Nick Garbutt is a photographer and author who has been photographing wildlife around the world for 25 years. He also organizes and leads photo tours and has been taking clients to Ladakh in search of snow leopards since 2017. He has been a Panthera partner photographer for over 10 years and has photographed all the world’s big cats, as well as numerous smaller cat species in the wild.
After a reasonably successful first venture to Ladakh, India in 2017 to look for snow leopards, I returned in March 2018 to spend a month in the mountains hoping to expand up on my modest portfolio of images. In 2017, I had managed to take photographs from three meaningful snow leopard sightings in nine days; the final one yielding the best photos. The closest encounter was over 200m away and even with a 600mm lens, the subject remained rather small in the frame. This time, I was hoping for better luck catching the “mountain ghost” up close.
The situation in Ladakh represents a familiar conundrum – how to manage conflict between large predators and rural communities. Before heading into the field, my first port of call is in Leh, the region’s capital, at the Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust office to meet up with their director, Dr Tsewang Namgail. He outlined the work being undertaken by the SLC-IT and Panthera with local villages and communities. Not only are efforts being made to dramatically reduce snow leopard predation on livestock by using mesh-covered corrals, but there is also subsequent development of homestay initiatives. Over a relatively short period, the homestay initiatives have successfully altered local attitudes towards snow leopards. These tourist programs bring additional revenue into the remote region and demonstrate a tangible economic benefit to healthy and visible snow leopard populations.
The following day, I left Leh and drove west into the Ladakh Ranges to the remote valley and homestay I planned to use as my base. Unlike in 2017, when the valleys and mountains were blanketed in thick snow, the landscape in March 2018 was parched brown and arid, revealing austere rocky slopes and rugged crags. This hardly seemed to me the ideal conditions for photographing snow leopards. Nonetheless, according to my local guides, snow leopard sightings in the area had remained pretty reliable all winter.
Not long after I arrived, word filtered back to me that a snow leopard had made a kill higher up in the valley. The cat had apparently broken into a corral during the night and taken a dzo (or dzomo), a domestic cow-yak cross-breed. When I arrived at the scene, there were a handful of other people already tucked behind the walls and out-buildings of the highest home in the valley. Everyone was looking intently at an area of deep shade beneath a huge boulder in which the dzo carcass was clearly visible.
Around 5:30 in the afternoon the sun dipped below the western ridge of the valley and the rocky slope fell into shade. The temperature instantly plummeted. Shortly afterwards, there was discernable movement in the shadows and from beneath the right side of the huge boulder a spotted flank became visible; the snow leopard emerged, yawning and stretching. She (my guards informed me the cat was female) walked out to sit in front of the boulder. My heart raced as I composed the frame and fired the shutter in a first volley of shots.
She picked her way between the boulders and on velvet paws, bounded down to the base of the slope, now running towards the carcass and the marauding magpies surrounding it. The birds scattered in a piebald explosion of feathers as the cat reclaimed her prize. Then she settled next to the kill, epitomizing the expression “the cat with the cream.” For the next four mornings and evenings I was able to return to the site. After that, there was barely a morsel of meat left and I knew it was highly unlikely she would still be around the following morning, so I spent most of that last afternoon simply looking at her through my binoculars, still pinching myself because I was able to get so close to a wild snow leopard.
In the evening after that first afternoon, I’d eagerly downloaded my images, then trawled through them picking out the best ones. After those first four days I continued to look for other snow leopards in the area. With my expert local guides we explored adjacent valleys and climbed numerous ridges. We found plenty of signs of snow leopard activity like pug marks (footprints), scat and the remains of kills. We were even lucky enough to spot three more cats, but all were far off limiting opportunities for good photos. By the end, I’d amassed a set of images that I could only have dreamt of capturing before the trip began.
So often it seems, those ‘how we made it’ footnote pieces at the end of TV wildlife documentaries tell tales of initial frustration and failure. They build the suspense and anticipation until the photographers finally get the footage they are after only on the very last day of the expedition. On reflection, I can’t help smiling wryly to myself that my experiences had been quite the opposite and I’d achieved my best material in the first few days.
There is no doubt that the work of the SLC-IT and Panthera is now paying dividends and negative perspectives towards snow leopards are gradually changing towards more positive outlooks. Altering ingrained local attitudes while simultaneously developing constructive ecotourism programs is clearly a win-win scenario. However, I am aware this needs to be done in a sensitive and appropriate way, so that the influx of foreign money is channeled properly and does not undermine the integrity of local culture. I am confident that programs under the stewardship of Panthera will continue to achieve this.
Nick Garbutt will be returning to Ladakh to look for snow leopards in 2019, 2020 and 2021.