A Snow Leopard Family Album

Follow one Indian snow leopard family through five years of camera trap images.

By Aditya Malgaonkar and Janhavi Rajan, NCF India. This post first appeared on NCF’s EcoLogic blog

Our camera traps have captured a series of photographs over five years of a snow leopard family! In the remote Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh, we’ve been working on a variety of projects to better understand snow leopards and implement conservation initiatives in collaboration with local communities and governments. Camera traps are one of the tools we use to study these cats—and they’re great because they give us glimpses into the lives of these mysterious creatures with minimal disturbance.

On one morning in October 2011, SL7 (a rather unimaginatively named snow leopard) meandered through sub-zero temperatures in Spiti valley, unmindful that a remotely-triggered camera was taking photographs of her.

photo by NCF India, Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and Snow Leopard Trust

Snow leopards can live for 8-12 years in the wild, and have huge home ranges that cover hundreds of kilometres. We didn’t expect to see SL7 again, and that’s why we were surprised when we re-encountered SL7 while running through our camera trap images from November 2013—that’s more than 2 years since we first photographed her on that morning in October 2011. This time, she wasn’t alone! She was with her cubs—SL17 and SL18.

photo by NCF India, Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and Snow Leopard Trust

And then two years later, in September 2015, we saw her again with her second litter!

In September 2016, we were in for a bigger surprise. SL17—one of SL7’s cubs from her first litter—was captured with two cubs of her own! We all wondered how the old lady, SL7, was doing. If still alive, she would be around 7-8 years old (when we first photographed her in 2011, she was already a 2-3 year old adult cat).

Sometime in the middle of October 2016, a camera perched on a remote mountain ridge clicked again, and there she was—our very own SL7! She had given birth to at least four cubs, and managed to survive one more winter. It was heartwarming to be able to see her again!

photo by NCF India, Himachal Pradesh Forest Department and Snow Leopard Trust

We’d never be able to get such an intimate peeks into the lives of snow leopards if it weren’t for camera traps as these cats are difficult to spot in the wild. These cameras can be very useful tools in conservation—we can now gather information on some of the most furtive, rare animals from some of the remotest of places, in the harshest of weather, with an ease that was previously not possible.

Perhaps we’ll meet SL7 or her family members again when we rummage through images from the next season!

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