Snow leopard is an ancient being. From the sojourns of tribal horsemen in their pursuit of wealth and empire under the leadership of Ghengis Khan, to the early voyages of merchants, pilgrims, monks and soldiers along the ancient and famed silk route, this magnificent cat has seen it all. The snow leopard began evolving as a unique species approximately 3.2 million years ago. Recent research show that tigers are more closely related to snow leopards than to any other big cat species such as the leopards, jaguar and lion; and these two cats branched out and evolved around the same time period.
My innate curiosity for the snow leopard took me to the mighty Himalayas where I recently spent six years chasing the elusive grey ghost of the mountains. And another two years analysing information that I had gathered. Snow leopards have achieved a mythical reputation, in part, due to their natural rarity and a legendry camouflage and in part due to the difficulties that one encounters in their pursuit in the rugged and harsh terrain in which they occur. Local people especially livestock herders will go on lengths explaining the abilities of snow leopards to melt and disappear in the mountains right in front of your eyes.
There is something about the snow leopards and their mountain home which makes you restless. Once you have walked on the path that a snow leopard has taken and once you have heard their call reverberate in the valleys, you cannot stay away from mountains for long. While the title of the King of the forest might be disputed among a tiger and a lion, snow leopard is the undisputed monarch of the high mountains. It has evolved to survive in the high mountains where temperatures drop down to -30 degrees and low oxygen levels make breathing itself a demanding task. Given the fact that it’s one of the five big cat species, there is something about the snow leopard that sets it aside. Its graceful poise with its thick and long tail, its gentle mating ritual and the fact that the cat that can and often brings down a full grown horse with not a single reported instance of attacking a human being are some of the traits peculiar to snow leopards. During discussions on snow leopards, I have often on a lighter note remarked that snow leopards are perhaps inspired by Buddhism, the dominating religion in the Himalayas. As if to lend credence to this, a recent article showed that snow leopards and their prey flourished under the protection extended by the monasteries.
Although research and conservation initiatives on snow leopard gathered momentum since 1990’s, recent research suggests that less than 10 percent of snow leopard range in our country has ever been explored. More than 60,000 sq km of the snow leopard terrain in our country remains unexplored. In addition, even areas which are considered vital for snow leopard conservation do not have enough scientific information that can be used for driving conservation actions. In our country, the rare cat inhabits the five Himalayan states, but information especially from the North Eastern states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh is relatively poor.
Thus analysing the information on the population of snow leopards, their habitat needs and their ability to exist alongside humans was a fascinating pursuit but the desk job had also started getting on my nerves.
Without much delay, I followed the ‘call of the grey ghost’ and planned an expedition to Sikkim.. We planned our reconnaissance meticulously and Indian Army helped us at every stage of our survey. We were accompanied by our local guide and Project assistant Phuchung who lives in the mountains in the beautiful Lachen village. WWF-India has been working with the local communities in this region for the past 15 years mainly towards eco-friendly tourism, sustainable resource management and environmental awareness. From the Lachen village which also boasts of a karaoke bar, we headed towards the remote Thangu village where we had our second acclimatization camp. There is nothing more important as the process of allowing oneself to acclimatize to the low oxygen environment of high altitudes. From Thangu began our exploration of the snow leopard country wherein we searched for snow leopard signs along the topographical features that they use such as the ridgelines, cliffs and valley bottoms.
We received warm welcome by Dokpas along our survey route while we interacted with them documenting their interactions with wildlife, learning from their knowledge of the snow leopard and its terrain over cups of refreshing butter tea. It did not take us long to find the snow leopard signs in the region and we started placing automated cameras at suitable places so as to photographand enumerate the rare cat. Phuchung who has spent all his life in the mountains was amazed as I read and decoded the signs of snow leopard, describing to him the scrape marks on the ground, the scent marks on the rocky outcrops and their use as for marking territories and in communications between individual snow leopards. Overall, we spent 15 days out in the field, exploring the realm of the snow leopard, deploying camera traps and recording the numbers and distribution of the prey species of snow leopards such as blue sheep and argali.
Toward the end, all of us were tanned, my skin was peeling around my nose and ears and I felt like a moulting snake. In this strenuous terrain, our team had deployed 20 camera traps covering around 600 sq. km of potential snow leopard habitat. I had to return to Gangtok and eventually Delhi for other assignments and a few days had passed in the hustle and bustle of the city while the taste of crisp mountain air still lingered in some remote recess of my mind.
I remembered with nostalgia, the carpet of flowers that we encountered when we had just climbed our first ridgeline, the excitement over the first sighting of a large group of argali and the glorious snow clad mountain that I could see from my tent. And here I was sitting in a cubicle staring at a computer screen, when my mobile phone rang and broke my reverie. A broken but excited voice of Phuchung on the other end shouted “On inspecting five of our cameras today, I was amazed to see the movement of snow leopard in three of them”. The mountain ghost has graced our cameras!