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© Chhotu Khan

Snow-leopard scouting

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 Winter is probably one of the best times to visit the Hemis High Altitude National Park for anyone with a serious interest in tracking wildlife in the region. The park that extends over 600 sq. km. is named after the famous monastery, Hemis gompa that is situated 40 km. southeast of Leh. Located on the west bank of the Indus River, the park comprises the catchments of Markha, Rumbak and Sumdah nalas. It is known for some rare species and a number of endangered mammals like the bharal and the snow-leopard. Hemis has in fact been identified as a snow leopard reserve under a project launched by the Central Government aimed at conserving the species. Incidentally, Hemis National Park is India’s only protected area inside the Palearctic ecozone.

I was recently part of the last WWF Explorers trip to the park spread over nine days, which were truly extraordinary. We had to push ourselves physically and live in extreme weather conditions, but it was probably an experience of a lifetime! The breath-taking landscape of Ladakh, the warmth of the people and the majestic species that the park is home to, made it absolutely worthwhile. It is honestly, on days like that that one sees the results of one’s passion & conservation efforts of WWF-India – the days when you chance upon a snow-leopard roaming free in the wild. It is these experiences and days that are a strange combination of spirituality emotion, passion and work. They bring a satisfaction to the soul that is difficult to capture in words.

I’ve tried to summarize my trip in short paragraphs below, but I know I haven’t done justice to the richness of experience that it has brought me.

Day 1 – Arrival at Leh
The nine member Explorer Group along with two representatives from WWF-India arrived at Leh. There were explorers from across India and two from Hong-kong and Australia. The first day was needed to acclimatize to the altitude and weather and was spent indoors at the Hotel Mahey Retreat in Leh. The group did however take a short walk to the Leh Market in the evening for dinner, some supplies and a few accessories for our trek.

Day 2 – Travelling around Leh
The group was now comfortable with the altitude and decided to travel to Lamayaru (The Land of the Moon) and spent the rest of the day visiting other attractions in and around Leh.

 Day 3 – Arrival at the base Camp in Husing
We left the comfort of the hotel and arrived at Zingchan. We trekked for 1 and half hour towards Husing where our base camp was situated. We reached Husing just in time for a sumptuous lunch and spent the rest of the day scouting for blue sheep around the base camp and its surrounding valley. The Bharal (Pseudois nayaur), also known as the Blue Sheep, is a high mountain sheep that is the primary prey for snow leopards.

Day 4 – Trekking to Husing Nalla/Valley and Turbung Valley
We spent the morning trekking to the Husing Nalla/Valley and climbed a mountain close by to scan for the elusive and enchanting snow leopard. We didn’t end up having any luck and returned to the base camp for lunch. During the second half of the day, we trekked to the Turbong Valley and again scouted for snow leopards but did not sight any.

Day 5 – Full day trek to Rumbak Village and Tri Junction
Since there wasn’t any movement in Husing and Turbung Valley the previous day, we decided to trek to Rumbak which is a three hour trek from the base camp. We reached the Tri Junction and our spotters started climbing ridges and mountains to scan for snow leopards. Meanwhile, we were all busy photographing Lammergeier (the bearded vulture) and the Golden Eagle near the tri-junction area till Dorjee and his team brought us a sumptuous lunch. We had one of the best meals at 14,000 feet and -17 degrees. Later, some of the people who wanted to speak to their families trekked upto Rumbak Village and established connection with their families. Since this was the second day and no sighting of a snow leopard had taken place, we trekked back to the base camp. By now a general dip in energy, enthusiasm and disappointment seemed to be setting since there were only two days left to sight the snow leopard

Day 6: Back to basics – Getting a snow leopard to follow the blue sheep

With a fervent prayer for a sighting, we left base camp and climbed a highly elevated mountain near Husing. There were more spotters that day and suddenly Dorjee (our guide) sighted something through his binoculars! He wasn’t sure what it was and he ran towards the spotting scope to confirm what he has seen. In a span of next two minutes he shouted, “Yes !!! Yes!! Yes!!! It was a snow leopard. He hugged Aishwarya and the rest of us. We took about four-five minutes to identify where the snow leopard was sitting through the spotting scope and once we saw the leopard we all opened our camera and mounted the tripod and started looking for snow leopard through our camera and started taking couple of pictures. Three members in the group (including me) had big bazookas (cameras) with around 700mm focal length and still the snow leopard was like tiny dot in our view finder. We were hoping that it would move and we would be able to make record shots of the leopard. Unfortunately, after about an hour he walked for 15 mins and vanished into a gorge. We were all thrilled that we got to sight and spend a full hour with the most elusive cat in the Himalayas. A high altitude celebration followed.

Day 7 : Scouting the same valley where the snow leopard had vanished
We started out early in the morning after the breakfast and again trekked to the place where we had lost the snow leopard and climbed a mountain and all of us decided since it was the last day we would avoid the lunch and spend the whole day scanning the mountains for Shan (snow leopard in Ladaki). But the staff was kind of enough to get us lunch to the mountain where we had climbed and it was a bright and sunny day and temperature was -13 degrees. We all spent the whole day scanning the ridges and following the blue sheep till the sun disappeared.

Day 8 : Return to Leh
After the morning breakfast we trekked from base camp to Zingchan and then returned to Hotel Mahey Retreat and spent the rest of the day at the Hotel.

Day 9 : Back to where we belong. Happy & Content!
Most of us had early morning flights from Leh to New Delhi and then connecting flights from New Delhi to our respective destinations.

Photographs – Hari Somashekar & Dr Saurav Mahanta

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