“Have You Seen The Snow Leopard?”

Ladakh, the starkly beautiful high mountain desert in India’s Jammu & Kashmir province, is one of the world’s best places to see wild snow leopards. It’s also one of our conservation focus areas. Our Communications Manager Matt Fiechter recently traveled to Ladakh to learn more about our ongoing community-based snow leopard conservation programs - and follow the tracks of the elusive Ghost Cat.

You can’t help but hope for miracles when you approach Ladakh by plane. First of all, you hope that the plane will miraculously avoid crashing into the sharp, jagged Himalayan peaks just underneath you while descending into Leh airport. Second, these mountains appear close enough to reach out and touch, and you irrationally hope to spot a snow leopard even before touching down. You begin to stare, hard, at these dusty, brownish rocks, looking for any movement at all… unaware at this point that this will become your most frequent preoccupation in Ladakh.

The Inevitable Question

When you work in snow leopard conservation, even if your job is at a desk rather than in the mountains, the question is inevitable: “Have you seen a snow leopard?” So far, my answer has always been: No, and I don’t really expect to. But as soon as I meet our Ladakhi field coordinator, Karma Sonam, at Leh airport, my hopes flare up.

“We’ve just come across one this week”, he tells me. “It was posing for us on a rock, at the side of the road”. He has the photograph to prove it, and I’m suddenly giddy.

One of the cats I narrowly missed seeing in Ladakh. Photo: Karma Sonam, NCF India
One of the cats I narrowly missed seeing in Ladakh. Photo: Karma Sonam, NCF India

Karma is something of a snow leopard magnet. He’s one of the few people on Earth who can no longer count the number of times they’ve encountered the elusive Ghost Cat. Maybe it’s because he does his name justice – rarely will you meet a kinder, more thoughtful person. A devout Buddhist and avid conservationist, Karma radiates love for all beings – and perhaps the cats sense this and reward him for it. Clearly, he’s the proverbial star to hitch your wagon to if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of a wild snow leopard!

“You Have to Rest”

In the coming 10 days, Karma and his Ladakhi colleagues, Stanzin Namgail and Rigzen Dorje, will take me to remote, picturesque villages to see some of the predator-proof corrals they’ve helped local herders build. They’ll introduce me to local conservation champions who participate in our Livestock Insurance program. They’ll show me some of our grazing-free reserves, where wild snow leopard prey species can thrive. 

Throughout this entire whirlwind of experiences and encounters, Karma and his colleagues will be more or less glued to their binoculars, determined that I should see the beautiful cat whose protection has brought us together.

First, it’s time to rest though. “You will need two days to acclimatize to the altitude”, Karma says.

He’s right. Ladakh forces you to take it easy.

Leh, the Ladakhi capital, lies at over 11,000 feet, in the Indus valley. Everything else is even higher up. The body needs time to adjust, and a mild headache becomes your constant companion for a while.

Monasteries, Mountain Passes, Mild Mountain Sickness

After two days of doing nothing much, my first real taste of Ladakh comes in the form of an exhilarating day trip to visit some of the Indus Valley’s majestic old Buddhist monasteries.

Stunning Thiksay Monastery in Ladakh. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
Stunning Thiksay Monastery in Ladakh. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

Days 4-6 are reserved for trekking in Hemis National Park. The park is prime snow leopard habitat, but it’s also home to blue sheep, ibex, argali, marmots, and numerous bird species, including golden eagles and bearded vultures.

The first day of trekking is relatively easy, just a morning stroll up the valley to Rumbak, an almost absurdly picturesque village where the Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife Department supports a home stay program with local families – a welcome source of income for the community, and a unique, eco-friendly experience for the traveler.

Beautiful Rumbak. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
Beautiful Rumbak. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

We spend the afternoon climbing a small hill behind the village and looking for wildlife. As we reach a ridge line, a group of startled young blue sheep that had been grazing just a few feet away on the opposite slope speed away. As they flee down the mountain at breakneck speed, we get a faint idea of how challenging it must be for a snow leopard to chase them down.

Our homestay in Rumbak, with the ubiquitous prayer flags. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
Our homestay in Rumbak, with the ubiquitous prayer flags. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

Luckily, our own dinner doesn’t require quite as much effort. As it gets dark, we head back to the home stay, where LOTS of aromatic black tea and delicious homemade Ladakhi ravioli are already waiting for us.

Those with more time to spare would cross Ganga La pass on the next day to reach the stunning Markha valley. For us, the plan is to hike up to the pass and then head back to Rumbak. Our Ladakh Program Coordinator, Stanzin Namgail, had half-jokingly called our itinerary a ‘baby hike’, but after a few hours of steady climbing, it becomes clear that he either had no idea what he was talking about, or (more likely) that his fitness level and mine are quite different. Having grown up in Switzerland (and lived in the Pacific Northwest), I’m no stranger to serious mountain hiking – but the altitudes in Ladakh are something else. I’m huffing and puffing with every step while trying to muster the energy to scan the nearby slopes for wildlife.

Looking for leopards? Photo: Claudia Mohr, SLT
Looking for leopards? Photo: Claudia Mohr, SLT

Thankfully, our guide has a sharp eye. He spots another herd of male blue sheep, less than 200 feet away. I knew these big wild ungulates with their impressive horns as one of the snow leopard’s main prey species – but I only realize what majestic creatures they are in their own right while observing them through my binoculars.

We take the opportunity to rest, and spend half an hour watching the blue sheep graze peacefully, secretly hoping for a snow leopard to burst on the scene and disturb the idyll – but no such luck. Instead, a marmot pops its head out close by, whistles a warning as it sees us, and disappears.

'Our' blue sheep - snow leopard prey, and majestic creatures in their own right. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
‘Our’ blue sheep – snow leopard prey, and majestic creatures in their own right. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

We continue to climb, stopping every now and then to observe a circling golden eagle, or a marmot running for safety. Shortly before we reach the pass, a persistent mild headache turns into something altogether less manageable, and we decide to turn around. A smart choice, but perhaps one I should have made earlier. The headache gets worse in the evening, and doesn’t really go away for the next 48 hours…

A Near Miss

Back in Leh the next day, Karma tells me what the team had been up to while I was enjoying the scenery in Hemis National Park.

Together with Stanzin and field assistant Dorje, Karma had driven a couple hours east, up the Indus, to Hemiya, a small village on the banks of the river, flanked on both sides by steep cliffs. In one of the side valleys nearby, the local community had offered to set aside some of their grazing land for a reserve for wild snow leopard prey species, and the team wanted to have a look at the area.

Jaw-droppingly gorgeous Indus river is Ladakh's lifeline. Snow leopards roam the steep cliffs above. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
Jaw-droppingly gorgeous Indus river is Ladakh’s lifeline. Snow leopards roam the steep cliffs above. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

“We were walking along the river to get to this valley”, Karma says. “Suddenly, at the foot of a high cliff, we saw large amounts of fresh rumen contents splattered on nearby rocks”.

To him, the implications of that discovery must have seemed obvious. To me, however, they were obscure, so Karma explains. “Rather than digesting their food in their stomach, like humans and carnivores, ruminant animals like blue sheep have their stomach divided into four chambers. In the first, the so-called rumen, plants are fermented slowly to make them easier to digest. The contents of this rumen are easy enough to identify – but they normally don’t belong out in the open.”

“Seeing such half-fermented plants splattered across a bunch of rocks could only mean one thing”, Karma says. “An ungulate must have died there.”

Half-fermented plants from the rumen of a wild ungulate - a sign of a struggle? Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
Half-fermented plants from the rumen of a wild ungulate – a sign of a struggle? Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

They couldn’t immediately see a carcass, but they knew a predator must have chased a blue sheep down the cliffs and eventually caused it to fall down all the way to the riverbed. The predator must then have climbed down and pulled its fallen prey to a safe place in order to eat it.

“We fell silent, and started to look around. I took a few steps away from the footpath, and around a big rock – and suddenly, a snow leopard bolted out from a small crevice right in front of me, jumped onto a large rock and disappeared up the cliff. It can’t have been more than 5 seconds, and it was gone. The cat’s tail is all I managed to capture on a photo!”

In the crevice, they found the half-eaten carcass of the unfortunate blue sheep.

Karma is eager to take me to Hemiya as soon as possible, hoping that we could observe the cat as it comes back to its kill.

My body, however, has other ideas. My headache has turned into a fever, and knocks me out for two days, while the Ghost Cat munches away at its blue sheep nearby…

When we do finally make it to Hemiya three days later, the carcass is still there – but the cat, fed and presumably happy, has long left the area. Another near miss!

All that's left of the blue sheep is hide and bones. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
All that’s left of the blue sheep is hide and bones. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

I expect to be disappointed, but instead, I feel exhilarated. The snow leopard may be gone, but its pugmarks are still there – as are the leftovers of its meal. It’s as if the Ghost Cat’s spirit is still lingering, its presence felt, but its mystery still intact.

Corrals, Coexistence, Conservation

Finding a snow leopard kill only a few minutes’ walk from the village of Hemiya is a stark reminder of what the local community’s reality looks like. The Indus valley is extremely narrow here, with steep, rocky cliffs rising up right behind the village’s last houses.

Snow leopard attacks on livestock used to be frequent here, with some herders losing more than a dozen animals each year. Thanks to the support of the International Foundation, Karma and his team have been able to help Hemiya’s livestock holders build four predator-proof corrals. Since then, there haven’t been any new losses.

Goats in their new, safe corral in Hemiya. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
Goats in their new, safe corral in Hemiya. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

“One night a few weeks ago, a snow leopard tried to find a way into my corral several times”, one local herder, Dorje Gyaltasan, tells me. “It attacked, left, then came back and tried again. But it couldn’t find a way into the corral. I’m very happy about this solution.

In the summer, Mr. Gyaltasan plans to further improve the corral by securing the wire mesh that covers the holding area with an extra layer of cement. “I want to make sure the corral can withstand future attacks”, he says.

Mr. Gyaltasan in front of his corral. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
Mr. Gyaltasan in front of his corral. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

In the following days, as we visit more partner communities in Ladakh and speak to other livestock holders, students, and conservation committee members, I’ll often be impressed by the tolerance and open-mindedness these people express. Coexisting with a predator like the snow leopard is a real challenge for them, financially and mentally – and yet, they all acknowledge that the cat has its place in nature as much as they do, and they understand the importance of balance in an ecosystem.

I come away from these conversations deeply impressed with how well received our conservation initiatives are in those communities. Corral improvements seem to have significantly reduced livestock losses and improved attitudes toward carnivores. Livestock insurance programs have made it much easier for herders who do lose animals to get compensation. Education programs have left their marks on the minds of future generations.

Whether such programs will help make it possible for the snow leopard to have a future in Ladakh remains to be seen. Many locals tell me they encounter more snow leopards than they used to, and they seem to believe that populations may be increasing. There is no data to back this assumption, and more frequent encounters may well be a sign of changes in the behavior and access, rather than the number of cats. More research is needed to find out how the snow leopards of Ladakh are really doing – but I’m happy to know they have the best advocates they could hope for in Karma, Stanzin, Dorje, and our partner communities.

Karma Sonam, Stanzin Namgail, and a Ladakhi herder they've helped build a corral
Karma Sonam, Stanzin Namgail, and a Ladakhi herder they’ve helped build a corral

Ready To Go Home?

On the last day before heading back to Leh and eventually home, Karma has one final highlight in store for us. We drive up to his home village, Rumtse, at 14,000 feet above sea level. Karma takes us to his home, a beautiful traditional Ladakhi house on the edge of the village, taken straight from a postcard, and introduces us to his family. We spend the next hours making (or, in my case, trying to make) traditional Tibetan momos, one of the area’s delicacies. Luckily, Karma’s daughter is a master at this art, and so, despite my ineptitude, we soon have a Himalayan-sized mountain of momos in front of us, ready to be washed down with a bottle of home-brewed chang, a delicious Ladakhi barley beer that keeps us warm as we talk and laugh into the night.

Making momos, slowly but surely. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
Making momos, slowly but surely. Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

The next morning, we’re too tired to get up at the crack of dawn, and so miss our last (minuscule) chance at an encounter with the Ghost Cat. I feel a tinge of disappointment, despite the wonderful, unforgettable experiences of the past two weeks.

Before we drive back, however, I leaf through Peter Mathiessen’s ‘The Snow Leopard’, a classic tale of a spiritual journey into the Himalayas. In this book, Mathiessen chronicles his own, much more adventurous, attempt at spotting a snow leopard while traveling through Nepal with famed conservationist George Schaller in the 1970s.

Throughout the book, Matthiessen wrestles with existential questions about the world and our place in it, and in particular about accepting failure, and loss. During his journey, he realizes how much we’re all programmed to want, to desire; and how hard it is for us to not achieve what we long for.

Toward the end of his narrative, Matthiessen lets go of some of his desires: “Butter tea and wind pictures, the Crystal Mountain, and blue sheep dancing on the snow – it’s quite enough”, he writes.

I haven’t seen THE Crystal Mountain, but the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas will do just fine. I’ve had my fair share of butter tea, and while ‘my’ blue sheep weren’t dancing on the snow, they were still a joy to observe.

Perhaps it’s true what my colleague Stanzin Namgail wrote to me a few days ago: “The ghost cat didn’t turn up, only to make sure that you visit the Himalaya again.”

I sure hope so! And either way, now that I reflect on it, Matthiessen’s concluding thoughts on his journey suddenly ring very true: “Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful?”

The snow leopard sure has nice digs... Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT
The snow leopard sure has nice digs… Photo: Matt Fiechter, SLT

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