The Snow Leopard: Return from the Chasm

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Snow leopards, the tallest big cats in the world, are a rare conservation success story. In 2017, their status was changed from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Found in 12 Asian countries, it is currently estimated that there are around 7,000 to 10,000 in the wild. This is double from ten years ago. How did this change happen?

From reviled to revered

One of the reasons is the change in attitude of many villagers who share the habitat of snow leopards. In a surprising turnaround, these big cats have gone from reviled to revered.

I was able to explore this remarkable shift in perception during a recent visit to the Himalayan region of Ladakh in northern India.

A strained relationship

I met Dr. Tsewang Namgail, Director and Senior Scientist of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC) in the city of Leh, the capital of Ladakh. He explained why the relationship between the pastors and the snow leopards had been so strained, for so long.

Leopards have jeopardized the livelihoods and economies of goat herders in the region. They were known to wipe out entire herds of goats in a single attack. In retaliation, villagers would stone predators to death or poison a half-eaten carcass found on a nearby trail.

Breaking the cycle of attack and revenge

The SLC Trust has made several interventions to break this cycle of attack and revenge. They helped reinforce the corrals with lattice roofs to keep the livestock safe.

Villages were fitted with solar lights that kept predators including leopards, bears and wolves at bay. And they have set up an insurance system, whereby the breeders pay a small amount of money as compensation in the event of an attack.

The importance of education

The SLC Trust also educates villagers about the ecological benefits of snow leopards. If their predators are wiped out, the population of wild ungulates like sheep will spiral out of control.

The meager vegetation in the area will then decline, causing desertification and mudslides.

Homestays: a game changer

The help the SLC Trust has given villagers to turn their homes into guesthouses by adding a room or two for tourists has been a game-changer. This generated valuable income for the villagers during the dark winter months.

Namgyal admitted that there is still a long way to go before the snow leopard is safe. And in Ladakh, an explosion of wild dogs was the latest threat to conservation efforts.

Nevertheless, people from across the world have begun to visit these remote areas, hoping to spot the leopards.

Visit to the village of Rumbak

After acclimatizing in Leh at 11,000 feet, for two days, I headed to Rumbak village.

The village is located in the Indian Hemis High Altitude National Park. It took an hour on the road and another three hours on foot to get us there. There were a total of nine houses in the village, and each was turned into a foster home.

House Dhung

My destination was Dhung House, the three-story mud-walled house of Padma, a tireless hostess.

It was a simple dwelling, but two spaces had been lavished with color and adornment – a small prayer room and the kitchen. The latter was nicely decorated with brass and copper pots. Somewhere inside there was a source of hot tea that kept flowing.

Early each morning, in minus 15 degrees Centigrade, leopard spotters fanned out across the icy landscape in small groups of two or three. They scoured the horizon for movement and scanned rocky outcrops, gazing for hours through telescopes.

Big cats are often only seen at great distances, making spotters and telescopes vital links to observing them.

The austere landscape hid a dynamic ecosystem. At first, clumps of grass became visible. Then slowly the bharal (blue sheep) that was munching on them appeared.

I spotted chakor partridges and woolly hares frolicking in the frozen Rumbak River. Golden eagles floated calmly above our heads.

A sighting of wolves, jet black on the snow, made my pulse race.

Finally – the leopard!

And then finally, early one morning, excitement swept through the house. A snow leopard had been spotted!

I squinted one eye through the bezel. And he was there. Even in those first few seconds, the high-altitude predator conveyed an unmistakable majesty. He was the beating heart of the mountains, the hub of an ancient continuum.

stalking leopard stalking

Within our group, there were spontaneous whoops and high-fives of euphoria.

I followed the rosetted cat’s every move for an entire day as it stalked herds of bharal.

They looked at him nonchalantly, as they could easily get ahead of him on the dizzying terrain. Blue sheep advantage.

Hours passed while we watched him stalk using all his cunning. He crept behind rocks and hugged the ground as he moved. Just as he leaped closer, he turned into a still rock.

Perk: Snow Leopard

Darkness had set in. At that time, I was numb from the cold. I wanted some hot tea to thaw the ice cubes my limbs had become.

We retired, bruised, exhausted, but deeply elated. Soon a shimmering vault of stars appeared above us. Our feline had settled in perfectly. His incomparable night vision would now come into play.

Snow leopard perk.

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