Search for the Legendary Snow Leopard in Ladakh, Himalayas

Search for the Legendary Snow Leopard in Ladakh, Himalayas

If you're keen on natural history and wildlife, you may have seen the impressive film of a snow leopard hunting on BBC Planet Earth, or more recently, a snow leopard cub sniffing a remote camera to the delight of the cameraman, in the Lost Land of the Tiger. But, this experience is not restricted to wildlife photographers and professional naturalists - you can now hike through the mountain valleys of Ladakh, Northern India and search for the snow leopard with a leading expert from the Snow Leopard Conservancy.

The Snow Leopard lives in the rocky mountain ranges of Central and South East Asia between 3,000 and 5,500 ma.s.l. In Ladakh, the mountain valleys support healthy populations, together with prey such as the bharal, ibex, urial, argali and other predators including the wolf and lynx. It's also not unusual to see a golden eagle, lammergeier and other birds of prey gliding high in the sky.

Search for the Legendary Snow Leopard in Ladakh, Himalayas

The Snow Leopard is highly adapted to the harsh, cold and arid Himalayan climate, with long thick fur, small round ears and wide paws that distribute weight effectively when walking on snow. It's also got large nasal cavities that heat up the air before entering the lungs.

Its tail is long (up to 1m) and flexible, helping it to maintain balance when leaping across steep ravines in the rocky environment where it lives and hunts, as it must be nimble enough to outrun its prey. It can bring down prey three times its own size but will normally kill a wild sheep or goat twice a month, taking three or four days to consume the full carcass - its favorite meal being the bharal (or blue sheep). However, it also attacks domestic livestock when the opportunity arises and this, not surprisingly, makes it unpopular with mountain communities where wealth is tied up in livestock - rather than in a bank account!

Snow leopards live solitary lives in territories from 30 to 1000 km2 depending on the abundance of prey. They mark out territories with footprints, feces, scent sprays, and scrapes, which establish ownership rights and make sure males stay out each other's way so avoiding conflict. Markings also help the cats to locate mates and ensure females keep their cubs safe from predatory non-parental males.

Numbers of snow leopards are estimated at 3500 to 7000 distributed over 12 countries - but because of their remote habitat, it's difficult to be sure of the exact numbers today or in the past. Like the tiger (their close relative) and panda, they are classified as 'endangered' by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and have been under threat because their fur was highly prized, they were killed as pests and their natural prey has declined. However, in Ladakh, they have survived the main excesses of hunting essentially because the Buddhist religion considers killing sinful.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy works actively in Ladakh, believing the best protection comes through working with the communities living with the cats. They consult with people in the mountain villages to determine how to protect the leopard and its habitat, whilst at the same time, finding ways to support the mountain communities economically. Measures include reducing predation of village livestock with predator-proofing corrals, educating herders and improving animal husbandry practices. Initiatives such as the Himalayan Homestay Programme provide visitors with a unique experience - bed, breakfast and evening meal in a village home on the Tibetan plateau - and help increase household incomes in a sustainable way. The Conservancy also works to increase awareness of the fragile mountain ecosystems among the Ladakh people and the powers that be. Conservation has been so successful that attitudes to the snow leopard (or Shan as it's called in Ladakh) have dramatically changed, here's the view of one villager:

"the snow leopard has gone from being a pest to becoming the necklace around our mountains"

Ladakh lies deep in the Himalayas at high altitude (mostly over 3,000m / 9,800ft) on the south-west edge of the Tibetan plateau in Northern India. Ladakh means 'the land of high passes' and as its name suggests is only accessible by road through mountain passes over the High Himalaya in the south and (until 1949) the Karakorum Range in the north. These great mountain ranges are separated by the upper reaches of mighty River Indus that makes it's way northwards, fed by high altitude glaciers and melting snows. For centuries the capital city of Leh was an important crossroads and stop-over on the ancient trade routes between China in the north, Tibet in the east to Kashmir in the west, but in 1949 the Chinese Government closed routes to China, Central Asia, and Tibet stopping the trade. Today you can get to the capital Leh by air from Delhi at any time of the year.

The scenery is stunning with snow-capped mountains, rocky barren slopes, and lush green valleys, the mountain air is remarkably clear and pure, and the skies deep blue with white fluffy clouds. Considered a cold desert, the rainfall in Ladakh is low (500-1000mm/year) and snowfall in the river valleys in winter is rarely more than 6-8 inches deep. Temperatures in summer range 20-25oC, like an English summer, but in winter drop well below 0o and in Leh can reach -30oC.

And above all, there are the friendly and gentle people, with 'Julley' the universal word of greeting for hello, good day, thank you... Predominantly Tibetan Buddhist (indeed, Ladakh is sometimes known as 'Little Tibet'), the countryside is dotted with monasteries perched high on rocky hillsides or outcrops and other Buddhist monuments such as stupa, mani walls, and prayer wheels. One of the greatest experiences on any trip is to join the Ladakhis to enjoy the music and masked dances at the colorful and vibrant monastery festivals that take place in summer and winter.

The best time to see the snow leopard is during the mating season from Jan to late March when cats are at low altitude for the winter, as this is the time when they are calling each other and when markings are most frequent. So take a trip to Ladakh and be one of the few westerners to hike through remote mountain valleys in Search of the Snow Leopard, enjoy traditional Himalayan hospitality in a village homestay and experience the masked dancing and music of a winter monastery festival.

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