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In Search of the Elusive Snow Leopard

Himalayan Mountains, India
Feb 03 2009 Written by: Ian Johnson

The elusive snow leopard, an animal I have always dreamed of trying to find! In December I flew to the Jammu Kashmir Province of India; this is the extreme northern part of the country bordered by Tibet, China and Pakistan.

A friend, Dr Raghu Chundawat, who is the former director of the Snow Leopard Trust, had invited me to visit. He is the world’s leading authority on snow leopards in this remote part of the world, having studied them for nearly ten years.

An hour’s flight from New Delhi took us to Ladakh in Leh, easily accessible by all major airlines. We spent two days acclimatising at the ancient city’s altitude of 9,800 feet (nearly 3,000 metres) using the time to visit the white washed ‘Gompas’, Buddhist monasteries. This period of acclimatisation was imperative for the trekking ahead – at a variety of altitudes ranging from 9,000ft to 19,500ft (2,740m – 5,940m).

The tracking trek for the shy and rare snow leopard began in Hemis National Park. The exclusive expedition consisted of Dr Chundawat as Expedition Leader, our own Chita tracker and mountain guide, two camp staff and a chef, plus donkeys and ponies.

Over the next 5 days our group trekked and searched numerous spectacular valleys, crossing many frozen rivers protected and blessed by Ladakhi prayer flags. We also visited remote Ladakhi homes where the hot butter tea breathed life back into our chilled bodies. Temperatures reached minus 15 degrees Celcius (5 F) at night and most days were around minus 5 C (23 F). This was unusually warm for December, which accounted for little snow in the valleys; usual temperatures are between -10 and -25 C (14 to -13 F). The beauty of doing this trek in the middle of winter is you have this entire area to yourself, plus it holds the best chances of spotting the snow leopard.

Dr Chundawat and I were treated to many spectacular sightings of Bharal or Blue Sheep and Ladakh Urial on steep knife-edge cliffs – these are the snow leopards favourite prey. Golden eagles, Bearded and Griffon vultures were also ever present, scouring the slopes and valleys for any sign of a kill. It was not to be on this trip, with plenty of fresh signs of both Tibetan wolf and snow leopard every day. These ghostly predators remained but shadows in the night… I cannot wait to go back to resume the search in this magnificent mountainous region – Ladakh: “The Land of High Passes”!

Epic Private Journeys is offering one privileged departure per year, with Dr Raghu Chundawat as Expedition Leader. For more details, please contact us for more details.