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Searching For The Ghost

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Everyone knows I have the dream job don’t I?  To many people I seem to be constantly on holiday and believe it or not, I hear that remark often. “Oh can you take me?” people said when I announced I was flying off to Leh to look for Snow Leopards.  “You are so lucky!” I was told.  More on that comment later. Luck is something that plays a pivotal role in searching for one of the world’s rarest wild cats.  Snow Leopards are so incredibly enigmatic and elusive.  They are quite possibly one of the hardest animals I’ve ever had to try and find. I guess I wanted to write this to dispel a few of the “lucky” comments I’ve had and outline exactly what it is like to search for the Ghost, an animal that saw the BBC Natural History Unit camped out in Ladakh for forty one days and they only had encounters with them over nine days during that time.

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SNOW LEOPARDS ARE HARD

As someone who is used to sitting for hours, hiking for miles or standing on the back of a boat in nine metre swell looking for rare animals, I thought that Snow Leopards would be a breeze.  I am used to spotting spoor, scat, sensing the weather and watching behaviour of other animals in order to find a critically endangered creature.  I literally look at everything when I am in the field. What I didn’t realise before I arrived in Ladakh is that none of that matters when you search for Snow Leopards.  They occur so infrequently and give so few biological indicators of their presence, every day is a test of stamina, endurance, eye-strain and patience. In our search for “shan” the Ladakhi term for Snow Leopards, we started before dawn each day.  Being cats Snow Leopards are most active during the crepuscule hours and from our base in the tiny hamlet of Ullay we set off in darkness on our first morning six kilometre hike to a nearby valley.  Accompanying us was our wonderful guide and local community leader, Norboo, who led us down to Spango, an “L” shaped valley surrounded by jagged peaks just a short backtrack down the only road into Ullay.  Ullay has nine snow leopards living in its general area so we rugged up to face the freezing climes and trekked off to find one.  Less than a kilometre along the road, we spotted our first spoor…..

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and we also found a few scent markers on the side of the road.  Norboo said they all looked reasonably fresh.  Snow Leopards, like any other cats, will nearly always seek out easier areas to walk and if someone builds a road that usually suits them perfectly.  Many encounters with Snow Leopards are either on roads or on walking trails in this part of the world. We spent the morning searching Spango with no success.  We only went into the centre of the valley on this trip and we did have some wonderful encounters with Tibetan wolves and some great birds.  I saw my first Chukars and we were serenaded by Himalayan Snow Cock’s doing courtship displays in the high mountain passes around us.  As the sun rose higher in the sky, we headed back to our homestay in Ullay.  Our home for the week was a fantastic room in Norboo and Dolma’s homestay.  Snow Leopards will rest during the day so we decided to wait until later in the day to head out again.  This was the pattern of our days. During these searches, the temperature did rise above zero in the middle of the day but mostly on our dawn and dusk forays, we were sitting in temperatures from -5 to -20 celsius for hours, searching, scanning, watching, waiting.  We looked for everything.  We thought that an abundance of Siberian Ibex in the Ladakh range might indicate that a Snow Leopard is around.  No Snow Leopards.  We looked for birds of prey flying overhead as Snow Leopards sometimes stay near their kill for a few days if it takes them a while to eat it.  No Snow Leopards.  We watched the behaviour of Blue Sheep in the Zanskar.  Apparently they will stamp their two front hooves on the ground and issue a high pitched warning whistle if they sense danger.  No Snow Leopards.  We searched for fresh kills, spoor, scat, territorial markers and patches of fur where they might rub against a rocky cliff.  We found all of those things but no Snow Leopards.  We hiked up steep, scree filled mountains, through snow, across frozen waterfalls and skidaddled our way over ice in our searches.  No Snow Leopards.

In short, looking for Snow Leopards probably isn’t going to be your thing if:

You might think I am kidding.  I am not.  Mark and I joked about the number of people who said they’d love to do this and most likely the conditions would deter around 90% of them.  Sometimes during our search “lucky” was really the last thing we felt.

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WHY ARE THEY SO HARD TO FIND?

Across their range, Snow Leopards face a multitude of threats including persecution and death at the hands of humans and habitat destruction.  They are so incredibly shy.  Very few things will keep a Snow Leopard around if you see one.  Usually the only reason why they will stay is if they have still got food to eat and no, you are not generally a part of their food chain!  Attacks of Snow Leopards on humans are very rare, if they occur at all.  Attacks by Snow Leopards on livestock, on the other hand, are remarkably common and it’s attacks on sheep, goats, ponies and yaks that cause the most grief for everyone.  If a Snow Leopard destroys a villager’s livestock, then more often than not that leopard is either shot or rounded up and stoned to death.  When you have a relatively poor population who eek out a subsistence lifestyle in one of the world’s harshest climates, if a family loses all of their stock at the whim of a Snow Leopard (and yes, a leopard can break into an enclosure, kill up to twenty animals and eat only one), then this is a very big matter.  It can ruin their entire livelihood and take them years to recover from an event like that financially. Sadly Snow Leopards are still hunted for their pelts and also for use in Chinese medicine where their bones are substituted for Tiger bones.  Orphaned cubs are often sold at a very high price to zoos and in some of their Himalayan homes, Snow Leopards are suffering from broad scale habitat destruction through grazing and mining. The outlook for Snow Leopards in many places is bleak.

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REASONS FOR HOPE

While we were in Ladakh we were blessed to meet Jigmet Dadul from the Indian Snow Leopard Conservancy who, over a number of dinners and searching sessions, gave us both a clearer picture of the complex mass of issues he faces trying to protect Snow Leopards in Ladakh.  Jigmet has formulated an overarching strategy to conserve Snow Leopards with an end goal to changing people’s perception of “shan” from relentless killers that should all be exterminated, to a tourist attraction where local people can actually make money by showing foreign guests like us a wild “shan”.  He has launched a myriad of summer and winter activities including:

1) Population Estimation Program
2) Other predator studies
3) Community Homestay Development
4) Community Livestock Insurance Program
5) Depredation Surveys
6) Livestock Enclosures
7) Re-development of Interpretation centre
8) New community based project developments in Chanthang & Zanskar Valley
9) Ladakh International Film Festival
10) Poster development for awareness programs and other outreach activities
11) Map development
12) Photo and video documentation

While he faces a multitude of challenges Jigmet takes all of it with a healthy dose of patience, consideration and quiet strength.

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One afternoon as we were looking for Snow Leopards on the hill behind Ullay, Norboo’s son, Rinchen walked up the hill and announced that a Snow Leopard had killed a sheep in the neighbouring village of Saspoche.

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Norboo mentioned that if a “shan” had killed a sheep, there was nearly an eighty per cent chance that it would be presiding over its kill, waiting for the safest moment to eat it.  We decided to jump in Norboo’s truck and drive around for a look.  Arriving in Saspoche Mark and I were a curiosity.  Why were we there?  Rinchen took us to the farmer’s house and there we saw it, the body of a tiny sheep perched high on the scree slope behind the village.

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Sure enough, after a brief scan of the deceased sheep’s surroundings, there it was.

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What surprised us both the most was that this animal just sat there, silently, watching what was going to happen to its prey.  Just a few years ago, confronted by two westerners and an increasing number of villagers, it probably would have disappeared into the mountains.  After all, humans are still their greatest threat.  As Mark and I found a relatively secluded spot to watch the “shan”, villagers gathered near us, offered us tea and they even brought their domestic cat to meet us.  Local children were fascinated by our travel to see this animal.  Within half an hour we had nearly thirty Saspoche residents watching the “shan” with us.  After I grabbed a few shots, I shared my binoculars so everyone could take a look.

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It was remarkable to think that this village looked at the wary “shan” with new eyes now.  This Snow Leopard had brought these two tall western tourists to their village.  They were fascinated by us and this change in mentality can almost be entirely attributed to Jigmet’s work on the ground with so many villages in Ladakh where  he has made massive headway in altering the perceptions of Snow Leopards throughout these tiny communities.  It was an extraordinary thing to witness and, not surprisingly, Jigmet recently won an international award for his outstanding achievements conserving Snow Leopards in Ladakh.

We were so overcome by our entire encounter with a Snow Leopard in Saspoche that we gave the farmer who owned the sheep some very generous compensation for his lost animal.  For us it wasn’t much but for the farmer it made such a huge difference.  No amount of money could have bought our experience in Saspoche that afternoon.  It was the highlight of our entire visit.

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Mark with Norboo on the left and the farmer who owned the sheep on the right.

HEMIS

During the second half of our visit to Ladakh we relocated to Hemis National Park in Rumbak, just outside of Leh.  Hemis is a nature reserve that offers the best chance of any to see a Snow Leopard in the wild.   After entering the ‘gates’ of Rumbak and traversing an icy river where you could feel the water pumping under your feet as you stood on a thick layer of ice, we hiked into Hemis and set up camp.  Thankfully we were the only people there.  In the peak of the season up to ninety tents can accommodate tourists in this site and they, along with their Ladakhi staff, up to 300 people are camped out there at any one time in mid-winter.  The more people you have looking for Snow Leopards in the wild, the more chance you have to see them and peak season is actually February when the Snow Leopards are searching for a mate and breeding.  During this time they are more brazen and they are likely to be seen as they traverse valleys looking for a partner.  I have to admit to a touch of selfishness here.  I really didn’t fancy sharing such a beautiful place with 300 eager onlookers.  It was wonderful to be there alone.

In February the weather is also bitterly cold.  I don’t mind the cold.  Unlike a lot of women, I don’t feel it so much but even I struggled with being there a few weeks later than the peak, sitting on a mountainside feeling my metabolism slow and the cold creep into my bones.  Looking for Snow Leopards usually means you have to sit still and be quiet for hours on end.  Moving around to warm up could create a disturbance which could frighten a Snow Leopard.  When it is cold, it can feel very miserable.  Snacks help and so does warm tea but really the searches in Rumbak are a feat of endurance simply because the best thing to do is stay still and try to dodge hypothermia while you relentlessly scan the mountainsides looking for a thick-set cat with a long furry tail that some people believe acts as a counterweight for Snow Leopards when they jump from rock to rock.

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Perhaps the hardest thing to fathom about Hemis is the sheer magnitude of the place.  The valley looks quite narrow and small from the outset.  A Snow Leopard measures around six feet from nose to long, bushy tail.  You’d think this would be quite a big animal that would be easy to spot in this landscape wouldn’t you?  After all, the rocks in Hemis are reddish in colour and Snow Leopards are grey.  Not so. They camouflage themselves surprisingly well in their landscape and just when you think you have your skills honed enough to find one anywhere, you will be swooped on by a Golden Eagle.  A brief flash of raptor with a six foot wingspan, hunting for prey like Pikas on the slopes.

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Two six foot long animals in one valley.  I watched Golden Eagles cruise the thermals every morning in Rumbak.  Against this landscape they looked tiny.

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And so do Snow Leopards in Rumbak.  Needle in a haystack” doesn’t even begin to describe the search.

Although we had no sightings of a Snow Leopard that were easily photographed, early one morning while it was still dark, Mark had the most extraordinary encounter with one on the trail through the gorge.  Illuminating his path with a head torch on a pre-dawn hike, he was suddenly confronted with a glowing pair of eyes!  A “shan” was right in front of him as he rounded a corner.  He was speechless!  After a brief ‘face off’ with it, the animal skulked up to a hillside behind Mark and watched him pass from the relative safety of a rocky promontory.

We also had the privilege of listening to a Snow Leopard calling one night.  Expecting a roar like the lions of Africa, I was surprised to hear a high pitched yowling that sounded like an oversized house cat.  It was haunting and very beautiful.

Rumbak was probably even more difficult than Ullay in terms of a lack of creature comforts.  We were camped out by an icy stream for a week, albeit a stunningly beautiful one.

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I bathed each day in a pool between two frozen sections of the Rumbak River.  Every morning anything that hadn’t lived in our sleeping bags through the night was frozen including our hand towels, drinking water and even our toothpaste!  The pit toilet was smelly from the hoardes of tourists visiting the site just a couple of weeks before us and each day before we departed on another search, we had to “yak proof” our campsite to stop the local yak bull from eating anything that was biodegradable outside.

Searching for Snow Leopards is tough.  The only real consolation is the stunning scenery you are working in and the things you see on the journey including the Blue Sheep that we hoped would be indicators of the presence of Snow Leopards.

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We learned that even the presence of copious amounts of Blue Sheep were no real sign that a Snow Leopard would be nearby.  Instead we were consoled by fabulous scenery, friendly villagers and morning views of Rumbak’s highest mountain, Stok Kangri.

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GIVING BACK

During our trip to Ladakh, Mark and I were so impressed by the conservation efforts led by the Indian Snow Leopard Conservancy that we not only compensated the farmer in Saspoche for the loss of his sheep, we also decided to sponsor an entire animal enclosure to be built in a village that doesn’t have the luxury of tourism income to support its people if a Snow Leopard kills all their stock.

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Constructed of stone walls with a wooden door and a wooden roof frame covered in very heavy duty wire, the enclosures give villagers a place to herd their livestock into safety so that their animals are completely protected at night when most of the predation by Snow Leopards occurs.

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We decided to do this because we felt so passionate about the work of Jigmet and his team.  Given all of the adversity they face, the Indian Snow Leopard Conservancy continue to make broad scale changes to communities across Ladakh and they have created a situation where Snow Leopards can now have a future in the face of all of their own unique challenges.

If you would like to follow the work of Jigmet, please visit the Conservancy’s Facebook page and “Like” it.  Their website outlines their activities and ways you can give to their project.

Lastly if you’d like to buy a children’s book that tells the story of one village’s change of perception after a Snow Leopard wiped out its fifteen goats, “The Ghost of the Mountains” is a lovely story.  Told by a writer who rescued an orphaned Snow Leopard cub in his youth, it might be a little hard to get hold of but it I found it delightful and the book is well worth the effort to find.

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2 thoughts on “Searching For The Ghost

  1. irene dy says:

    What a journey! And yes, a trip definitly is not a holiday ! 😀

  2. inger says:

    Thanks Irene! It was! It was still so amazing looking back on it! Doing these things is a bit like childbirth I feel sometimes. You forget all the awful bits and it’s the good parts that make you go back for more constantly! Nice to hear from you. I hope you had a sensational weekend in this beautiful weather!

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