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

Mar 12
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Subir Chowfin with the forests he has helped to protect in the background

Ever wonder what  a person who dedicated ten years of his life to preserving 450 vital hectares of forest in India looks like? Meet Subir Chowfin, wildlife researcher and the next inspirational person in Arkive’s Conservation Heroes series!

If you find Subir’s story inspires you, click on the blue button below or at the end of the interview to see Subir’s “Wish List” of conservation actions that would make a world of difference for his work.  As a team, we can each take action today to support conservation!

Subir's wish list button

A Stunning Ecosystem with a Tumultuous History

This Arkive Conservation Hero’s story Pauri Garhwal's Uttarakhand Districtbegins in the Garhwal Himalaya in the Pauri Garhwal district of the state of Uttarakhand in India where, thanks to the efforts of a local wildife researcher and his mother,  450+ hectares of forested land in The Gadoli and Manda Khal Fee Simple Estates are forever protected.

A walk through the estates reveals a bounty of  predominantly oak and pine forests interspersed with grassy hill banks and rocky crags. The forests also house an incredible abundance of wildlife such as leopards, barking deer, rhesus macaque and feature endemic species such as the cheer pheasant.

The forests of the Gadoli and Manda Khal Fee Simple Estates are prime habitat for leopards

Interestingly, the Gadoli and Manda Khal Fee Simple Estates initially belonged to the British East India Company and were managed as Tea Estates. From the late 1800s to the 1900s the estates changed ownership several times with a substantial 1,100+ acres landing with Rev. David Albert Chowfin.  It soon became clear though that the forests were suffering from illegal development activities in certain areas in violation of the forest and environmental laws of the country.  Some of these activities include unsanctioned road construction, illegal dumping of garbage, and land encroachment meaning humans are building houses and tending agricultural lands further and further within the Gadoli and Manda Khal Fee Simple Estates forest. With the expansion of unchecked human activities in the forest, it became clear that something would need to happen to protect and conserve the wildlife.

A Conservation Hero Emerges

To put a halt to this activities, local citizen and wildlife researcher Subir Chowfin filed a complaint in 2006 to the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) in Pauri. Unfortunately, neither the Land Revenue Department nor the local forest department chose to take any action. In response, Subir took even greater action and filed a public interest litigation before the National Green Tribunal in the nation’s capital, New Delhi.

Subir and his mother Christine worked for ten years to save the forests of the Gadoli and Manda Khal Fee Simple Estates from illegal human activities, home to rhesus monkeys among other wildlife

After nearly a decade long battle with different agencies, Subir along with his mother Christine Chowfin finally achieved results. The National Green Tribunal ordered that all non-forest activities be stopped on 450 hectares of the Estates. The Tribunal also ordered the state government of  Uttarakhand to declare the 450 hectares as either reserve forest/protected forest or private forest.

Landscape of Gadoli Fee Simple Estate

From Protecting Forests to Building Conservation Programs

Through the Gadoli and Manda Khal Wildlife Conservation Trust set up to support the forest, Subir works to preserve and protect the wildlife in the Estates by pursuing a long list of fascinating activities such as supporting field wildlife research projects and developing educational programs for the local community and school children. The Trust also established a sustainable agricultural program that helps promote the environmental and ecological benefits of organic farming. Furthermore, as part of their agriculture program, the Trust employs women from the hill regions of  Uttarakhand providing them with regular, stable salaries. Subir believes programs like these help to involve the community as a whole within the process of conservation and gives them a reason to preserve these forests.

Stunning landscape of The Gadoli and Manda Khal Fee Simple Estate

 From reading about Heroes to becoming one yourself 

Inspired by Subir’s story to take action? Please click on the button below to make a pledge today to take a conservation action – actions that range from sharing Subir’s story socially to help spread the word further to donating to his nonprofit organization that protects these forests! Or maybe you are a recent graduate or scientists that sees the Estates as an incredible opportunity to dig into Indian wildlife research and conservation work. No matter your interest, every action matters.  Please make a pledge today! 

Take Action

Subir's wish list button

Feb 27

Arkive’s Week in Review — Wildlife News

ICYMI: Arkive has compiled some of the biggest and most interesting headlines from this week.

Article originally published on Friday, Feb 20, 2015 

Evolution favors the big: Marine mammals have grown larger over time

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Potato cod

The average marine creature today is about 150 times larger than its counterparts that lived during the Cambrian period. The study looked at body size data for marine species groups including the echinoderms and chordates.

View original article

Purple-sea-urchin

Purple sea urchin

 Article originally published on Saturday, Feb 21, 2015

Shy kangaroos prefer bigger groups

Female-and-young-eastern-grey-kangaroos

Female and young eastern grey kangaroo

Shyer or risk-averse female kangaroos feed in larger groups than bold or braver individuals.  Researchers hypothesize that shyer females like bigger groups because individuals in larger groups are safer from predators.

View original article

 Article originally published on Sunday, Feb 22, 2015

Kingpin responsible for killing 20 rhinos caught by authorities

Indian-rhinoceros-feeding-on-water-hyacinth

Indian rhinoceros feeding on water hyacinth

Authorities have arrested the leader of a poaching gang that killed 20 Indian rhinoceros in Nepal.  Today there are over 2,500 Indian rhinos and the population is still rising.

View original article

 Article originally published on Monday, Feb 23, 2015

Small predator diversity is an important part of a healthy ecosystem

Western-leopard-toad-head-detail

Western leopard toad

Biodiversity, including small predators such as dragonflies that attack and consume parasites may improve the health of amphibians. The study suggests that dwindling global environmental biodiversity and worldwide spikes in infectious diseases may be linked.

View original article

Slim-scarlet-darter

Slim scarlet-darter

 Article originally published on Tuesday, Feb 24, 2015

Amur leopard population booms – to 57

Amur-leopard-cub

Amur leopard cub

There are now at least 57 Amur leopards in Russia. These leopards are scattered across more than 36,000 hectares.

View original article

 Article originally published on Wednesday, Feb 25, 2015

$7 million could save lemurs from extinction

Alaotran-gentle-lemur-with-young-on-back

Alaotran gentle lemur with young on back

Last year, scientists released a three year plan they said could save the world’s lemurs from world extinction and cost just $7.6 million. To facilitate this process, Lynne Venart the head of a design firm created the Lemur Conservation Network that brings together over 40 conservation groups and research institutes with the purpose of empowering the individual to support conservation.

View original article

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Grey mouse-lemur

 Article originally published on Thursday, Feb 26, 2015

U.S ‘pet’ tiger trade puts big cats at great risk

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Female bengal tiger with juveniles

Some tigers in the United States end up at roadside zoos, which lack the knowledge and resources to provide appropriate care. Other tigers end up in the pet trade and some are even killed illegally and their body parts sold.

View original article

 Enjoy your weekend!

William Lazaro, Arkive Social Media Intern, Wildscreen USA

 

 

Jan 1

As we say goodbye to 2014, we say hello to 2015 and what’s more traditional than ringing in the New Year with some beautiful babies! We’ve set ourselves to the difficult task of identifying some of the cutest and most interesting wildlife babies to get us off to a fresh start on January 1.

After a look at this list, we bet you’ll be looking forward to a happy (and maybe even cuddly) new year!

Bundles of joy

Ten day old brown bears

At ten days old, these brown bears hardly resemble the large furry adults they will one day become. Brown bears usually have litters of one to four cubs with cubs reaching maturity at four to six years of age.

Hey everyone look right

Group of ostrich chicks

These fluffy  and speckled ostrich chicks look very different from the black and white adults they all aspire to become. While ostriches lay some of the largest eggs among birds, they also hold the distinct honor of being the fastest running bird at an astonishing 43 mph.

Cute as a button

Harp seal pup

The angelic harp seal pup is distinguished by its white and pristine fur that differentiates it from the silvery-grey color of the adult. The pups white fur becomes whiter during their first two weeks, but they molt soon after and develop the silvery-grey of adults.

I present, the (tiny) emperor

Emperor newt tadpole

This tiny tadpole is actually the dignified emperor newt, which develops orange and black coloration when it reaches adulthood. Females usually lay between 80 and 240 eggs with eggs hatching after 15 to 40 days.

What’s up?

Southern cassowary chick

The small chick of the Southern cassowary looks nothing like the imposing adult that has a helmet of tough skin on its head. Eggs are incubated for around 50 days and may require parental care for up to 16 months.

Two is better than one

Kemp’s ridley turtle hatchlings

The critically endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle is one of the smallest marine turtles with adults weighing less than 100 pounds. Hatchlings are grey-black all over compared to the grey-olive adults. About 90 eggs are lain per clutch, with two to three clutches lain a year.

What’s black and yellow all over?

Corroboree frog froglets

The corroboree frog is a small frog whose defining characteristics are the lack of webbed toes and their visually stunning black and yellow coloration. Females lay around 26 eggs with tadpoles remaining in their protective egg for up to 7 months.

Just hanging out

Amur leopard cub

This is one extreme feline, since the Amur leopard resides in the frigid landscapes of the Russian Far East. These wonderful big cats have a thick fur that can grow up 7cm during winter and are among one of the rarest leopard subspecies.

Look into my eyes

dwarf crocodile photo

Infant dwarf crocodile

The pint-sized dwarf crocodile are the smallest of the bunch with adults rarely reaching 5 feet in length. Females usually lay 10 eggs per clutch and take 100 days to incubate! Young crocodiles are about 28 cm when they hatch.

Did we capture you favorite babies from the animal kingdom? If not, feel free to share your favorite Arkive baby pictures in the comments below!

Happy New Year from the Arkive Team to you!

William Lazaro, Arkive Social Media Intern, Wildscreen USA

Jan 14

Although the term ‘The Big Five’ is commonly used today by African Safari Tour operators for marketing purposes, it actually has a much darker origin. The phrase was first coined by hunters, who considered these five large African mammals to be the most difficult to hunt, due to their ferocity and the danger involved in tracking and killing them. Today however, ‘The Big Five’ are among the most popular and well studied of all African animals.

African elephant

As the largest terrestrial mammal in the world, the African elephant is also one of the most charismatic. This emotive creature has a highly complex social structure that is perhaps what makes the elephant such a favourite among us. Each closely related family group of females and calves is led by an old ‘matriarch’ female, and male elephants leave the group at puberty, forming less tight-knit alliances with other males. Interestingly, there seems to be some scientific truth behind the expression ‘elephants never forget’. Studies have revealed that the dominant female is able to build a ‘social memory’, enabling her to recognise ‘friends’. Despite their seemingly gentle nature, elephants can be extremely aggressive and dangerous when threatened.

African elephant photo

African elephants fighting

Black rhinoceros

The Critically Endangered black rhinoceros is distinguished from the African white rhinoceros by its characteristic pointed, prehensile upper lip. It is known for its inquisitive yet aggressive nature towards humans and other animals. Twice as heavy as an African buffalo, the black rhinoceros should not be mistaken as a slow animal. It is surprisingly fast on its feet, reaching speeds of up to 31 miles per hour, and is able to make sharp turns whilst running full pelt. In spite of all this, new camera technology has revealed a softer side to the black rhinoceros, which appears to show that they meet at night in order to ‘socialise’.

Photo of male black rhinoceros charging

Male black rhinoceros charging

African buffalo

The iconic African or Cape buffalo has a menacing appearance, with its brownish black coat and magnificently curved horns that can be used defensively to great effect. Alongside the hippopotamus, the African buffalo is considered to be Africa’s most dangerous animal, known to attack and even kill humans and other animals without provocation. Given their vegetarian status, this inclination highlights their extremely aggressive nature. Female bonds are strong within a buffalo herd, and if one is attacked by a predator, it will be staunchly defended by the rest of the herd. Having seen a lioness held hostage up a tree for hours by a herd of buffalo, I can vouch for the loyalty of herds!

Buffalo standing guard over a lioness in a tree © Kaz Armour

Buffalo standing guard over a lioness in a tree © Kaz Armour

Lion

Lions are the most social of all cats, living in groups of related females who often reproduce at the same time and suckle each others cubs. In many cultures the lion has become known as the ‘King of the Beasts’ due to its ferocious temperament and regal presence. Also one of the largest of the ‘big cats’, the muscular lion has powerful jaws and is able to hunt animals that are many times its own size. Male lions compete for access to females, and will commonly kill any cubs already present after taking over a pride. This behaviour is exhibited to increase the reproductive potential of the male in a short period of time.

African lions attacking a hippopotamus

African lions attacking a hippopotamus

Leopard

The graceful leopard is both majestic and elusive, its spots providing extremely effective camouflage in African habitats. Being skilled climbers, leopards will often drag their kill up into the trees to prevent it from being poached by scavengers. Leopards are powerful predators, with formidable jaws that dispatch and dismember prey with ease. They are equally able to hunt at night, with their long, sensitive whiskers enabling them to ‘feel’ their way in the darkness.

African leopard hunting

African leopard hunting

Africa’s ‘Little Five’

Whilst we talk about Africa’s most well known and ferocious animals, we mustn’t forget those smaller, but no less important. Did you know that for each of ‘the Big Five’ African animals, there is a ‘Little Five’ equivalent? These somewhat smaller, but equally impressive creatures include:

  • The rhinoceros beetle. The male has an impressive backward-curved horn on its head, hence its common name.
  • The rufous elephant shrew. These bouncing critters have kangaroo-like hind legs, allowing them to hop bipedally when moving fast.
  • The leopard tortoise. Named after its gold and black mottled shell, the leopard tortoise can live up to 50 years in captivity!
  • The buffalo weaver. These striking birds are most easily identified by their bright red rump and white head.
  • The ant lion. A winged larval insect, which digs conical shaped sand traps to catch small ants to feed on.
Rufous elephant shrew photo

Rufous elephant shrew

Watch out for our next Africa themed blog, which will explore the fascinating lesser-known African species the continent has to offer.

Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author

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