(First published in Sanctuary Asia, December 2018, Volume 28, Issue 12)
As I looked up, I saw a glittering milky way crowning the Key monastery. It was 3:00 am and I tried to realise that I am standing at one of the most pristine habitats of the most elusive big cats in the world. I took a deep breath and the pure icy breeze energised me to take on the search of a needle in a haystack.
Snow Leopards (Panthera uncia) have always posed challenges to the researchers and conservationists. Documentaries and research papers are testimonies of the fact that spotting this near mythical creature is extremely difficult. They are so elusive that they are called the ‘Ghosts of the Mountains’. This very challenge urged me more to pack my bags and set on to unveil the mysteries that remain hidden under the snows of the mighty Himalayas. My journey took me to the remotest corners of the trans-Himalayas only to discover that it had to offer much more than I ever expected. I was introduced to some unparalleled landscapes along with its worthy endemics.
THE LAIR OF THE GREY GHOST
The valleys of Lahaul and Spiti can be better portrayed as high altitude deserts. The area experiences a prolonged winter of five months. Heavy snowfall covers the valley with a white blanket. Kibber (14,200 ft) is the highest winter-inhabited village in the world. The villagers have acclimatised to live with the dearth of oxygen and frequent snow storms. Life is beautiful but not easy. However the valleys have undergone abrupt socio economic changes in the recent past. The villagers have developed green pea and apple cultivation as major sources of livelihood. The region has also witnessed development of hydroelectric projects, construction of roads and increase in tourism in the past few decades. The modernisation has taken place in one of the most prime habitats of snow leopards thus giving access to the researchers and conservationists, collaterally with unwanted and illegal elements. The winters have also undergone a paradigm shift with snowfall being restricted to the months of January to March.
My limited knowledge on Snow Leopard was derived from the legendary documentary – ‘Snow Leopard-Beyond the Myth’ by Nisar Malik (Planet Earth series) and few acclaimed research papers. With the available evidences, chances of finding a snow leopard appeared very bleak. But I was left with the only option of turning a deaf ear to the negative anecdotes. Earlier Snow Leopards were considered to be thinner in numbers (less than 2500) and hence were considered ‘Endangered’ in the Red List of threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). But recent studies have revealed that the elusiveness of the cat is more attributable to its incredible camouflage and inaccessible habitat. Meticulous assessments in 2016 revealed a more promising figure of 4500-7500 matured individuals, which upgraded it to the ‘Vulnerable’ category. This was the only optimistic truth which fuelled me to remain true to my endeavours. People of Spiti have seen Snow Leopards since their childhood in extremely close proximities but never realised that they are looking at the most elusive big cat. Now, when they are sharing their experiences with the rest of the globe, they have started understanding the enormity and are channelizing it to make a living. The biggest asset of these spotters, who are proliferating tourism in Spiti, is their knowledge of ‘what to see and where to see’.
Snow Leopards sport a smoky grey coat, patterned with black spots and rosettes which make them completely indistinguishable from the rocky backdrops. This helps them immensely in maintaining stealth while hunting. The terrain in between the tree line and the snow line offers them the best opportunities to live, hunt and give birth to offspring. Their habitat ranges from 3000 to 5000 meters. They move up to the higher reaches during the summers. In winters, when the snow cover is more, they come down to the lower altitudes in search of food, thus providing an opportunity to have a glimpse. My photographic endeavour in the Spiti valley, during the most hostile months of the year was probably the only option to photograph the cat at its best. I always looked forward to some available snow cover, which was crucial not only to track them with the help of their pugmarks but also offered a stark contrasting backdrop to document the species in a better manner. Tenzing Dorjey, a son of the soil, seemed to know the habitat like the back of his palm. We made it a routine of moving out early in the morning before the first light would have appeared and try to track the ghosts with the help of their pugmarks or scats.
DEMYSTIFYING THE MYTH
We trekked for eight long days without any significant outcome. The rarefied atmosphere left me breathless after the daily clambering of 15-20 km. Only the thrill of discovering the ghost in my own way, kept me moving. Our paths crossed with that of a team of conservation biologists, who were conducting a survey in this otherwise unexplored habitat. They educated me about their technique. Sign surveys incorporate recording of scats and pugmark samples. Whenever a sign is recorded, it’s GPS location, slope, ruggedness and other terrain features are noted along with date. To negate the probability of misidentification or confusion with other mammals, DNA is extracted from the scats and identification is carried out at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. The collective efforts of such surveys contribute in classifying Snow Leopard habitats according to the categories laid down by ‘Snow Leopard Information Management System (SLIMS)’. The trans-Himalayan ranges form the southern limit of the world Snow Leopard habitats and it is the abode of approximately 10% of the global population. The team also confirmed that 90% of the Snow Leopard habitats in India are yet to observe any research and 70% of the habitats are still unprotected.
It was the dawn of the ninth day and I have almost started giving up. I was scanning the forward slope of a cliff, when Tenzing pointed towards a small crack. Mere naked eyes were not sufficient enough and hence I aimed my spotter scope. I was only able to see a heap of stones until one of the stones moved. I sensed the chill running down my spine. It was a mother ghost along with two baby ghosts. They were relaxing inside a small but prominent crevice and were absolutely blended with the rocky outcrops. I froze to enthrallment with the first sighting of the legend which was haunting me in my dreams since last two years.
BORN TO CLIMB
Snow Leopards are adapted to survive the inhospitable environment of the higher Himalayas. Their nasal cavities are enlarged to facilitate breathing in thin air. Short limbs with well developed cardiac muscles make them skilled cliff climbers. The fur of a Snow Leopard is 5-8 cm thick and extends up to 12 cm near the abdomen. The thick furry tail is almost 90% of its body length which aids in balancing while it runs along the narrow cliffs to chase almost equally agile preys. At times it is also used as a muffler to wrap around their coiled body to remain protected from the icy gales. Their paws are adequately padded to walk on thick snow cover. However they prefer to move on rocky surfaces, which help them with greater manoeuvrability to chase their preys with lightning strike speed. Water, in liquid form, is scarce in the higher reaches. Hence they have adapted themselves to eat snow for quenching their thirst.
BLAZING THE TRAIL
Once the family was spotted, I was certain that the next few days are going to fetch decent dividends because of their predictable pattern of move. Snow Leopards, like most of their felidae cousins, are territory oriented which extends from 30 to 65 sq km. However their territories merge due to lack of food. The preys are found in small isolated groups confined to the pastures. Hence the Snow Leopards neither explore the entire territory for food nor remain confined in the territory for long. They stay at a place for 7-10 days, only if the area appears promising for them to hunt, and subsequently move to a different location. The Snow Leopard population in Spiti is found to follow a definite pattern in the winters as they move on the circuit of Tashigong – Gette – Kibber – Chicham – Kanamo. This circuit is a natural phenomenon which is guided by the availability of ungulates. The pattern is same every year because same terrain and analogous precipitation steers the movement of the ungulates on the circuit in a similar manner. The Snow Leopards do scent mark their territories but primarily to find a mate. The marking is done by scratching their body on rocks, spraying urine and defecating. Approximate prediction of the movement pattern fetched me successful sightings of two different Snow Leopard families in the subsequent days, each of which comprised of the mother and her two cubs. We also spotted two solitary males. That accounted for almost 1.5% of the total Snow Leopard population in India. Though Snow Leopards are solitary in nature, they socialise during the mating season from January to March. Gestation period varies from 90 to 110 days and hence the cubs are born between April and July. The cubs that I photographed were estimated to be 9-10 months old. Pregnant Snow Leopards search for hidden rocky crevices for giving birth, as it helps them to be at peace from frequent alarm calls. A litter contains one to five cubs and their eyes remain closed for the initial seven days. Sadly, most cubs don’t see adulthood due to numerous natural as well as human inflicted reasons. Death comes, also when their mother is unable to hunt adequately, which leads to starvation. The mothers are known to raise the cubs single-handedly. A mother hunts with added responsibility as scarcity of food may put the lives of her cubs to jeopardy. The cubs start walking after five weeks and remain dependent up to two years of age till when they are groomed to learn and hone the skills of hunting. From the age of two years they start leading a solitary life. However there are instances where Snow Leopards have starved to death because they lacked adequate hunting skills but have started living a solitary life. Scarcity of prey, coerce them to follow unique social dynamics. At times 3-4 Snow Leopards socialise to share the same territory with merged hunting grounds.
THE ALPINE PREDATOR
Sighting a Snow Leopard itself is a rare phenomenon and witnessing a hunting attempt was beyond expectations. It was a solitary male who appeared to be starving since long. I was surprised to see him scratching his back against the ground just before going for the attempt. Later I came to know that it is the modus operandi of Snow Leopards to conceal their body odour and maintain stealth as far as possible. The leopard tried to stalk an Ibex and inched closer when it was busy grazing. However the Ibex sensed the danger even before it entered the field of attack of the Snow Leopard and managed to flee. The attempt resulted to failure just like 90% of the daytime attempts. Snow Leopards can chase their prey up to a maximum of 300 meters. A Blue Sheep or an Ibex is sufficient enough to carry on for two weeks. Their hunting pattern reveals that they require 20-30 adult Blue Sheep or Ibexes annually. These ungulates manoeuvre along the cliffs with superb precision and Snow Leopards are no match if stealth is lost. Hence taking due advantage of their unrivalled night vision, Snow Leopards make most of their successful hunts in the dark. Snow Leopards are the prime predators of alpine zone and their favourite preys are Blue Sheep, Ibexes, Argalis, Pikas, Marmots, Snowcocks and Woolly Hares. They drag their preys to crevices which are cold enough to keep the kill edible for at least two days. This also safeguards the kill from scavengers like the bone eating Lammergeiers, Griffon Vultures, Himalayan Wolves and Red Foxes. Scat inspections have surprisingly revealed that scarcity of food, at times, forces them to survive on vegetations.
It is estimated that Snow Leopard population will suffer a further decline by 10% in the next 23 years. The primary reason for this decline is extensive poaching for their organs, bones, fur and claws which are considered to have medicinal values. The decline is also attributable to habitat loss owing to the rapid shrinking of snow cover and human encroachment. Anthropogenic activities like collection of forest products, rampant grazing by livestock and camping by the migrated shepherds are also arising as potential threats. The inhospitable terrain not only prevents research works but also restricts protective patrols. Feral dogs also pose a threat as they are often found chasing and feeding on the preys of Snow Leopards.
Nevertheless, Snow Leopards have become the symbol of conservation in the higher Himalayas and there is definitely a silver lining. In India, they are given the highest standards of protection under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. Livestock insurances are also carried out to compensate the shepherds and reduce retaliated killing. ‘Project Snow Leopard’ was launched by the Indian Government in 2009 which laid down rules on protecting the mammal even outside the Protected Areas. The Snow Leopards were given additional protection when India signed the ‘Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS)’ and ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)’. The countries having Snow Leopard habitats have joined hands to develop trans-border initiatives in the form of ‘Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP)’ which has identified prime areas for conservation of Snow Leopards.
As I stayed at a home-stay at Kibber, I interacted with the villagers to comprehend their outlook towards man-animal conflicts and the practical dilemma that they face between saving their last resort of livelihood and conserving the Snow Leopards. The Snow Leopards are exaggeratedly demonised for stalking on cattle. However the insurance program is able to mitigate such apprehensions up to a considerable extent. The Snow Leopards are not at all aggressive towards humans and hence pose no threat. The villagers of Kibber have started reciprocating in a befitting manner. They don’t intend any harm to the ‘Shen’ (‘Snow Leopard’ in Spitian dialect) anymore. Apart from the recently discovered sizeable population in the Spiti Valley, the Snow Leopards of Wakhan corridor in north-eastern Afghanistan is also a new addition to the global population.
The mere sightings have made Shen an integral part of my journey into the wild. I am not sure if I may render the duties of a full time conservationist in future but will definitely like to campaign about the elusive ghost and the concerted human efforts required for its survival.