This summer, I joined our local field team in Lahaul, in the Indian Trans-Himalayas, to set up camera traps to study the area’s snow leopard population. One evening, after a long day of trekking in the mountains, our team retired to the basecamp, set in a valley at around 3,000 meters (9,850 feet) above sea level.
As you can imagine, it gets quite cold up there, even in summer. Think -30 degrees Celsius (-22 F) at night. More than once, our tents were snowed in, and we had to dig our way out of there in the morning. Our bread was usually frozen solid, so we’d let snowflakes fall on each slice to soften it a bit before having breakfast and setting out into the mountains once again to install cameras.
See a time lapse video of Devika and her colleagues Tandup, Rinchen and Aashra setting up a camera trap in Lahaul, at 3,850 meters above sea level.
For most of the time, we were alone in the valley. However, one morning, we suddenly had company. Two herders, along with their livestock, horses and guard dogs, had pitched their hand-woven, woolen tent (which was ten times warmer than our polyester fabric tent) about a kilometer away, on the bank of a river running around the bend of the mountain.
I had gone out for a walk with a teammate, and keeping true to the warm and welcoming mountain tradition, we were invited to their cozy setup the minute they saw us. We had a lovely chat over lassi, made from fresh goat milk that was still warm. It was one of the most delicious things I had tasted in over a month. Definitely beat the frozen bread! We were also taught to kindle a fire by using their traditional bellow made out of sheep skin and blowing air into it.
The next morning, we invited the herders to our own tent and offered chai, another mountain tradition; introducing them to the rest of our team. By the end of this encounter, we had become friends, and they would visit us often when we returned to our camp after the day’s fieldwork was done.
As we got to know them better, they told us that two of their goats had been killed by a snow leopard in just two nights. Even their trained mastiff dogs had apparently not dissuaded the pursuer. While they were of course unhappy about the loss of livestock, they also seemed to accept it as a part of life in these mountains. They said they’d move to another valley in the morning to get away from the snow leopard.
We offered to set up spare camera traps to catch photos of the culprit in action that night. It wouldn’t bring their goats back, but they still vigorously nodded their heads and guided us to the location where the cat may have left from. As the herders looked on in fascination, we set up a total of four cameras to survey the vicinity of the kill site. The thought of catching the ghost of the mountains on camera is always thrilling, even it feels like the biting cold will numb your fingers and make them fall off during the process!
After a whole night of anticipation, we went to check the traps the next day. We returned, disappointed—there was no sign of the cat. The herders had to move on that morning, so we said our goodbyes.
Our curiosity was still piqued though. We kept checking the cameras. A few days later, we struck gold! The camera trap we had set up a few kilometers into the valley had caught a snow leopard at night, its coat wet from crossing the river! It was very close to the place of attack, so there’s a good chance that it might have been the same individual. I wish we could have shown the herder a picture of the culprit. I hope we’ll get the chance in the next field season!