No country for old men
Two weeks ago, I lead a EB5 tour for nature enthusiasts who were eager to fly high: they wanted to see a snow leopard in the wild.
Snow leopards are one of the most mysterious species on planet earth, and are often referred to by locals as the mountain ghost. In the wild, 4000-7000 snow leopards are estimated to remain. Exact numbers are unknown because they are extremely secretive, and live in some of the harshest environments known.
In the past, seeing a snow leopard in the wild was considered only for those who could spend many months in the right area. But times have changed. Devoted conservation projects (Snow leopard conservancy, Panthera) all over its distribution range (mainly Russia, China, India) have yielded a lot of new info regarding snow leopard distribution and their ecology.
It also became clear that the Himalayas in Ladakh (India) contain some of the highest densities on earth. In Hemis National Park (4400km2) some 40 leopards are thought to reside.
Using the skill of local trackers, it has as such become possible to see a leopard when spending several days in this habitat. This means flying in at 3500m and subsequently hike high up in the Himalayas: in summer the cats are found at 5000-6000m but in winter they follow their prey lower down the valleys.
Hence the trip started with eight nervous guys meeting at the airport in Brussels. Nervous because we knew it was possible: we had the best trackers of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, we all had our own scopes, we knew Jon Hall (mammalwatching.com) was going to be there with a crew as well. More eyes scanning the vast landscape means better chances of spotting the leopard. Due to time limitations we were only visiting Ladakh, and not southern India for tigers, lions, rhinos. This meant that it was an “all or nothing” trip. Or you see it, or you come back from a trip seeing only a very barren landscape. Hence, nervous…
Welcome to India, where true cowboys survive.
Indus river valley, where Leh (capital of Ladakh) is situated.
When you land at an altitude of 3500m, some acclimatization is required. Altitude sickness is always lurking and as tour leader one of my main concerns was that nobody should be left behind. As such we spent two days birding the beautiful Indus river valley around Leh.
This with the Dalai lama looking over our shoulder. Lots of respect for budhism! There is a lot of logic in the way budhists talk about nature and environment…
Leh is a high altitude mixture of different religions and strange habits. Such as burning paper and roasting corn on the toxic fumes.
Sadly we did not know Frans had earlier been treated for a cashmere scarf addiction.
Birding the Indus river for migrating warblers and residents birds, such as the local Ibisbill.
Monky see monky do
Very friendly and welcoming people.
All of us were very keen on seeing ibisbill so we looked further along the barren Indus river banks.
And found it!
The ibisbill is so special it is the sole bird species in its family. There are no subspecies. It was only described in 1831 based on a painting.
Güldenstädt’s redstarts were ubiquitous in the Indus river valley. This is a typical sight in India outside the protected reserves: nice species in a landscape characterized by human presence.
Citrine wagtails amongst the horses…
After two days of acclimatisation the time had come to travel towards Hemis national park. There we had planned a seven day expedition with only one purpose: seeing a snow leopard in the wild.
We had nine local people involved: drivers, cooks, trackers and spotters
I will never forget the Dutch quote by Jan prior to leaving: “Gast, ge goa ewa zien zene! Een ezelke me voif samsonite valieze den beirg zien oep teejne”
Base camp was only reachable on foot.
First sight underway: Snow leopard prey! Blue sheep were seen everywhere. We would follow their movements closely.
First proof of Snow Leopard presence. A fresh print. This made us agitated yet very focused. We only stopped for a few minutes at this first Large-eared Pika. We wanted to start scanning the mountains for the big cat, as local guide Jigmet allways called it.
Base camp situated in the middle of nowhere (Rumbak valley). All these slopes together form the core area of several snow leopards. They are there, you just have to find them.
Prey was around
Dragging a 500mm along proved usefull in some cases, eg. when a beautiful mountain weasel was found.
Kashmir spider silk in his face
Getting up was cold so we sang a lot to keep moral high. This is Frans doing a backstreet boy impression early mornin’. Moral soared…
After several days people got cold and tired but we kept on getting up at 5am to scan the slopes back and back and back.
Freezingly cold and dry air, but when you climb these hills, you sweat hard.
During the daytime, we climbed the high slopes to look for a snow leopard kill. Blue sheep that are killed are guarded by the leopard…
Whilst the guides keep scanning the endless slopes.
Another morning of scanning… All of a sudden we heard a radio message from a hiker we had met the days before. We could see him standing far away in the mountains. The radio message was hard to understand but the shouted words “Rock” and “Leopard” sent shivers down our spines. People became very very nervous instantly. Jigmet kelpt calm and ran down the mountain. This is an insane sight: 50° hillsides and a guide running down as fast he can. Within a few minutes (!!) he was on the other mountain and pointed his scope to where the hiker instructed. Through my binoculars I saw Jigmet looking for ten seconds. Then he got up and ran towards us as fast as he could shouting SHAN SHAN SHAN (local word for snow leopard).
By then I was so nervous the only thing I could stutter was “people keep calm, there is a leopard in sight”. This is by far the most intense moment I ever had on a nature trip. Jigmet again ran up the mountain and only moments later, we were looking at a snow leopard resting on a slope.
Very strange moment: tears were flowing, men were hugging, fists were in the air. We were the happiest people in the Himalayas…
Then he got up…
Snow leopard running on a slope… 2m long and with a huge tail. It was EPIC
I instantly took a picture of the group while the adrenaline was pumping very hard.
In the evening there was a snow leopard cake, prepared by our chef… The following days we looked for more leopards but no succes.
Three days later, we traveled further east towards the Tibetan plateau in Tso Kar. Target species here were wild ass (Kiang) and rare birds (Tibetan sandgrouse and Black-necked crane).
Another crazy landscape.
Saker falcon dive bombing in a group of Hill pigeons.
Black-necked cranes with a youngster.
Years ago, Tibetan sangrouse was extremely difficult to see. Only recently, this population in Tso Kar became known. We saw many
Very nice to see such a rare bird that close.
In Tso Kar we found several groundpeckers as well. Also a wolf was seen in the scope during one hour.
But the stars of the Tibetan plateau are by far the wild ass (Kiang). They live in huge herds and roam the emptyness…
Tso Kar base camp is very pretty but very cold: 4600m altitude and -20°C during the night. Big respect to the crew who helped us in this extreme environment.
Amazing how the chef cooked decent meals all day long.
Diesel problems are there to be solved.
One morning I was awake anyway so I got up to witness the waking up of all expedition members… Progress is a slow process
Goodbye Tso Kar and last stop of the trip: Ulley valley, to try for another snow leopard. Here no extra sighting neither.
We stayed in a local homestay, with beautiful budhist children…
Everybody was tired, but satisfied. All smooth boys had now become rugged men 🙂
Goodbye India, It was awesome!
Big thanks to Jigmet Dadul (Local guide and scientist for the Snow Leopard Conservancy), Jan (Europesbig5) and PJ and Yves for help with photo packs and batteries…