Of the so-called Big Cats, the snow leopard is among the rarest and most mysterious. It’s also been the least accessible, living at high altitudes in the Himalayas, in a harsh mountain environment that even the most fit wildlife enthusiast might consider daunting.
There was no well-organized snow leopard tourism until the past ten years or so, but a couple of achievements in photography and filmmaking changed that. In 2006, the BBC debuted Planet Earth. The groundbreaking documentary series featured a remarkable sequence depicting the first filmed snow leopard hunt (something that took the filmmakers two years to achieve). A couple years later, photographer Steve Winter’s photo story on snow leopards was published in National Geographic, and Winter went on to win the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award.
Suddenly, ecotourism options were springing up in Ladakh, the area in northern India where both the BBC and Nat Geo recorded much of their footage. Snow leopard tours were now readily available, using the same trackers and guides and exploring the same trails as those pioneering photographers and videographers. I soon began seeing trip reports and a few photos that people were bringing back from the region. Nothing as spectacular as Winter’s camera trap photos, of course, but some visitors were lucking into reasonably close sightings (the photos at least depicted an easily-recognizable snow leopard, which is a notable achievement).
I finally made the decision to journey to Ladakh to see if I could have similar luck, and perhaps to see if this was a viable photo tour destination for my clients. My scouting trip occurred over two years ago, but I only recently finished processing the photos, so it hadn’t even crossed my mind to relate the story of my Himalayan adventures until now. Read on to learn how things went on my trip, and what you may need to know should you choose to accept the challenge of finding the elusive snow leopard.
Welcome to Ladakh. Now Catch Your Breath.
My father was a mountain climber. Now in his seventies, he no longer participates in more rigorous technical climbs, but he has trekked through central Asia and the Himalayas in recent years. I, on the other hand, have spent most of my time at sea level in Seattle, with occasional forays into Yellowstone (generally at 6000-7500 feet). So I wasn’t exactly in the best physical shape for my journey to Ladakh. I’m relatively spry enough and have trained myself to haul a lot of my camera gear over longer distances, including through hot, humid rainforests that sap one’s strength pretty quickly. But altitude is a different animal. Heck, I have to catch my breath the first time I climb the stairs in my Yellowstone cabin, which is at around 7400 feet. In India I was going to be hiking in locations that were nearly twice as high.
In order to reach the main snow leopard areas in Hemis National Park, one must fly into the Ladakhi capital of Leh. Leh is situated at about eleven-and-a-half thousand feet… and you only go up from there!
The altitude hits you almost instantly. Anti-altitude-sickness medication is recommended. In my case, I went with Diamox, which was recommended by my travel physician. This is supposed to help one adjust to altitude better and will reduce some of the side effects (light-headedness, nausea). But there’s a big downside… it’s a diuretic. It makes many folks pee a lot. Getting up to relieve one’s self in the middle of the night a few times may not sound like a big deal, but when you’re in the Himalayas… in winter… it becomes an issue (file this under the TMI section: I started bringing a bottle to bed with me so I wouldn’t have to make the cold trek to the bathroom both in Leh and at camp).
The Himalayas in Winter
Oh, did I not mention that the “best” time for snow leopards is in winter? As if the thought of trekking through the Himalayas wasn’t daunting enough, you have to go at the coldest time of year, mainly because it’s more likely to mean snow leopards and other wildlife are down at lower elevations. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case for me (more on that in a bit).
Winter travel requires serious protection from the elements. And not just when you’re outdoors. Prior to my visit, the Leh was suffering major power outages due to a mudslide that hit their local dam and affected their hydro electric power supply. This mean there was no heat at night inside the guest house. Despite the many thick blankets and the hot water bottle provided by my hosts each night, the Leh guest house ended up being the least comfortable place I stayed during my time in northern India.
So you’re going to need layers. Lots of them, along with thick winter clothing. I actually worried about wearing too much prior to the trip. Since I knew I was going to be hiking around, I didn’t want to overheat. But it’s worse to come underclothed and get stuck waiting on a stakeout on a cold, windy mountain ridge. A number of other trekkers staying in the same camp were wearing thick jackets and pants made specifically for Antarctic expeditions. They looked far too bulky for hiking, but ultimately they did a better job of keeping those folks warm than my many thinner layers.
I generally double-layered my long underwear (top and bottom), with regular outdoor pants coupled with a pullover, thinner down jacket and waterproof shell. The pants failed me on at least one occasion (the aforementioned windy, exposed hillside), and I felt like I needed at least one more layer on top to stay warmer. My thick winter fleece would have been perfect… even if that meant six layers on top!
I knew it would be cold at camp, and came prepared with my dad’s -20F rated sleeping bag. It still wasn’t quite enough on its own. My guide provided a second sleeping bag, which I unzipped and used as a blanket to cover my feet and legs… that worked out pretty well.
If anything, you shouldn’t underestimate how cold and windy it can be. Really, the words Himalayas + Winter should give you all the warning you need about how to prepare.
You won’t find luxury in Hemis National Park. Most snow leopard trekkers end up staying in the main camp, where the tent accommodations and food quality will vary in part on how much you pay for. Visitors are also required to partake in a home stay at the local village after a few days, as a way of supporting the local community. So for at least one night in the mountains, you will be out of a tent.
Camp life is extremely basic. I’ve mentioned how cold it can be. Your guide will hopefully provide a nightly hot water bottle, but don’t count on the spare sleeping bag I was fortunate to get. There are a couple of pit toilets in camp, but don’t count on two important things westerners are used to: paper… and a seat. Bringing toilet paper with you for Third World exploration isn’t anything new, but not everyone is used to looking down and seeing a hole in the ground with nowhere to sit. Sure, the more outdoorsy-folks or those who have traveled a lot in eastern cultures may be used to this, but for many it’s a new, and possibly uncomfortable experience. Though I’m not too picky about this sort of thing, I was actually thankful that another group brought a box (yes, a plain wooden box) to place over the camp toilet.
Food may be another adjustment. The menu in Ladakh doesn’t offer much variety. You’ll eat a lot of rice and dal (a lentil based dish). And I mean a lot. Occasionally, cooks and hosts will create a local pasta and broth dish that serves as a nice change of pace.
Expect lots of tea, which is ubiquitous throughout the world, and basic white or grain bread and butter. Sometimes, meat will be included in a meal, but it’s not common as many Ladakhis are vegetarians. Regardless, you’re camping, so unless you’re paying instead for a “glamping” experience in the Himalayas, you should be prepared to accept basic amenities and food. It’s enough to keep you going as you trek for the snow leopard. Speaking of which…
Searching for Wildlife
I was willing to accept the altitude and the cold, and I could easily live with the basic conditions at camp (though I admit getting tired of dal very quickly), but the biggest challenge still remained: finding something to photograph.
I had no illusions about how difficult it would be to photograph a snow leopard at decent range. My expectation for this part of the trip was that I would see the snow leopard, but had a minuscule chance of getting “good” photos. And that proved to be the case. However, I didn’t expect the rest of the animals to stay so far away too, and that’s where this adventure let me down.
On our initial hike to our main camp, we encountered a small herd of bharal (blue sheep) almost immediately. I knew this was a common animal, and expected to see plenty more, but this ended up being my closest encounter of the trip. The rest of the species followed suit. The regal Siberian ibex appeared only once during my stay in Ladakh, on a distant mountainside.
Occasionally, birds would fly overhead or scurry away through the rocks. The Chukar is a colorful partridge that was introduced to North America many years ago. But I had a chance to see it on its home turf. Unfortunately, wild Himalayan Chukars are incredibly shy, making it difficult to land close photos.
Most of the other species remained elusive. A woolly hare hung around near camp but would remain hidden until dark. We’d find fox tracks in the snow, but the only time I saw one it instantly fled. It’s possible that the shy nature of these animals is due in part to that fact that hunting was a way of life here for some time. Only in recent years have locals learned that preserving some wildlife—especially the predatory snow leopard, which has taken domestic livestock—has benefits in the form of ecotourism. For now though, the wildlife remains extremely wild and very wary of humans. And the animals have loads of inaccessible territory to roam. It’s not easy to walk up one of these slopes in hopes of getting close to a subject.
Assuming you can find your subject… most of the animals are various shades of brown and gray, tones that happen to match the environment quite well. As I walked through canyons, constantly looking up in hopes of spotting a cat or some other creature staring back at me, I was generally left unfulfilled. It’s a lot of effort to find animals that, at best, are only in scoping distance.
There was one exception during my trip. At one point we stopped for a break near a spot where pikas were known to roam. I was willing to shoot anything at this point, but I generally get excited about new species, and for me seeing of the Asian pika species would be considered a highlight. It turns out there are a number of pika species in Ladakh (we only have the North American pika back home), and for two brief minutes I was able to watch and snap some photos of what I later determined was the Royle’s pika.
This lagomorph (member of the rabbit family) looked distinctly different from its North American cousin, with a rounder, squashed muzzle. It’s definitely cuter too.
You can imagine how it feels when a two minute pika encounter is the highlight of a visit to this region. After all, it’s a lot of effort (and for many, a lot of money) being expended on finding the snow leopard. So for many, not photographing one at close range may be a disappointment. But as always, setting proper expectations is an important part of wildlife-oriented travel, and I knew that this would be a real challenge. So, how does one go about finding a snow leopard? Patience and teamwork.
Tracking Down the Snow Leopard
Winter is the best time to see these mountain cats because a) snow will drive them to lower elevations where it’s easier to find food, and b) starting in mid-February, mating season commences, so you’re more likely to get leopards crossing into each other’s territory. In my case, I was there a week or two too early for breeding, but I also had the bad luck of coming at a time when there hadn’t been a lot of snow. It’s the high desert, so it’s not as though there’s a ton of moisture even in some of the mountain ranges. But it was unseasonably dry even for Ladakh, which was allowing all of the wildlife to remain higher and away from the trails.
Nonetheless, we knew the cats had been in the area.
We found multiple sets of tracks near the trails we were on, even a double set from a mother and cub. But most of the tracks we found were days or even weeks old, and the cats were high up and largely out of site.
Hemis National Park is comprised of a number of steep canyons and mountain passes. This means that trackers often have to fan out, exploring various canyons and scanning slopes with their scopes. It’s a slow process, and despite the fact that the trackers are well-trained and eagle-eyed, finding a well-camouflaged leopard is still a crapshoot. They try to keep in touch via radio, but the mountains and canyon walls often cut off communication… so sometimes word arrives by foot.
In case you are still wondering, yes, I did see the snow leopard. In fact, I ultimately saw three. But the first pair was a kilometer away on an opposite mountainside. Really, too distant for photos, but strong winds made it impossible to hold the camera and lens still anyway.
The third and final snow leopard of the trip was two kilometers away. At least this one was moving, but even with a 500mm lens, a 2x teleconverter attached and a “crop” sensor camera body, I could only crop down my photo to show this:
There is an animal in there, I promise. If you haven’t found it, it’s right in the center of the frame. It even looks vaguely cat-like. But that was as good as it got for me.
This isn’t to say all snow leopard treks end like this, but there were some people that had been there for two weeks and the pair of napping cats on the windy ridge was their best viewing opportunity. On the other hand, while my tracker decided we should wait and scan the mountainside pictured above, he didn’t act on a tip to go find another snow leopard in a village an hour’s drive from our location. I saw the pictures later… That cat was only 200m away! And at the airport, I ran into an Australian who was returning to town from a non-wildlife trek, and he saw a snow leopard in a farmer’s field right next to the road. A couple weeks after my departure, other photographers were able to capture an active hunt at relatively close range in the same areas I’d been exploring.
So the cats are there, but you need to have incredible luck to photograph them within a reasonable proximity. You also need to be prepared for a dearth of other wildlife. Unlike many other wildlife destinations, the Himalayas aren’t overflowing with an abundance of animals, with possible sightings around every corner. This is a harsh, desert environment, and you need to work hard to achieve animal sightings, much less photo opportunities.
I left Ladakh wondering what sort of expectations tour leaders set for their clients in this region, uncertain that I’d ever feel comfortable bringing clients here without ensuring they fully understand the great challenge facing those who seek out the snow leopard.
If you are interested in more details about snow leopard treks, I am more than happy to discuss private tours, share details and refer you to local outfitters in India who can help you with your own trip arrangements. Feel free to contact me for more information.