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Ladakh: Chasing the snow leopard

February 10, 2010

Nigel Richardson heads to Ladakh in India to seek
out the snow leopard, one of the planet's most
elusive - and endangered - creatures.
Nigel Richardson
The Telegraph (UK)
February 8, 2010

She wasn't visible at first. Then she moved,
rippling silently down a gully of rocks and
padding straight up to us. This was Uncia uncia,
the snow leopard, one of the most endangered
species on Earth and one of the most beautiful.
She was certainly the most captivating creature I
have ever seen: fur like mist, pale jade eyes,
the regal and remote air of a monarch whose realm is the roof of the world.

"When you are an old man, remember this moment,"
I said to my companion, a six-year-old relative called Elliot.

"Why?" said Elliot, licking his ice lolly.

"Because when you are an old man the snow leopard will not exist."

The snow leopard, Yasmin, pressed her nose to the
glass wall of her enclosure and Elliot pretended
to stroke it. In this moment I became obsessed
with the desire to see such a star in its natural firmament.

However enlightened and well run, zoos are
ersatz. But imagine seeing a snow leopard in the
wild rather than in captivity. My heart thumped
at the thought – it would be like having
cocktails with Marilyn Monroe compared to watching a DVD of Some Like It Hot.

Our encounter with Yasmin the snow leopard took
place at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, on a sticky
afternoon in August. Three months later I was
standing high on a Himalayan mountain in a
temperature of 14F (-10C). In front of me was a
powerful telescope and it was focused on snow
leopard tracks on a distant peak. Marilyn, I
felt, was just powdering her nose. Any minute now she would sashay into view.

In truth, you are scarcely more likely to spot a
snow leopard in the wild than you are to see a
unicorn, or indeed to shoot the breeze with a
dead Hollywood star. They are as rare as they are
shy, their camouflage is brilliant and their
habitat is fabulously remote and inhospitable. So
when I heard, shortly after my visit to Marwell
Zoo, of a travel company offering the chance to
"track the elusive snow leopard on foot", I thought: pull the other one.

But Steppes Discovery, the Cotswolds-based
specialist in conservation and wildlife holidays,
is deadly serious. It has found an expert partner
on the ground in the Indian Himalayas that
credibly claims to offer a chance of sightings in
the course of a week-long trek. The trackers are
the same as the ones used by the BBC and other
wildlife film-makers. Oh, and a snow leopard was
seen on the previous trip in March. It was a no-brainer.

The cat with the big tail (it doubles as a scarf)
lives high in the mountains of Central Asia, from
Mongolia in the north to Afghanistan in the west
and China in the south and east. I headed for the
former Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh in the Indian
state of Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh is rapidly and
proudly establishing itself as the Snow Leopard
Capital of the World. Some thrilling film footage
has been shot here and the enlightened way in
which the authorities are trying to marry snow
leopard conservation to the needs of local communities is a model of its kind.

It is also an appropriately other-worldly place
to live out the dream of becoming one of just a
handful of people on Earth to have seen a wild
snow leopard. Cradled in the Himalayas, just an
hour's flying time north of Delhi, this
high-altitude desert of crag-top temples and
fluttering prayer flags is a stronghold of
Tibetan Buddhism, oracles who babble in tongues
and kindly, contemplative people.

When our flight touched down on a mid-November
morning the temperature was 1F (-17C). The water
pipes had frozen solid in our hotel in the
Ladakhi capital, Leh, and hot water for washing
was delivered to the room in steaming plastic
buckets. For three days we gazed on a sunlit
mountainscape from the south-facing windows of
our rooms as we acclimatised to the altitude (Leh is 11,500ft above sea level).

On the third day we were driven south-west for an
hour to the very mountain range we had been
gazing on. This is Hemis National Park, 1,300
square miles of prime snow leopard habitat. No
one knows for sure how many snow leopards there
are left in the wild. The figure could be as low
as the hundreds but is probably between 3,500 and
7,000, with a further 700 or so in zoos around
the world. In Hemis there are reckoned to be between 40 and 75.

They share these valleys, ridges and peaks with
more than a thousand people, 4,300 head of
livestock and hundreds of wild bharal, or blue
sheep, the snow leopard's natural prey. The idea
of coming at this time of year is that as the
bharal seek warmth in the winter months by
dropping into the valleys from those high peaks,
so the snow leopard follow and make themselves more visible.

It's a good theory. Walking up from the park
entrance to our first camp we passed an American
sunning himself against a drystone wall as he
waited for his lift back to Leh. He had been in
the park for nine days and had not seen a
sausage. "I think they're up there laughing at me," he said ruefully.

But we felt different, chosen. Obsession has this
effect. We were a trio of strangers brought
together by the belief that the snow leopard
would reveal itself to us. David was the retired
MD of a trust company in the Cayman Islands and
Gail was an engineer at a British nuclear power
station. Here were, literally, Power and Money
seeking something from life that is more precious
than either of these things: a beautiful creature on the brink of extinction.

Our trek leader and main tracker was a pair of
finely attuned eyes called Dorje Chitta, a
35-year-old snow leopard expert with many of the
qualities of our quarry, being enigmatic,
stealthy and short on unnecessary vocalisation.

"Now you can start looking," he said, setting up
one of the expedition's three powerful
telescopes. "On ridges, on ledges. He is sitting
in the sun for hours, just looking around, thinking: 'Where is my dinner?' "

We had just pitched camp at a confluence of
valleys 12,000ft above sea level. Our tents were
huddled among a grove of leafless willow trees
and a Buddhist shrine fluttering with prayer
flags. The mountain walls and fantastical rock
formations that surrounded us climbed another
8,000ft into a sky that was dazzling blue by day
and electrified with stars at night, when the
mercury headed south like a runaway lift.

I spotted the snow leopard tracks on a high peak
almost a mile to the north, looking like a zip
fastener in the deep snow. It was an
extraordinary-shaped mountain, like an
Elizabethan ruff, and Chitta pointed out the snow
leopard's favoured route of descent, through the
frills of the ruff. It had been at least a day
since he passed that way, but it was a promising start.

And so the quest began. Each morning and
afternoon we headed out from base camp to a
different valley, took up position on a new
ridge, clambered high onto a fresh saddle. And
looked. Bent to the scope, Chitta would pore for
many minutes over a single section of
mountainside – cover one eye, rub his eyes,
corroborate what he had seen through binoculars,
go back to the scope. Ten minutes would pass.
Twenty. The mountain silence was so pure and profound it sang in one's ears.

Surely he had seen something? Then, before we
knew it, he had lifted the scope and padded off silently through the snow.

Two days passed. Three. Then I spotted a soft,
roundish object on a sunlit ledge half a mile
above us. It was, I convinced myself, a snow
leopard's head. Any second now it would move.
Those vertical pupils would be locked on to us,
far below. "Hey Chitta!" I could hardly get the
words out. He crouched and looked.

"It's a bush," he said.

On the fourth morning, having got no nearer to a
sighting than old pug marks in the snow, I
arrived in the mess tent with a thought that
conveyed the scale of our task. "You know what
we're doing?" I said. "We're looking for a
cathedral-coloured beetle in a cathedral." My
fellow obsessives, David and Gail, barely looked
up from their breakfast omelettes.

That morning our team of four guides and cooks
struck camp, loaded our gear on to mules and
moved higher up the valley to a site at 12,500ft.
This brought us near to the village of Rumbak, an
area rich in snow leopard where many researchers
and film teams have stayed over the past 15 years.

This was a last throw of the dice. By now I was
trying to adjust to the possibility of failure
but, goodness knows, it was a hard thing to
accept given that we were currently existing at
the extremes of human endurance for the sake of
just a flash of that ermine-like fur. The next
day, like half-mad mystics, all three of us
started beseeching the mountains to reveal their
feline fugitives. "Just once, dear God," I found myself murmuring.

On the penultimate day Chitta found pug marks
that were only a few hours old and beetled off
across the valley like a bloodhound as we
returned to camp in deep snow. But he lost the
trail among rocks and returned with an
expressionless face. That evening we drowned our
disappointments with a bit of a knees-up in Rumbak.

Over momos -- spicy dumplings -- and army-issue
rum the villagers talked about snow leopards. In
the winter, they said, they bring their livestock
down from the high pastures and corral them in
front yards and in the ground floors of their
flat-roofed, mud-brick houses. Last year, while a
party was going on (there is little else to do in
these ferocious winters), they had a visitor. And
if you subscribe to the local conviction that the
snow leopard is uncannily clever you will believe
that his choice of evening to come down off the
mountain and raid the village was not random.

"The leopard came inside the yard," explained a
leather-faced man, making stealthy swoops with
his hand. "He kill 12 out of 19 goats and sheep."

Snow leopards, like foxes, have a predilection
for committing what is known as "surplus
killing", especially in confined spaces. "He
drinks so much blood, he gets drunk," Chitta
said. The woman who owned the slaughtered
livestock said the snow leopard had made its
escape before the villagers discovered the bloodbath.

In times past, the village would have made a trap
for the snow leopard and stoned it to death. Now
they contact the local wildlife department and
register for compensation. The scheme is not
perfect but this and other educative measures
have changed the attitude of villagers to the cats on their doorsteps.

Slithering back to camp that night beneath
mountain walls and a waxing moon, I knew that
failure was my friend, that I was not yet ready
to see the snow leopard. But my obsession burns
brightly and I will return to the snow leopards'
rocky domain. Meanwhile, one can dream.
Bartender, another glass of Dom Perignon 53 for Miss Monroe.

On the trail

The 14-day expedition was arranged by Steppes
Discovery (01285 643333;
www.steppesdiscovery.co.uk) It costs from £2,720
per person including full board in tents and/or
village accommodation on the week-long trek and
four nights in a hotel in Leh, the services of
expert guides and porters, sightseeing in Ladakh
and internal flights from Delhi to Leh. Depending
on internal flights, two or three nights will be
spent in Delhi, where meals are not included. A
percentage of the cost (depending on group size)
is donated to the Snow Leopard Conservancy
(www.snowleopardconservancy.org). International
flights are extra. The next treks are March 7-21
and November 7-21. Steppes Discovery can also
arrange a tour for a private group.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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