Mar 1

The snow leopard is one of the most elusive creatures on the planet, living in one of the most hostile environments on Earth. Here Wildscreen Exchange and Arkive contributor Craig Jones shares with us his experience in tracking and photographing this mysterious and endangered big cat in the Himalayan mountains.

This incredible expedition took us to one of the most wonderful and impressive places on Earth – “The roof of the world” as it’s known, it had been over fifteen months of planning. Precarious climbs, steep falls, bone-chilling cold and heart-warming sights, just some of the words that come to mind from this incredible trip to the Indian Himalayas searching for the elusive snow leopard. Nothing was promised with such a rare big cat but I always believe in what you give to nature, nature will give back to you.

We flew from London to Delhi, delayed 24 hours due to heavy snowfall in the Himalayas. Once landed you really feel the extra altitude almost straight away but your body adjusts just as quick. From there we headed to Leh, largest city in the Ladakh region of North India, situated at an altitude of 3,500m.

We spent the mandatory two days acclimatising in Le, adapting to the height. The massive 17th-century Leh Palace, modeled on the Dalai Lama’s former home; Tibet’s Potala Palace, overlooks the old town’s bazaar and maze like lanes. The people were extremely friendly and it’s an amazing place full of so many different cultures and people.

After two magical days in Leh we left civilisation as we knew, heading to Hemis National Park in our quest to find the snow leopard. The team packed our vehicles with the massive amount of gear and equipment we’d need. The nerves started to bite a little at the thought of seeing one of the world’s rarest big cats as fresh snow started to fall. Hemis National Park was established in 1981 and is the largest National park in the south Asia region and home to one of the highest densities of wild Snow leopards anywhere in the world.

As we headed along narrow roads towards the national park passing mules and other animals along the way, the landscape changes dramatically with steep sided mountains and long drops to the valley below you. The size and remoteness just overwhelm you at first, it really does. We travelled for around an hour by road until we could no more, it was on foot from here on in.

My heart was racing, everywhere I looked I could see rocks that were almost the identical colour of Snow leopard fur and when you look so intensely at things your eyes often play tricks with you so I was double checking every little rock I saw and focused on as we walked into this truly inspiring place.

Once inside the park we turned the first corner and there was a small family of blue sheep feeding. Our guides pointed at them and we stopped and got out the cameras and nervously set up hoping these stunning animals would stay. Blue sheep are a main prey item for snow leopards and form the majority of their diet. It’s a good sign when you come across them as there maybe snow leopards in that area watching.

Once they had passed through we packed up and carried on our steady walk to our base camp. We slowly climbed up and were surrounded by steep mountains either side of us as we walked. It was incredibly impressive and something that I find hard to explain in words. Once we got to our little camp the snow was coming down heavy and the sun was slowly disappearing behind the dense snow clouds. That evening was filled with great excitement as we had our first evening meal and planned the next days events. We made our tents as comfortable as we could and went to sleep. I didn’t sleep well that first night, I never do when somewhere new.

Before dawn, I was up and decided to go out with my guides and trackers high up on the ridges overlooking our camp. The place just blew me away with its scale, you were completely dwarfed by the sheer scale of the place as the mountains seem to encase you inside this most beautiful of landscapes.

Over the days our routine didn’t really change as the guides were scouting for snow leopard signs and possible sightings from first light until last light. We visited the junction of Husing Nala and Tarbung Nala including the high ridge lines, hiked up the main Lato Nala vantage point and spent the day scanning the Kharlung and adjoining areas. It became very apparent from the moment we entered this beautiful yet hostile terrain that it would be very difficult to see a snow leopard.

On one such day while we were waiting, a lone lammergeier was soaring above our heads against the bluest of skies you could have ever imagined. Later from nowhere a rare Himalayan griffon vulture also soared above us often crossing the same flight path as the bearded vulture.

After the first few days had passed we were having breakfast and heard shouting outside our dining tent. I got up and went outside and the guides told me there had been a sighting of a Snow Leopard on the mountain overlooking our camp. Everyone then made a scramble to their tents, I can’t describe those few moments as it seemed like a blur now looking back, and we soon got all our gear and were out on the small path adjacent to our camp.

Our guides were looking through the powerful telescopes and each one of us, in turn, looked through to see this amazing big cat. First, he went over the ridge and out of sight, then he returned and just lay down in the morning sun without a care in the world. He didn’t move a great deal and spent the next several hours just sleeping and lazing around, before getting up and walking back over the ridge and that was the last we saw of him. We’d had no further sightings for days then this and words can’t express how we all felt at seeing one of the world’s rarest cats and also one of the most beautiful ones.

Over the next few days we all walked and trekked over frozen rivers and steep valleys and ridges, each day returning to our little camp, seen in the bottom left-hand corner of the image below, nestled in between the mountain ranges of the Indian Himalayas. Where we stayed was hard for me to describe due to its remoteness and beauty, this image I hope goes some way in conveying that.

During one hike to a vantage point, we visited the homestay of one of our guides, Gurmet, high up around 4500m above sea level, the oxygen seemed to be disappearing the higher we got. Gurmets sister lived there with her husband and children, on arrival we were invited inside for a warm drink, amazed at how wonderful the rooms looked and the kitchen etc. I also made a friend there, he was the nephew of Gurmet and loved seeing his face in my camera, I showed him the ones I took of him to which he was fascinated.

It was our last day in Hemis National park and we set off before our gear and mules, and had only been walking for ten minutes when noticed some commotion and shouting, as we got closer our guides told us another snow leopard had been spotted not too far from where we were.

Following our guides, my heart was racing, everyone was sort of dumbstruck that on the day we were leaving our luck shone once more. We were soon off track and almost vertical up a really steep hill. The snow leopard was on the mountain opposite but was near impossible to see, so we quickly got sorted our tripods and cameras, scanning the mountain.

How they spot these elusive big cats I have no idea, they are almost invisible to the naked eye due to their fur pattern and colour which is identical to the rocks and cliffs in which they live. Upon looking for a few minutes I saw him and said “wow” out loud. Sitting there all majestically, fur in tip-top condition he was just stunning.

We lost light that afternoon, behind the mountains and had to drag ourselves off that mountain and say goodbye not only to him but to this incredible place that had been our home over the last several days. I was really sad to leave and I said goodnight to him as we carefully made our way down to the path and walked out of Hemis National park to our awaiting transport. It was cold and tough going at times but these big cats are special and live in one of the most testing environments anywhere in the world. Perfectly adapted to that life they are true masters of this place and they demand your total respect.

See more of Craig Jones’s photography on the Wildscreen Exchange

Aug 10

August 10th is World Lion Day so we’ve collated a list of some of our favourite lion facts to celebrate – and we are all planning on watching the Lion King when we get home too!

1) Lions and the British Monarchy

Lions have long been a symbol of of the British Monarchy; some of the earliest signs of the royal’s relationship with the king of the jungle were discovered in 1937 when two skulls of the now extinct Barbary lion were found in the Tower of London. The skulls date back the 13th century, and are evidence of the Royal Menagerie established at the tower by King John in the 1200s. Long before zoos, the Royal Menagerie displayed extraordinary animals from across the empire, until its closure in 1835. The Barbary lion was found across North Africa until its extinction in 1922, and was believed to be a monogamous species. One of the skulls discovered in 1937 is now on display in London’s Natural History Museum.

2) Males can be maneless

The mane is a sign of distinction for any self-respecting male lion, however not all males have one. In Kenya’s Tsavo National Park males lack manes, which has mystified scientists for many years. The main functions of the mane are thought to be physical protection for the head and neck areas, sexual gravitas, or intimidation to other males (darker manes indicate higher levels of testosterone). Lions in the Tsavo National Park are exposed to extreme heat and aridity, and it is thought that having a large mane may cause males to overheat.

3) Females have hunting positions

Female lions hunt cooperatively and individuals have a preferred position within the hunting formation that is dependent on their body shape and size, similar to a rugby team. Research by scientists in Etosha National Park showed that there are two ‘positions’ in a hunting formation: wings and centres. Centres were involved in ambush attacks and tend to be of a stockier build, while wingers stalk animals and initiate hunts. These positions may be a crucial behavioural adaptation to maximising efficient prey capture in an arid desert environment.

4) Lions don’t always live in prides

While the traditional view of lions is that they live in prides, this is actually far from the norm and more than half of the population don’t live in prides at all. Females that live in prides don’t necessarily have higher hunting success and studies have shown that in times of low food availability being a solitary female is actually the best option to increase their chance of survival.

5) Safety in numbers

Despite living in prides possibly not being the best option food-wise, this way of living keeps lionesses and their young safe from roaming males. Plus, it gives them all some friends to hang out with!

 

Show your love for lions today by sharing your newfound knowledge with others and finding out more about the amazing work that conservation organisations are doing to help save this rapidly declining species.

Ted Savile, Arkive Guest Blogger

May 29

The Whitley Fund for Nature holds an annual ceremony where pioneering conservationists around the world are honoured with an award recognising their achievement and given £35,000 (US$50,350) to continue their projects. We were lucky enough to be invited along to the ceremony to meet the finalists and find out more about their work. Each day this week we will release an interview from each of the winners on the Arkive blog and our Youtube channel. ENJOY!

Muhammed Ali Nawaz – Snow leopard conservation: a landscape-level approach in the mountains of northern Pakistan

Ali works in Pakistan with the Critically Endangered snow leopard, whose numbers have undergone a drastic decline due to poaching, human-animal conflict and habitat loss. By bringing together NGOs, local people and government, Ali has developed and implemented a management plan for the species to allow co-existence of communities and carnivores. Human-animal conflict is rife in the area, with many livestock keepers killing snow leopards who have predated their sheep, goats and cows. Ali’s projects help local people to protect their livestock and has reduced the amount of losses caused by snow leopards tenfold.

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Find out more about Ali’s work on the Whitley Awards website

Discover more about the Snow Leopard Trust

Visit the Arkive profile of the snow leopard

Jul 1

The Sumatran tiger, a Critically Endangered tiger subspecies, may be even rarer than previously thought, according to a new study.

Photo of Sumatran tigress

Found only on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the Sumatran tiger may number fewer than 400 wild individuals and is perilously close to extinction. In a new study, published in the journal Oryx, researchers from Virginia Tech and WWF used camera traps to estimate tiger density in previously unsurveyed habitats on Sumatra.

Worryingly, they found that tiger density may only be half what has been estimated in the past, and in some areas it could be as low as one tiger per 40 square kilometres.

Tigers under threat

The main reason for the low density of tigers on Sumatra appears to be human activity, particularly large-scale conversion of forest for oil palm, pulp and paper plantations.

We believe the low detection of tigers in the study area of central Sumatra was a result of the high level of human activity – farming, hunting, trapping, and gathering of forest products,” said Sunarto, the lead author of the study. “We found a low population of tigers in these areas, even when there was an abundance of prey animals.”

Photo of a male Sumatran tiger

Sumatra lost around 36% of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010, but the results of the study show that tigers fare badly even in areas where the forest is apparently intact.

According to Sunarto, “Tigers are not only threatened by habitat loss from deforestation and poaching; they are also very sensitive to human disturbance. They cannot survive in areas without adequate understorey, but they are also threatened in seemingly suitable forests when there is too much human activity.”

Tiger conservation

The findings of the study highlight the importance of protecting large areas of remaining forest and reducing the levels of illegal human activity. Opportunities still exist to protect some of the region’s forests, but without urgent action they could soon be converted to plantations.

Photo of Sumatran tiger at river

It will also be important to find ways to improve tiger habitat while also supporting local people, for example through agroforestry activities or selective logging. As the rapid conversion of forests to oil palm plantations is driven by high global demand, the international community also needs to take responsibility for protecting Sumatra’s forests and its tigers.

Although the results of the study are worrying news for the Sumatran tiger, the team found a potentially stable tiger population in the region’s Tesso Nilo National Park, showing that legal protection can be effective in reducing human impacts and allowing the tiger population to recover.

 

Read more on this story at Mongabay and Science Daily.

View more photos and videos of tigers on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

Mar 9
Photo of Amur leopard resting

Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis)

Species: Amur leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis)

Status: Critically Endangered (CR)

Interesting Fact: The Amur leopard is one of the most endangered big cats in the world, with only around 20 adults and 5-6 cubs counted in 2007.

A distinctive subspecies of leopard (Panthera pardus), the Amur leopard has a particularly pale coat and large, dark, widely spaced spots. This beautiful big cat is well adapted to living in the harsh, cold climate it inhabits, with a thick coat and longer legs than other leopards, helping it to walk through snow. The Amur leopard usually lives alone and hunts at night, feeding on a range of animals including hares and deer.

The Amur leopard once ranged through the Amur River Basin, the mountains of northeast China and the Korean Peninsula, but is now confined to the Russian Far East, with a few individuals in the Jilin Province of China. The main threats to the Amur leopard include hunting for its coat and for its bones, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as a reduction in its prey species. Wildfires and human developments are also a threat. Although the Amur leopard is legally protected, greater efforts are needed to reduce poaching and educate local people. A captive breeding programme is underway, and part of China’s Jilin Province has been set aside for the creation of a National Park to protect this species. Unfortunately, the future of this beautiful but highly endangered cat remains uncertain.

Find out more about conservation efforts for the Amur leopard at AMUR – Russian Amur Tiger and Leopard Conservation, WWF – Amur leopard and WCS – Amur leopard.

See images and videos of the Amur leopard on ARKive.

Visit ARKive’s Facebook page to see an infographic on the Amur leopard shared by one of our followers, Guillermo Munro.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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