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

Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: Scottish wildcat

Nominated by: Scottish Wildcat Action

Why do you love it?

The Scottish wildcat is a really charismatic species of cat that lives in the Scottish Highlands. It features on many clan crests and is a part of Scottish folklore so it’s part of our Scottish identity. Sadly there aren’t many of them left. Latest estimates suggest there could be as few as 100 in the wild.

Wildcats are built like a mini tiger but they are only slightly larger than a tabby domestic cat. If you look closely you can see they have longer limbs and a wider head with a powerful jaw. These are good for catching and eating live prey.

The most notable difference is the thick bushy tail which has black rings and a blunt black tip as though it has been dipped in paint. It’s a beautiful animal with some serious attitude.

What are the threats to the Scottish wildcat?

The biggest threat today actually comes from domestic cats that haven’t been neutered or vaccinated. Although Scottish wildcats are our native cat and domestic cats were introduced by humans much later, they can still interbreed and even catch the same diseases.

The Scottish wildcat is now a protected species but it is so heavily outnumbered by domestic cats that it’s difficult for them to find and mate with another wildcat, and instead they often mate with domestic cats and have hybrid kittens. These hybrids have mixed wildcat and domestic cat ancestry and as hybridisation continues with each successive generation, the wildcat genes are being diluted. Soon we will lose our native cat altogether.

Every time they come into contact with a domestic cat they are also at risk of catching diseases because mating or fighting over territory passes on infectious diseases like feline leukaemia (FeLV) or feline Aids (FIV).

Historically, humans hunted wildcats and this reduced their numbers. People still hunt cats today, but now they aim to shoot unowned domestic cats living in the wild (known as feral cats) as a legal method of controlling predators. However, it can be easy to mistake a domestic cat with a wildcat if shooting at night or using snares.

What are you doing to save it?

The good news is that, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Scottish Wildcat Action is working with over 20 partner organisations and lots of local people to protect wildcats in the wild. Our friends at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland are also breeding them for later release.

Wildcats are notoriously elusive and very cunning. With the added issue of hybridisation, it’s difficult to even identify them in the wild. Thankfully, new technology is helping us to find out where they are. We use hundreds of motion-sensitive trail cameras to gather images of cats living in the wild and this helps us target our conservation work more effectively. Using the intelligence from the trail cameras, we can also find out where there are feral cat hotspots and target them for neutering and vaccination. Ferals are domestic cats whose ancestors were once pets or farm cats that were abandoned or strayed; however, because they are a domesticated species they do not have the adaptations to cope with wild-living like the wildcat. These feral cats live a hard life, often riddled with disease and parasites, breeding with even their close relatives and scraping a living by scrounging from human food sources.

The best thing for them is to stop them from breeding further and making sure they are immune to some of the more common diseases. Once they have been neutered and vaccinated we return them to the wild because they are not socialised to humans. This way they also act as a buffer between wildcats and any new feral cats in the area who may not be neutered or vaccinated.

We rely on local sightings too and we have over 150 fantastic volunteers helping us to maintain the cameras, catch feral cats to take them to the vet, and to raise awareness of how cat owners can help by micro-chipping, neutering and vaccinating their pet cats. Finally, we are also working with our partner, the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, to encourage the use of wildcat-friendly predator control methods so that wildcats are not accidentally caught in the crosshairs.

VOTE NOW!

Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: Borneo bay cat

Nominated by: S.P.E.C.I.E.S

Why do you love it?

The rather small bay cat, or red cat, might be the biggest mystery of the entire cat world.  This mystery is almost equalled by its native home, the island of Borneo, to which the bay cat is restricted.  But as go the rainforests of Borneo, so goes the bay cat and the island’s other unique inhabitants.  I am fascinated by the bay cat because it IS the face of Borneo; only the protection of the island’s rainforests will lead to a future for the bay cat.  And I think about it so much because we all know so little – a very big mystery in a very small cat!

What are the threats to the bay cat?

The bay cat is probably the rarest of the world’s 37 cat species.  It occurs at a lower density than tigers, clouded leopards, and snow leopards, some of the world’s most recognisable big cats.  Overall it has only ever been recorded in the wild a few dozen times.  So little is known about the bay cat actually, that it is difficult to know what the single greatest threat to its survival is.  However, conversion of Borneo’s forests into oil palm plantations, legal and illegal logging, indiscriminate hunting with snares, and increased competition with other felids through habitat degradation are probably among the biggest threats to bay cat populations.

What are you doing to save it?

S.P.E.C.I.E.S. and its partners are among only a handful of organisations to have successfully recorded the bay cat across different sites on Borneo.  We also contributed to the development of the first ever conservation planning model for the bay cat, one that integrates all of the scientific community’s records for the purposes of identifying habitats and regions of potentially great importance to bay cats.

Currently, we are planning new activities focused on learning more about the bay cat’s distribution and habitat needs, as well as a program to reduce likely threats to its survival; we will be conducting surveys and community outreach campaigns in new areas, working to reduce habitat conversion inside and outside of protected areas and removing snares where intensive hunting is negatively impacting mammal populations.

VOTE NOW!

VOTE FOR ME!

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

Aug 8

August 8th is International Cat Day, but before you open up the catnip for your domestic moggy why not take a look at their wild relatives? There are 41 cat species in the Felidae family and while the more famous members steal most of the limelight, there are probably quite a few species that you haven’t even heard of who are equally astounding. Here’s 10 that we thought deserved a bit of recognition this International Cat Day…

1) Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus)

The rusty-spotted cat is the world’s smallest cat, with the some adults weighing just 0.8kg. This nocturnal hunter is found across India as well as Sri Lanka and Nepal, where it lives in dry deciduous forest, scrub and grassland and feeds on some of the classic cat favourites: rodents, birds and domestic poultry.

2) Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus)

The Iberian lynx is the world’s rarest cat; only 400 individuals remain and until recently there were only two known strongholds for this species. This cat is threatened by a dwindling food supply; their diet largely consists of rabbits which have declined due to epidemic outbreaks of myxamatosis. However may not be lost, as individuals have been translocated and reintroduced into three conservation areas across Spain and Portugal, which has led to a subsequent increase in the population.

3) Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul)

Pallas’s cat is an elusive and solitary cat whose range stretches across Central Asia. Far from the top of the food chain, Pallas’s cat is often predated by raptors, wolves, red foxes and, more recently, domestic and feral dogs.

4) Wildcat (Felis silvestris)

The wildcat is of huge importance to the human population, as without this species there would be no domestic cats. We’ve fed, groomed and generally been ruled by our cats for 9,500 years and it’s thought that wildcats were originally lured towards human settlements due to rodents that lived in their grain stores. The friendliest individuals domesticated themselves by taking advantage of human protection and leftovers, and this affinity with humans due to easy access to food is something has never shown any signs of stopping!

5) Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps)

It’s commonly thought that cats hate water, but this is a misconception. It certainly isn’t the case for this brave felid, which lives a semi-aquatic life due to its love for feeding on fish, frogs and crustaceans. It has specialised adaptations for aquatic hunting, including webbed feet and backward pointing teeth. The flat-headed cat is not the only cat species that is regularly seen in water – check out this video of a tiger swimming across a river.

6) Caracal (Caracal caracal)

Arguably the most striking of all of the cat species, the caracal (or rooikat) is a fierce predator. Hunting in tropical savannas across Africa and Asia, the caracal can take prey items up to three times its size, including small antelope.

7) Borneo bay cat (Pardofelis badia)

The Borneo bay cat, endemic to the island of Borneo, is the most under-studied cat in the world, and only 25 individuals have ever been recorded. The first bay cat was collected by the famous biologist Alfred Russell Wallace in 1855, although this individual was dead and it wasn’t until 1992 that a live bay cat was caught and recorded. The Asiatic golden cat is a close relative of this species, although the population of their common ancestor is thought to have been split in two around 4.9 to 5.3 million years ago, triggering the evolution of these separate but genetically similar species.

8) Jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi)

Found in the New World, the jaguarundi is an unusual looking cat. Its slender build and small head gives it a weasel-like appearance. It also differs from other New World cats in its behaviour, as it is active in the day, has a large home range and is spends much more time on the forest floor than in the trees. Amazingly, individuals of this species have been seen jumping up to two metres off the ground when attempting to catch birds.

9) Guigna (Leopardus guigna)

Due to of its secretive nature and tiny size, very few people have seen a guigna and it is definitely not a cat that many people have heard of…until now! This arboreal species is found in Chile and Argentina, where it is known as the ‘kodkod’. The guigna is one of the smallest cat species in the Southern Hemisphere and I think we can probably all agree that it is extremely cute.

10) Lion (Panthera leo)

We imagine you’ve heard of this one, but did you know that lions were once common in Greece? There was once a European lion (Panthera leo europaea), which is often featured in Ancient Greek mythology, writings and pottery. Due to their geographical proximity these lions were captured and used in Roman arenas where they fought the ‘bestiarii’ (men who fought animals). In one festival in 240 AD, 70 Lions were slaughtered for entertainment. This was a main factor for extinction for both the Barbary lion and the European lion.

 

Want to find out more about wild cat conservation? Check out these amazing conservation organisations…

IUCN Cat Specialist Group
Felidae Conservation Fund
Wildlife Conservation Society – Big Cats
International Society for Endangered Cats Canada
Panthera

Ted Savile, Arkive Guest Blogger

About

RSS feedArkive.org is the place for films, photos and facts about endangered species. Subscribe to our blog today to keep up to date!

Email updates

Sign up to receive a regular email digest of Arkive blog posts.
Preferred frequency:

Arkive twitter

Twitter: ARKive