A year after being awarded the Winston Cobb Memorial Fellowship, I embarked on my trip to Ladakh, India, to learn about the elusive snow leopard and the work that goes in to conserving it. My first month with the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust (SLC-IT) was office-based, spent studying snow leopard habitat suitability. Though this work was rewarding, I was eager to get out on my first field adventure.
One bright Monday morning, the infamous SLC-IT Conservation and Livelihoods Program Manager, Jigmet Dadul, two volunteers, and I were all set to spend a week in the mountains looking for signs of snow leopards. We bundled into the car and headed to a fresh Ladakh urial (wild sheep endemic to Ladakh) carcass, where we were optimistic we would find our first cat.
Of course, no one is lucky enough to spot a snow leopard their first day in the field, so after a few hours of scanning the carcass and ridgelines, we admitted defeat and called it a night.
On our way back to the village, we bumped into a couple of locals who had seen a snow leopard just the previous day and even had photos on their phones! Slightly disappointed that we’d missed a sighting, but with a full week of fieldwork ahead of us, we began surveying a new village hoping for better results.
Summer isn’t the ideal time to carry out such sign surveys due to heavy trail usage by livestock, but we weren’t disheartened. Beyond finding signs, we were all keen to engage in this unique opportunity to learn about the local culture and wildlife of the Trans-Himalaya.
Snow leopards often leave signals of their presence to one another in the form by scraping and scent-marking along well-defined trails, on ridgelines, and in valley bottoms, so we focused our survey in these areas. We were overwhelmed by signs from the beginning of our search, and Jigmet taught us how to identify and age each of the messages we came across. Scrapes were the easiest to spot, as they form large depressions with a pile of earth at one end after snow leopards scrape their back feet along the ground, sometimes also urinating or leaving scat on the piles. When fresh, they sometimes form a heart shape, which was ironic as we were all falling out of love with this sneaky cat.
Another sign we found was scat, and plenty of it—both snow leopard and wolf!
On the second day, balanced precariously on a rocky ridgeline, Jigmet’s eagle sharp eyes spotted a lone wolf in the valley below. We all scrambled for our binoculars and spotting scopes and locked our eyes on the light grey female, all the while trying our best not to fall off the mountain. After trotting up the river bed, the wolf wove her way back to her beautiful pale pups at their rendezvous site. We watched the pair for some time before descending the scree slope.
Several biological sciences graduate students joined us midway through the week, bringing our total number of homestay guests to 10 (they usually only accommodate up to 4). Fortunately, the host let half of us sleep in the kitchen, while Jigmet chose to sleep outside (to be closer to the snow leopards, I think!). We made sure to show them some scent-sprayed rocks and encouraged them to smell the distinct, musky snow leopard eau de parfum.
Finally, we found my favourite of all the signs: the pugmark, or paw print. There were a couple along the ridgeline and one in the sand; all we were missing now was the cat itself.
Unfortunately, despite the dense presence of snow leopard sign, we never caught a glimpse of the Ghost of the Himalayas. The silver lining was being able to add Asiatic ibex, blue sheep (interestingly, neither technically blue nor a sheep), and a gorgeous Himalayan snow cock to my list of sightings. I suppose I’ll have to come back in the winter and hope for better luck!
For more information about snow leopards and Panthera’s work to conserve them, click here.
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