My First Snow Leopard – Experiences of a Young Volunteer

Aspiring conservationist and photographer Udayan Rao Pawar recently returned from Ladakh, where he had volunteered in snow leopard research projects run by our local partner, NCF. He reflects on his experiences and shares an unforgettable encounter with the magnificent cat.

First of all, I would like to thank Nature Conservation Foundation and Snow Leopard Trust for allowing me to volunteer for their research and conservation work on the snow leopard and its prey species in Ladakh. For youngsters like me, volunteering is an excellent way of seeing and getting to know these wonderful creatures in all their glory in the their natural habitat, and also understanding the conservation issues and challenges involved in saving them.

Udayan during a break in Sarychat Ertash reserve. Photo by SLF Kyrgyzstan

Three years back, I had gotten my first taste of field work: I got to accompany the Snow Leopard Trust’s local team into the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan for the collection of camera traps set up to monitor the snow leopard population in Sarychat Ertash reserve. I also got a glimpse of the nomadic and hunting traditions of the Kyrgyz people. It was such a great learning experience for me that after finishing my schooling I decided to take a break from my studies for a year to do some serious volunteering.

Udayan and his colleagues from Snow Leopard Foundation Kyrgyzstan at the entrance to Sarychat Ertash reserve. Photo by SLF Kyrgyzstan
When Conservation Causes Conflicts

So, on the day I finished my boards, I set off with a senior colleague for a wildlife survey in remote Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh, India. A biodiversity hotspot, Dibang has recently been declared a tiger reserve, which caused a lot of resentment amongst the local Idu Mishmi tribal people over fears of losing their hunting and ownership rights. At Mipi village, we found our way barred by some locals, forcing us to take shelter in a nearby Indo-Tibetan Border Police outpost. We were allowed to pass only after skillful negotiations the next day. At Dambuen, we found the village partly deserted, with most of the men having gone to rescue a hunter grievously injured by a wounded Takin (a large goat-antelope, the males being particularly aggressive during the rut when they gather in large congregations). Despite our permits, the border police officers guarding this sensitive border area allowed us only limited access inside the reserve and we had to turn back after spending a few days with the village chief on his hunting grounds.

On our way back, at Mayodia pass, a popular birding spot, we learnt from a veteran birder that mass trappings of Tragopans and Sclaters’s Monals for a tribal festival had severely depleted their numbers locally. There is a growing realization among some of the local people that such hunting practices are no longer sustainable and they are now actively promoting conservation. For instance, the small population of Bengal Floricans at Nizam Ghat has benefitted from local protection and is spreading to nearby grasslands.

Gharials, Hornbills and Elephants

This winter, I got another great volunteering opportunity: an invitation to participate in the surveys conducted by the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department to check the population of Gharials, a critically endangered species of crocodile in the Son and Ken river sanctuaries, which is under severe threat due to large scale illegal sand mining to meet the growing construction demand. In Son, with all the breeding males wiped out, we found the situation particularly bleak, which can be remedied only by reintroduction from outside. Likewise, it is proposed to reestablish the population of Gharial in Ken, which now stands extirpated.

Udayan won the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award with this photo of a family of Gharials. Photo by Udayan Rao Pawar

I next volunteered for about a month with NCF, doing transects for estimating population density of the threatened Brown Hornbill in Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary. A part of the once extensive rainforests in upper Assam, it supports a rich diversity of animal and bird life. Incidents of human- wildlife conflict are quite common here because of extreme fragmentation of habitat and human intrusion. It was particularly tricky to detect the presence of Elephants in the dense vegetation while doing transects. I was advised not to carry my photography gear so as to be able to scoot easily in case of emergency. I once had a close shave.

The benefits of volunteering with reputed organizations like NCF and SLT are many: its human resources- you get to work with some of the most dedicated, experienced and knowledgeable experts in this field, and also with the local field staff, drawing upon their local knowledge and wisdom; its infrastructure- you get access and permission to work in some of the most sensitive, restricted and remote areas without worrying about your logistics; a wide choice of places- I got to work in central Asia, the Trans Himalayas and the Eastern Himalayas, all within the same organization.

Out Into The Cold

From the hot, humid, lowland forests I directly went to the cold, arid and barren uplands of Ladakh, where I was to spend nearly four months with the team, carrying out Double Observer and Occupancy surveys to estimate the numbers and distribution of wild ungulates (argali, blue sheep, ibex, urial and kiang), across a vast landscape stretching from Karakoram in the North to Zanskar in the South, and from Kargil in the west to the plains of Changthang in the East. After learning the ropes from senior experts in the field, I was allowed to work more independently; forming small teams with local team members, Karma ji, Dorjay, Lobzang and Spaldon. It was tough but exciting work. Tramping the ridges and valleys during the day, preparing our meals together, and sharing whatever shelter was available for the night- a tent, a homestay, or even a herder’s camp, there soon developed a feeling of camaraderie and bonhomie amongst us.

A big male urial kindly posed for Udayan’s lens in Ladakh. Photo by Udayan Rao Pawar

I admired the hardiness of the villagers and herders who make a living from this barren land. I also realized why only a landscape-level community based conservation approach could work here. We also took a group of volunteers consisting of students, a doctor and a lawyer to Rumtse to show our community outreach and occupancy survey work. On returning, some of them expressed disappointment on not having seen a snow leopard, and I was surprised to find myself explaining to them in karmic terms why it is important to keep trying in the right spirit until the animal chooses to reveal itself. A quick and easy gratification diminishes the experience. I also told them how Peter Matthiessen wrote an entire book titled ‘The Snow Leopard’ even after failing to see one, and yet expressed “isn’t that wonderful?”

While it is undoubtedly difficult to see a snow leopard because of its elusive habits and the vast and difficult terrain it inhabits, I do feel its epithet, “grey ghost of the mountains”, is somewhat of an exaggeration. In the past, few ‘outsiders’ ever saw one because few ventured into these mountains, particularly in the winters when the passes get blocked with snow.  During this time, the cats not only descend to lower altitudes and sometimes lurk around the villages for easy food – they’re also  easier to spot against the white background.

Many of the local herders I met routinely see these animals. Karma ji and Dorjay, NCF’s local staff members, have lost count of their numerous sightings. Nowadays, it has become easier for people to fly in during winters, leading to a boom in ‘snow leopard tourism’, with droves of photographers flocking to places like Rumbak and Ulley, which specialize in snow leopard safaris.

An Unforgettable Experience

I saw my first snow leopard towards the end of our Occupancy survey in Nubra-Shyok. At the shrine of Tangsing Skermo, Karma ji asked me to make a wish. The next day, the entire team entered the Relay valley off Durbuk to complete the last transect. We came across a lot of scrapes, scent marks, scats and pug marks. All the signs seemed propitious. A feeling of expectancy hung in the air.

There was some stiff climb ahead, and I dropped off my heavy camera gear. Towards noon we stopped by a stream for a short rest and to scan the slopes with our binoculars. It was Dorjay who first spotted the snow leopard, resting at the base of a large boulder some two hundred meters away.

Once the camera was retrieved, we moved in closer for a better view, taking care not to spook the cat. Working our way behind a ridge, we emerged onto a steep slope, with a shallow ravine separating us from the leopard. It continued to rest even as we struggled to find a stable position in the loose detritus. Jamming my feet against a narrow groove and propping my camera on Karma ji’s head I could manage to take some photographs.

Udayan’s patience was rewarded towards the very end of his trip with his first snow leopard sighting! Photo by Udayan Rao Pawar

With the sun beating down upon us, the light was very harsh. After some time the leopard raised itself and almost gliding sinuously over the contours of the boulder, disappeared into the ravine below. I thanked the deity of the shrine for fulfilling my wish of sighting and photographing my first snow leopard, unexpectedly and suddenly in the wild, and not in some contrived situation with a battery of cameras trained at a bored and satiated animal.

After the completion of the Occupancy surveys, I was fortunate to get an opportunity to document the conversion of a traditional local wolf trap into a Buddhist stupa. These traps, used in the area for millennia, are basically large pits dug by herders to trap and kill marauding predators like snow leopards and wolves. Neutralizing and converting them into places of worship is a community initiative symbolizing their commitment towards the conservation of snow Leopards and wolves. It was a befitting end to a very fulfilling volunteering experience.

One Comment

  1. Very interesting and very informative .so much effort out there to keep the natural habitats safe is great Must have been an-amazing experience for you dear Udayan and at such a young age is amazing . So very proud of you . Love and blessings

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