HusingValley in the Himalayan mountain range in northern India ishome to 10snowleopards. Sarah Marshall goes in search of these elusive endangered cats…
We go in search of snow leopards in the snow-capped Himalayan peaks.
I’d been warned about it; the swirling black hole that sucks away all breath, body warmth and rational thinking. But here I am, coiled tightly into a ball like a startled millipede at the bottom of my sleeping bag, struggling to gasp the thin, icy air that circulates the mountain tops at 3,700m above sea level, while reminding myself exactly why I’ve chosen to camp in temperatures that dip to a mind-numbing -27°C at night.
Only the sound of hulking yaks snuffling for scant vegetation, metal bells clanging around their necks, is a welcome reminder that life can, against the odds, exist here.
Harsh, hostile but overwhelmingly beautiful, the Himalayan mountain range is a fitting habitat for one of the world’s most elusive and endangered big cats: the snow leopard. According to estimates from the International Union for the Conservation of
When temperatures plummet blue sheep drop down frommountains, pursued by snowleopards
Nature, there are between 4,000 and 6,500 of these mountain ghosts left in the wild, encompassing a range of 12 central Asian countries.
Coy, aloof and enigmatic creatures, they are notoriously difficult to spot, and at their home on the roof of the world, they rarely entertain visitors.
But one of the most accessible and opportune places to see snow leopards is Hemis National Park in the eastern Ladakh region of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. Accessible, though, is a word used relatively.
During the summer months, the park’s green valleys become a magnet for soul-searching backpackers and hardy trekkers heading to the Stok Kangri peak, but in February and March, when temperatures plummet like a skydiver in freefall, the crowds disappear. Yet this is the time when blue sheep drop down from mountains, pursued by hungry snow leopards, who in turn attract wildlife tourists in search of their quarry.
After landing amidst the snowy jagged peaks of the military airport at Ladakhi capital Leh – a reminder of our proximity to the Pakistan border – we drive into the granite folds until we reach the end of the road.
From here, our belongings are piled on to donkeys, and we slip and stumble along a frozen river, grabbing on to the frail skeletons of willow trees for balance.
Our simple eight-tent camp is in the Husing Valley, with no running water or electricity, and the toilet is essentially a hole in the frosty ground.
Snow leopard tourism is still in its infancy, and capturing the cats on film or video has become a holy grail for wildlife enthusiasts. When
National Geographic photographer Steve Winter published camera trap images of the animals in 2008, interest in Hemis was piqued, and in the past few years, winter visitors have increased from a handful to a hundred. My guide, Paul Goldstein, an award-winning wildlife photographer with a fascination for predators, became hooked when he first visited Hemis last year – even though he didn’t see a single cat.
The conditions are punishing and the odds are stacked against us, but even the knowledge that these mountain ghosts might have drifted along the same ridge where I’m now sitting causes my heart to race with excitement.
Early every morning, before sunrise, a team of eagle-eyed spotters recruited from nearby villages heads out to set up spotting scopes, searching for the 10 snow leopards that roam this valley. Being crepuscular, dawn and dusk are the best times to catch the cats on the move.
With radio signals limited, communication is mainly human, and news of sightings is delivered by resilient messengers who sprint with remarkable ease at such high
The Himalayan mountains are the perfect habitat for snow leopards
If you don’t see one of the rare big cats, you could console yourself by taking in the magnificent scenery and architecture
Snow leopards are notoriously elusive
Wildlife photographer Paul Goldstein (right), ably assisted by locals, led our writer on her journey
Trekkers’ belongings are transported by donkeys, and it’s not an easy journey for those on foot
Blue sheep lure hungry snow leopards down the mountains, to where visitors can spot them
Colourful prayer flags are strung high on the mountain peaks