Surreal Steps in the Snow
As the winter-scapes descend on the scintillating slopes of the Himalayas, a silent transformation of these remote vistas takes place. The chirpiness of spring birds gives way to the whoosh-whoosh of snow-swirls. To some, this may seem like an annihilation of all signs of life, a temporary tryst with all that represents death- stillness, coldness and melancholy. But marvellous are the ways of nature. When all life seems to have come to a standstill, different kind of life thrives. The unforgiving landscapes of the Himalayas prepare to play host to one of the most unfathomable winter denizens- the snow leopard. And as this mountain beast prowls the steep slopes with surety, it leaves behind surreal steps in the snow. Steps that prove time and again, that even in the harshest of environs, life abounds. And beautiful life, too!
Why See the Snow Leopard?
Big cats have long since fascinated man. Lions with their team power, tigers with their indomitable strength, leopards with their elusive slyness. But never before has any Big Cat stood up to be the symbol of the “defier of death” in the harshest of terrains. We are getting to know this Himalayan beauty better, thanks to camera traps and onsite research projects. And yet it successfully continues to elude us, and our curiosity. It is no surprise that the snow leopard has gained interesting and apt names- Phantom of the Slopes, Ghost of the Mountains and so on. Though not an extremely big cat, (about 60 cm tall and 90-130 cm long*) this captivatingly beautiful animal creates a sense of awe for its very mysterious nature. Though difficult to spot even after many efforts, a single sighting of this magnificent ruler of the mountains is sure to make everything worth it. Moreover, it is listed under “Vulnerable” by the IUCN, only about 450-500 individuals are estimated to survive in the wild in India*. The global population is estimated to number more than 2,500 but fewer than 10,000 mature individuals, and there is an estimated and projected decline of at least 10% over 22.62 years (3 generations)**. Imagine the thrill of spotting such an elusive and rare animal in its own habitat- truly a moment not to be missed in a lifetime! Here are more reasons why a visit to snow-leopard terrain is a must on the cards:
Interesting facts about Snow Leopard
- Snow leopards do not roar, though they are big cats.
- Snow leopards have light green or grey eyes, unusual for big cats, who usually have yellow or gold eyes.
- They are masters of camouflage. They sport a smoky-grey coat with rosettes of dark grey, so as to merge into their natural habitat of rocky slopes and outcrops.
- It has a very long tail compared to other big cats. The tail is furry, and the snow leopard uses it like a “muffler”- wrapped around to protect itself against the biting cold.
- The hind legs of a snow leopard are designed to allow it to leap six times the length of its body!
- It comes from the Panthera lineage (Panthera uncia). It is interesting to note that snow leopards are genetically closer to tigers than to normal leopards, despite the fact that both are called leopards and have rosettes!
Where to go to spot the Snow Leopard?
Snow leopards inhabit the mountainous regions of central and southern Asia. In India, snow leopards are found over a large expanse, from the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas. In order to spot a snow leopard, one needs to venture out into the remote wild- the upper slopes of the Himalayas, because these beautiful creatures reside at altitudes ranging from 3000-5000 metres or higher. It is not a walk in the park (literally), for a snow leopard expedition involves a lot of trekking (often through layers of snow), and navigating difficult terrain. It means facing the biting Himalayan winters in layers of warm clothes and basic facilities for living. Some of the best places with amongst the better chances of snow leopard sighting are:
- Hemis National Park, Ladakh: A high altitude wildlife reserve, Hemis National Park is known for a higher probability of snow leopard sightings, particularly the Rumbak valley area.
- Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal: A UNESCO World Heritage site, snow leopards are seen inhabiting the park in locales above the tree line.
- Gangotri National Park, Uttarakhand: This is a kind of a corridor between the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and Kedarnath National Park. The first snow leopard sighting dates back to 2013, and since then this has been a decent place to spot snow leopards.
- Khangchendzonga National Park, Sikkim: One amongst the biosphere reserves in India, it is abundant in wildlife apart from the snow leopard as well. Common sightings include those of the Himalayan Tahr, wild dog, Tibetan wild ass, Himalayan blue sheep (goral), and the sloth bear.
- Namdapha National Park, Arunachal: The third largest national park in India, and also highly biodiverse. The best part is that apart from being home to the elusive snow leopard, it also plays host to 3 other big cats- clouded leopards, common leopards, and tigers.
While the intent may be to spot a snow leopard when visiting these destinations, bear in mind that the wild-scapes themselves are captivating. So, it is a good idea to enjoy the surreal landscapes while searching for the surreal steps in the snow! Also, make sure you do not miss on viewing and capturing other high-altitude wildlife like Tibetan wolves, Golden Eagle, blue sheep, ibex and even the extremely rare Eurasian lynx.
When to Go
The best time to embark on a snow-leopard expedition is winter because this is when snow leopards descend to the lower altitudes and it is possible for us humans to reach and reside in these locations. December – March is recommended for the best probability of sightings.
What To Know
- You should prepare for extreme sub-zero temperatures with high-quality warm woollens and snow and ice protection.
- Patience is the key, and a bit of luck. As in all wildlife scenarios, sightings cannot be guaranteed. Be prepared to endure extremes, you may need to wait for 9-10 hours in sub-zero temperatures for a single glimpse of the beast. But as they say, in uncertainty and anticipation lies much of the fun!
- Many of these locations have basic accommodation- homestays or tents. Do not expect an amenity-laden stay! After all, nature is best enjoyed with the bare essentials!
When the mysterious being presents itself before you, you are bound to experience the inexplicable. An overwhelming sense of awe grips you, rendering you mute with mouth-agape. After all, it is not every day that the Ghost of the Mountains welcomes you into its home of raw, unyielding wilderness. Remember, this is the home of the beast, and you are simply a momentary guest, here to soak in the blissful beauty. In your search for the surreal steps, remember not to leave behind any footprints of your own. For in the absence of human footprints is when animal footprints flourish the best.
Cover Pic by Dhritiman Mukherjee
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