Snow leopard

Rendezvous with the Grey Ghost

Often termed as the Holy Grail of wildlife sightings, glimpsing upon a Snow leopard in its rugged home terrain can often be the encounter of a lifetime. We present a firsthand account from Leh.

Ever since I’ve been posted in Leh since May 2013, I have been looking forward to encounters with the rare and unique wildlife in this fascinating part of the world. My first such sightings included the graceful wild goat Ibex (Capra ibex) near Drass, and the endemic Ladakh Urial (Ovis vignei) near Lamayuru; coming face to face with the elegant Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis) in the marshes of Chushul and Hanle, and encountering as many as 17 Tibetan Snowcocks (Tetraogallus tibetanus) together at one place in Changthang! Yet, in spite of being treated with such a sumptuous dose of natural bounties, the nature lover in me was not going to be satisfied unless the ‘most beautiful cat in the world’, the Snow leopard (Uncia uncia) made an appearance.

On my very first day in office at Leh, I was told that although Ladakh is arguably the best place in the world to locate this cat, it is only between November and February that the animal would show up in areas accessible to humans. In these winter months, the higher reaches of Ladakh would heavily snow- laden and the herbivores would migrate to lower areas followed by their predator, the Snow leopard. When my first November in Ladakh finally arrived, I began to look out for an opportunity and a pretext to visit Hemis National Park. On 23rd of November, as I was about to resume my office after lunch break, my staff informed me that a Snow leopard had entered a cow-shed in a village and killed a calf overnight, and that the animal was still around as they had spotted it in the nearby mountains a couple of times since morning.

Without losing any time, I grabbed my camera and binoculars and set off for Upshi, the nearest town to that village, some 50 km southeast of Leh city. It was afternoon already. The short length of a late November day, the long drive and a possible steep trek ahead were diminishing my hopes. By 2:30 pm we had reached the farthest a vehicle could take us, but our destination, Tuna village was a good 40-minute walk across the Indus, which could only be crossed by a rope bridge. On arriving at the village I was first led to the cow-shed where the incident had occurred.

I examined the carcass, it had been torn apart and the viscera lay scattered all over. The predator had created a hole in the roof of the stone shelter by removing the mud-plastered twigs that lined its ceiling. Without any delay, we headed for the spot where the Snow leopard had reportedly been spotted last. It was a rocky cliff across a deep ravine that overlooked this small village of ten households. I scanned the whole barren mountainside with my binoculars but couldn’t find anything. The rugged terrain interspersed with cliffs and ridges presented the ideal habitat for the Snow leopard. At the same time, the colours and shades of the rocky landscape were just perfect to conceal the astute camouflage artist.

Then, suddenly, one of my staff observed some movement in the rocks and tried to point out the spot for me. He was sure that he had seen the cat up there, but with all my equipment, I somehow couldn’t spot it. Only when he described more elaborately the ‘landmarks’ around the spot, was I able to discover it. There it was lying down on the rock bed in a curl, with its long, bushy tail coiled around and almost held beneath its head like a pillow. It had munched quite a mouthful from its overnight hunt and seemed to be in a fiesta mood. As I had a good look through my binoculars, it raised its head and I could see the heavily spotted ‘high’ forehead and the stout ‘short’ snout of this big cat. It was a sight that I shall remember all my life. Now, with its head raised well up, it was looking directly into my eyes. I zoomed in my camera and started clicking. The cat seemed hardly bothered by our presence and was soon rolling over its back, enjoying the mild winter sun to the full. After an hour and a half, it stretched its legs and got up slowly. It was a huge animal, a male in its prime. He looked even more majestic standing on his feet with those grey rosettes on his sides and the streaming long furry tail behind. After a while when the Snow leopard had presumably had enough of us, he climbed a steep expanse to rest on a big rock that provided a stable perch.

As the sun went behind the barren brown mountains and the light started fading, the cat with his graceful gait crossed over to the other side of the ridge. I continued clicking with my numb index finger, hoping for a parting glance from him which I could capture against the serene evening skyline. That was not to be. He didn’t turn his head around but walked straight and quickly disappeared behind the last visible rock.

I had no regrets. My day, my tenure, even my life as a ‘wildlifer’ had been made. I had finally had a rendezvous with the ‘Grey Ghost’.


Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild 

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About the Author /

Suhail works as a Wildlife Warden with the Department of Wildlife Protection, Jammu & Kashmir. In his service career spanning 15 years, he has acted as Park Manager in several Himalayan Protected Areas like Dachigam and Hemis National Parks; Overa-Aru, Hirpora, Rajparian, Changthang and Karakoram Wildlife Sanctuaries. Suhail has a special interest in studying and understanding high-altitude large mammals.

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