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

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

Dec 21
Photo of snow leopard lying in snow

Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)

Species: Snow leopard (Panthera uncia)

Status: Endangered (EN)

Interesting Fact: At almost a metre long, the thick tail of the snow leopard is used for balance and can be wrapped around the animal’s body for warmth.

More information:

The beautiful snow leopard  has smoky-white fur with a yellow tinge, and is patterned with dark grey to black spots. The snow leopard has many adaptations for its cold habitat, such as long body hair, thick, woolly belly fur and large paws. It has unusually large nasal cavities to warm the cold, thin air as it is breathed in.

Snow leopards are solitary animals and are most active at dawn and dusk. They are opportunistic predators, capable of killing prey up to three times their own weight. Snow leopards usually have two or three cubs per litter, which become independent of their mother at around two years old.

The majority of snow leopards are located in the Tibetan region of China, although fragmented populations are also found in the harsh, mountainous areas of central Asia. They are generally found at elevations between 3,000 and 4,500 metres, in steep terrain broken by cliffs, ridges, gullies and rocky outcrops.

The natural prey of this majestic species has been hunted out of many areas of the high central Asian mountains, and the snow leopard turns to domestic stock as an alternative source of food. This can incite retaliation from local farmers. Snow leopard fur was once highly prized in the international fashion world, and around 1,000 pelts were traded per year in the 1920s. A further threat to this species is the increasing demand for its bones for traditional Oriental medicine.

The snow leopard is protected throughout most of its range, and international trade is banned by this species’ listing on Appendix I of CITES. The International Snow Leopard Trust and the Snow Leopard Conservancy are the world’s leading organisations dedicated to conserving this endangered cat. Local people are involved in various conservation initiatives and there are plans to link fragmented populations by habitat corridors.

 

Find out more about the snow leopard at the Snow Leopard Trust and the Snow Leopard Conservancy.

See images and videos of the snow leopard on ARKive.

Phoebe Shaw Stewart, ARKive Text Author

 

Jul 24

A rising global demand for cashmere is putting the snow leopard and other native wildlife in Central Asia under threat, according to a new study.

Photo of wild snow leopard in stalking pose

The snow leopard is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List

Domestic cashmere goats are raised in many parts of Central Asia for their luxurious fur coats. Although cashmere production is not new, the global demand for this product has increased dramatically, and goat numbers have almost tripled in some areas in the last 20 years.

The new study, published in the journal Conservation Biology, reports that the increasing goat population is encroaching on the habitat of the snow leopard and its prey. Nearly all the forage across the Tibetan plateau, Mongolia and northern India is now being consumed by goats, sheep and other livestock, leaving only tiny amounts for native herbivores such as the Tibetan antelope, saiga, wild yak and Przewalski’s horse.

Photo of Przewalski's horses in habitat

Goats are also competing with native herbivores such as Przewalski’s horse

A decline in these native prey species can lead snow leopards to hunt goats, so leading to increased conflict with humans as people seek to protect their herds. Other threats to native species include disease transfer from livestock and the killing of wild animals by herders’ dogs.

Green labelling

Cashmere production is an important source of income for many local communities in Central Asia.

According to Dr Charudutt Mishra of the Snow Leopard Trust, “Cashmere production is a complicated human issue. Understandably, indigenous herders are trying to improve their livelihoods, but the short-term economic gain is harming the local ecosystem.”

Photo of snow leopard female and juvenile

Snow leopards prey mainly on wild sheep and goats, but will take livestock if wild prey has been depleted

Dr Mishra suggests that ‘green labelling’ of cashmere clothes could help increase awareness of the issue among consumers. “One of the intentions is to bring together some of the local communities who produce cashmere and the buyers from the international market. We want to address everyone’s concerns and develop a programme where we can make grazing more sustainable, and that allows for wild and domestic animals to co-exist,” he said.

According to Dr Mishra and the other authors of the study, the iconic species of the region’s mountains and steppes will become victims of fashion unless action is taken on both a global and a local scale.

 

Read more on this story at BBC News – Cashmere trade threat to snow leopards and The Guardian – Snow leopards and wild yaks becoming ‘fashion victims’.

View more images and videos of the snow leopard on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author

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