Traveler

On the trail of the Snow Leopard

By Wing Commander (Retd) Partha De Sarkar

I had been planning this project for almost a year — photographing Snow Leopards and other rare Himalayan wildlife. This trip was planned as a reconnaissance, to get a lay of the land and figure out a strategy for getting good shots of each of the species on my list. On the morning of November 2, I was joined by Satyaki Ghosh (a keen wildlife photographer, former Photo Safari India client and now friend) on a Kingfisher Airlines flight bound for Leh.

Now, going into the trip, I was aware that snow leopards would be hard to photograph. November is simply not cold enough for these elusive cats to come down from their rarefied heights into the valleys where there is a good chance of spotting them. However, hope springs eternal and I was hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the leopard, if not get a photo.

We spent a couple of days in Leh, acclimatizing and doing the tourist thing. A very pleasant surprise was that despite the temperatures hovering between 0 and -10 degrees C, it did not feel that cold. The dry air, combined with the strong sun, meant that a good fleece and woollen hat were all that it took to stay warm. Our hotel, the Oma Shila, used intelligent design (double-paned glass bay windows facing the sun) to absorb and retain heat.

After a day and a half of rest, we took a trip down to Hemis Monastery, and a walk up to the Meditation Point. The walk started easily enough but the gradient soon picked up. A look into the narrow valley revealed a herd of 10 blue sheep on the other side. Obviously somewhat habituated to humans, these hardy, hoofed herbivores mostly ignored us as they browsed on the scant, stunted shrubbery growing on the hillside. The distance was perfect for shooting; however, the light was less than stellar, so the photography was average at best. Still, this was a much closer encounter than typical, and was a good start to the trip.

We also got a few bird species - the omnipresent Black-Billed Magpie and Great Tits, Rock and Hill Pigeons, White-winged Redstarts, a juvenile Pallid Harrier, Common Raven, Red and Yellow Billed Choughs and a Rufous-breasted Accentor.

Rumbak Valley in Hemis National Park, Ladakh. Photo courtesy: Partha De SarkarRumbak Valley in Hemis National Park, Ladakh. Photo courtesy: Partha De Sarkar

The next day we were in business. We took a jeep to the start of Hemis National Park and from there, started the three-hour hike to Rumbak Valley, which was going to be our home for the next few days. It was an easy enough hike along the river bed, criss-crossing the stream. We spotted numerous Chukar partridges en route, and a Golden Eagle flying overhead, but not much else. And once the sun dropped behind the mountains and shade descended on the valley, so did the cold. It was time for multiple layers, fleece and Goretex shells when outside. Sensibly, we spent most of the evenings huddled around the stove in the kitchen of the Ladakhi family in whose home we were staying. The rooms were very clean, very comfortable and provided reasonable protection from the cold. The food was simple but wholesome. All in all, much more comfortable than camping.

We woke fairly early the next day. After breakfast, we explored a couple of the valleys in the area. The morning walk did not reveal much more than a large herd of blue sheep on a mountainside several kilometres away. On the way back, we noticed another herd of blue sheep, much closer this time, and were able to have a good session observing and photographing them.

The plan for the following day was to hike along a second valley up to a high-altitude pass. However, all the plans went for a toss when Sonam, our guide, rushed over to us when we were having breakfast and uttered the magic word: "Shaan" (Ladakhi for "snow leopard"). Dropping everything, we rushed to the scope. We spotted two fighting young Snow Leopards. Scope to photograph these elusive and lovely animals was great.

Snow Leopard in Hemis National Park, LadakhSnow Leopard in Hemis National Park, Ladakh. Photo courtesy: Partha De Sarkar

We decided to climb the peak on our side and see if we could get a glimpse of the leopards from a different vantage. Sonam went on ahead and we followed a few minutes later. Shay suddenly got very animated and started pointing at the next slope over — two red foxes, with their gorgeous, fluffy tails and thick furry coats, were scampering along the mountainside. Too far for my 400 lens, I set up my Televue 85 refractor (which, when paired with the proper adapters and spacers, gives the equivalent of 3000mm+ of focal length), but without a tripod, I was unable to get critically sharp shots. Still, it was an exciting encounter — we lay flat on our bellies atop a crest while, a few hundred meters away, one fox went about its business, oblivious to our presence. A moment to savour indeed — and that was good, because after this, we faced some of the most gruelling climbing I have ever done in the Himalayas: straight up the slopes at a gradient of 35-50 degrees, gaining 700 m of elevation during this climb. There were loose rocks that slipped and slid below one's feet. Trying very hard not to think about the prospect of going down on this slippery slope, and trying even harder to ignore my lungs' desperate pleas for oxygen, I struggled up the slope, finally reaching the top of the ridge. And what a view awaited us — we were literally on the roof of the world, looking down on the mountains.

We discovered fresh leopard prints, fresh leopard diggings and even damp leopard urine — but no leopards themselves. The cat on the other ridge was either gone or in hiding, and the only thing visible was a Golden Eagle getting mobbed by pugnacious choughs.

After a few hours of scanning the area, it was time to head down. The less said about that climb down, the better. Suffice to say it was a miracle we didn't slip and fall, and my knees were sore for four days afterwards. Even Sonam, our guide and part-mountain goat himself, muttered something about this being a pretty rough climb.

The next few days were similar — lots of walking and scanning. We spotted Argali, more golden eagles, a few Lammergeiers and, of course, plenty of blue sheep. But no more foxes and no shaans. But we were able to scout out a couple of good locations for setting camera traps — Sonam had also guided the National Geo team that had set up the camera traps which produced the winning images in the 2008 BBC Wildlife Awards, and that greatly helped in narrowing down the choices.

After this, it was time to try for wolves in Tso Kar. Thus, a couple of days after our return from Rumbak, we were off, crossing Tanglang La (at 5,200 m) and then descending into the high-altitude Moray Plains (4,500 m), where Tso Kar is located. Now we were in a different league of cold altogether. I was wearing a base layer, two additional layers including a thick, windproof fleece and a heavy duty Goretex shell on top of all this, and the wind was still cutting through me like a knife. Exposing any bare skin even for a few minutes meant numbness. And right at the onset, we got some unfortunate news: the homestay where we were planning to stay was closed. So we had to take over an abandoned building with broken windows and a door that would not stay closed. Yes, it was cold. The only redeeming fact was that we did most of our wildlife searching from the jeep. I spent 30 minutes by the lakeside waiting for a photograph, and then had to spend the next hour or so sitting next to a stove to thaw.

Tibetan Wild Ass in Hemis National Park. Photo courtesy: Partha De SarkarTibetan Wild Ass in Hemis National Park. Photo courtesy: Partha De Sarkar

Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass) were plentiful in Tso Kar, but they were very shy and did not let us get too close, even inside a jeep. Ultimately, I had to take over the wheel from our driver and spend a good amount of time in carefully approaching them in order to get a few good photos. We also saw Golden Eagles, Horned Larks, Lammergeiers, an unidentified accipiter, Tibetan sandgrouse and Bar-headed Geese, but of the wolf there was no sign.

After a couple of days, we moved to another village a couple of hours away, and this turned up a bunch of pika (small rodents) but had the same luck when it came to wolves.

According to the local shepherd, no wolves had been sighted in the region for a while. Thus, it was a very deflated bunch that was sitting in the jeep as it wound along the road, climbing towards Tanglang La. I was looking out of the window, trying to ID a flock of larks which were flying alongside the road when both Sonam and I spotted something moving in the plains. The gait was unmistakable.

"Wolf!" yelled two excited voices as the driver brought the jeep to a screeching halt. We sat and waited and soon, the solitary wolf trotted onto the road, gave us a look, and then kept trotting. Touchdown! And to make things even better, a scant 10 km away, we saw a red fox on the road!

Wing Commander (Retd) Partha De Sarkar was born in Kolkata and served with the Indian Air Force in the 1965 and 1971 wars. Travel is a childhood addiction he owes to his parents. To him, Ladakh is a passion — it is adventure, exploration, culture and heritage sandwiched into one. He first visited Ladakh in 1966 when none but armed forces personnel and a few civilian government officials were permitted there. He fell in love with the natural beauty of this frontier region and its simple and poor people. He is a keen wildlife enthusiast with a special fondness for the snow leopard.