17-year old Saloni Wadhwa has her career goals figured out. She wants to be a wildlife scientist. Earlier this year, she interned at Nature Conservation Foundation, our partner organization in her native India, in their snow leopard program. This is the story of how she fell in love with the “Mystic Cat in the Abode of Snow”.
by Saloni Wadhwa
As I stood clutching a big snow leopard stuffed toy, grinning from ear to ear, I felt like no other day could have been a happier day of my life!
If you are about to ask me whether I was seven years old that day, I was not.
I was – I am – seventeen years old, standing at the threshold of my future, waiting, wondering, lost and trying to find my career path as a Wildlife Scientist.
You may well wonder why I had this abnormal attraction for snow leopard stuffed toys. But, this attraction and love is basically for snow leopards in the wild in particular… and wildlife in general. So now, I am going to begin my story of how I fell in love with the mystic cat in the abode of snow.
Early Encounters With Animals
Let us rewind back to the time when I was actually seven years old. A brown, furry, warm, adorable darling entered my life during this time. This darling, my dog Scruffy, a Labrador retriever, was my first close encounter with animals. Being an only child, I found solace in him as a sibling. Scruffy taught me how to love and be a good friend, one of the very first lessons I learnt from animals.
Moving on to when I was a little older, I visited the Discovery Cove, a wonderful place in Orlando, Florida, tucked away cozily from all the glitz and glamour of every fantasyland and theme park known to mankind. Here, I had an amazing experience with the citizens of the sea, which left a lasting impression on me.
I swam in a coral reef with tens of thousands of coral fish swimming past me, and a few rays lazily gliding through the rippling water.
But, wait! This was not all. I also got to meet two wonderful bottlenose dolphins, Tyler and Coral – and the Marine Biologist-in-charge, who put into my little mind that to work with these creatures, I would have to actually study Marine Biology and not just know swimming!
I decided from that moment on that I would become a Marine Biologist and I started reading a variety of encyclopedias and field guides to understand the behavior of marine mammals.
However, this was not the end of my animal encounters. A few years later, I began horse riding and began working my way through equestrian events like show jumping and tent pegging. On one godforsaken day, unfortunately, I lost balance, slipped off my horse, M3, and fractured my arm.
There was another significant lesson that I learnt through this fall: After I fell down, M3 came and stood over me. Dizzy with excruciating pain as I was, I wondered why he had done that. I looked around to see fifty horses that were following us coming to a halt. I then realized that they couldn’t have noticed something as insignificant as me, but that a big horse like M3 could cause them to stop and not trample over me.
On that fateful day, my respect, love and trust in animals rose. All I would give M3 was a hug, a pat, an occasional kiss and lots of carrots everyday. He rewarded me for my kindness by saving my life and I am forever indebted to him.
These things spurred me on to explore further, animals, wildlife and conservation efforts. With this in mind, I attended a summer camp with Mysore Zoo, one of the largest and best zoos in Asia promoting these activities.
This summer camp gave me a glimpse of the activities being done to help wildlife and preserve our mother nature. I joined the zoo as a volunteer and started attending to the needs of zoo animals and the public. I was encouraged by the management to begin teaching about wildlife and conservation efforts at the zoo, which led me to deliver several lectures on wildlife to budding students and writing about it in the Zoo Newsletters.
I had the deep desire to know about wildlife and conservation efforts in the field in India. For my biology project at school, I wanted to learn about big cats in India. During this period, I interviewed Dr. Yash Veer Bhatnagar, the Senior Scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) and India Program Director at the Snow Leopard Trust on his work with snow leopards.
Reading Spots, Identifying Cats
Dr. Bhatnagar recognized my directionless, but strong passion and love for wildlife and gave it a path to tread on. I started to work on identifying snow leopards in camera trap images under his and his colleague Ajay Bijoor’s guidance. This process was fascinating, but at the same time was wrought with challenges. To elaborate my point, we will now look at how I identified a particularly tricky sequence in a Laksha Pang camera trap.
In this sequence, three snow leopards came in quick succession, pushing the previous snow leopard and trying to mark the territory as their own. We were able to determine that these three were a mother and her two female cubs we had previously seen on an earlier series of photographs, where there was actually a litter of three. However, one of them, probably a male cub, had apparently now moved into a solitary lifestyle, while the other two female cubs stuck with their mother.
This sequence is one of my most memorable memories of identification, as I could observe an amazing timeline develop – the little inquisitive cubs in 2012 growing into strong women surviving in one of the harshest climatic conditions in 2013.
The more I researched on this wonderful big cat, the more I was fascinated by it.
The snow leopard is a medium sized cat and weighs about 35 – 45 kg. It was first classified into its own genus as Uncia uncia, but was later found to belong to the big cat family and was given the scientific name “Panthera uncia”.
‘Uncia’ is derived from the old latin word unus, which meant ‘single,’ ‘one’ – and the nomenclature was given due to some of the cat’s unique features. These include its pelage, which contains rosettes on a pale grey-brown background and also its strangely long and disproportionately huge tail.
There are two perceptions to the use of its tail. One is that it uses it for balancing on cliffs while walking, as it has no opposable digits to grasp.
The other is that it has to reach its nose to cover the nares, when the ambient temperature is very low. The tail is used to warm the small pocket of air going into the lungs so that it can reach the body temperature by the time it gets to the lungs.
The snow leopard lives in remote areas spread across a large swath of mountains. It inhabits approximately 2 million sq.kms, spread over the Himalaya and Central Asia. Its typical habitat is the arid and semi-arid mountains of the Himalaya, Mongolia, Siberia and the Tibetan Plateau.
The main ongoing conservation effort to save this wonderful creature in India is under the Project Snow Leopard of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Dr. Bhatnagar summed up the project’s goal: “We are trying to conserve the snow leopard. But for the conservation of a flagship species, especially an apex predator like the snow leopard, the security of its prey is equally necessary. For the security of its prey, the security of the plant layer is very important. So, as you can see, these issues are all interlinked, and we’re really working to conserve the entire ecosystem in order to save the snow leopard.”
Project Snow Leopard works in partnership with the people who live in snow leopard habitat. This cat needs vast home ranges, so instead of creating small, strictly protected areas, a landscape-based approach is more suitable. Local communities are not made to vacate their lands, but instead help in the conservation process.
A Close Encounter of the Feline Kind
I want to end my story by telling Dr. Bhatnagar’s story of his first encounter with the mystical snow leopard.
One day, he and his assistant decided to follow a fresh snow leopard trail near a goat kill and started walking up a steep shale slope. Shale is very slippery and so they were literally walking up and sliding down. After sometime, due to sheer exhaustion, he gave up, satisfied that they had come so close to finding a snow leopard. His assistant continued to climb higher and reached the ridge top, but could not sight the snow leopard anywhere. As Dr. Bhatnagar stood despondently, suddenly the cat almost barged into him.
It screeched to a halt barely one meter away from him and stood with its eyes wide and its tail hitting its head. Both he and the snow leopard were very startled! It turned and ran in the opposite direction, pausing to turn and look at him again, posing for the most precious photograph to be clicked!
Actually, what happened was his assistant disturbed the snow leopard when he was walking up as it was resting under an overhang and it bolted out – only to barge into Dr. Bhatnagar.
Now can I tell you what made me fall in love with this elusive cat?
Well, everything about it basically. Its build, stalking technique, camouflage, its elusiveness and most importantly its enchanting and hypnotizing eyes… The conservation techniques put in place for this fast dwindling species interests me immensely and I will try contributing my little bit to help conserve the Ghost of the Mountain!