Snow leop­ards

How these big cats take the Hi­malayas in their stride

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

Ice, snow and windswept rock is all I can see through the te­le­scope. But my Ladakhi guide Stanzin Gurmet as­sures me that “the snow leop­ard is there”. I trust him, since he’s one of the best wildlife spot­ters in the Hi­malayas. At last, on a ridge­line a kilo­me­tre dis­tant, I fi­nally make out the elu­sive ghost of the moun­tains. Even at this range I see the cat’s thick fur be­ing tou­sled by the bit­ing wind 4,000m up. Su­perbly adapted to life in the high­est, cold­est, most rugged peaks on the planet, it seems con­tent to con­tinue its pa­trol.

We are trekking in Hemis Na­tional Park in Ladakh, one of In­dia’s north­ern­most states, and our sight­ing is only pos­si­ble thanks to the ea­gle eyes and sheer hard work of Stanzin and the rest of the ex­pe­di­tion crew. For cats and peo­ple alike, ex­is­tence on the roof of the world is tough. Very tough. At such high al­ti­tudes, the sun­light is in­tense, cold winds buf­fet you from ev­ery di­rec­tion and it’s dif­fi­cult even to breathe be­cause there’s so lit­tle oxy­gen. Some­times, the tem­per­a­ture drops to –40°C.

The snow leop­ard conquers its hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment by virtue of ex­tra-long hair and a woolly un­der­coat, with a long tail that acts as a blan­ket to cover sen­si­tive body parts against the moun­tain chill. An en­larged nasal cav­ity warms the air it breathes, while big lungs draw in as much oxy­gen as pos­si­ble. Mas­sive paws are a match for the slip­pery ter­rain.

Small won­der this el­e­gant-but-eva­sive cat be­came an icon of BBC One’s Planet Earth II in 2016 and Planet Earth a decade ear­lier. Its ex­treme scarcity is a fac­tor, too. Though the species has been – con­tro­ver­sially – down­listed from En­dan­gered to Vul­ner­a­ble, it re­mains van­ish­ingly rare. Maybe 4,000–8,000 sur­vive.

Bjorn Pers­son is a wildlife pho­to­jour­nal­ist based in Swe­den.

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