up hope many times that I would be able to ever see it with my bare eyes, seeing as Norbu had spotted it when it was a considerable distance away and I was only able to observe it through the scope at first. But Norbu’s persistence and faith held out, and slowly but surely, the leopard came down, allowing me to get a good look at him as he tried to drag the frozen body out of a hollow and enjoy his meal in peace and quiet. It was incredible, and a sighting that I will not forget readily. Having spent two years studying big cats in Botswana earlier in my career, I am a big big cat fan, and this was simply astounding.

You too can have the chance to observe this beautiful cat in the Ulley Valley by joining our small group safari next February. For more information, or to reserve your spot on the tour, please do get in touch as soon as possible.

Trip Details

This is a small group safari departing on a set date, with a minimum of 4 and a maximum of 8 guests.

Those travelling alone are required to pay a single supplement of £725.

 2020 Departure   Price per person sharing   Price for solo traveller 
 Feb 16 - 29  £3,450  £4,175
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Contact one of our Destination Specialists to start planning your journey to India. Please note we recommend a budget of from £7,000 / $10,000 USD per person for our style of trip to this destination.

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