Sunday, 6 April 2014

Snow Leopard Quest

In February 2014, I was lucky enough to join an expedition to try to photograph the elusive Snow Leopard (uncia uncia), in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas.  

Snow leopards spend a large part of the year at very high impenetrable altitudes, so the trip was timed when they would come down to lower altitudes - still pretty high though - we camped at around 3,700m.

The snow leopard has unfortunately become a symbol of conservation, with it being persecuted and poached by humans, whilst suffering habitat loss.  There are significantly less than 10,000 animals left in the wild, and they are on the IUCN's red list of threatened species.  They are often solitary, move around in near darkness, and have the most incredible camouflage.  So, all the ingredients for a disappointing and cold trip!

The trip started by flying to Leh, an isolated town in Northern India.

Leh, Ladakh region of Northern India

We then took 4x4 vehicles into the Hemis High Altitude National Park, until they could go no further, and we set-off by foot, with mules and horses carrying camping gear for us.

Local transport

Mules


The campsite was nestled in a stunning valley, next to a frozen river, with amazingly clear skies at night.  That meant it was pretty cold though - between -25 to -30 degrees Celsius at night, enough to freeze a tube of toothpaste, no less!


Camping in the Hemis High Altitude National Park

My tent, home to my coldest ever nights!

A snow leopard's diet includes Blue Sheep (which seem neither blue, nor sheep-like), but it was encouraging to see several on our trips out from camp:


A Blue Sheep, striking a pose for the camera

A Blue Sheep, pretty confident with itself

A Blue Sheep with a high vantage point

Birdlife was also represented, with Snow Cock, Golden Eagle and Cough:


Snow Cock

Golden Eagle

Cough

Snow Leopards

On our trip, we were accompanied by local guides, who were very experienced in searching for snow leopards, using powerful telescopes to scan the hillsides, often well over a mile away.  The great news was that we not only had a sighting, but it was of a mother, with her two sub-adult cubs!  Here are some photos - underneath in the caption are the number of leopards, as it's not always obvious!

Two snow leopards
Two snow leopards, in very low light (and about a mile away!)

Three Snow Leopards!



At the end of the trip, we had a few hours in Leh:


Leh


Finally, here's a video which shows some of my favourite photos of the trip, alongside a video of the three snow leopards... if you can spot them!