Hiking Women, if you’re keen on natural history and wildlife, you may have seen the outstanding first ever film of a snow leopard hunting on BBC Planet Earth, or more recently, a snow leopard cub sniffing a remote camera, to the delight of the cameraman, in The Lost Land of the Tiger.
But, this experience is not restricted to wildlife photographers and professional naturalists, you can now trek the mountain valleys of Ladakh, Northern India, in Search of the Snow Leopard with Discover Ladakh and a leading expert from the Snow Leopard Conservancy.
The Snow Leopard lives in the rocky mountain ranges of Central and South East Asia between 3,000 and 5,500 m a.s.l. Known as the Shan in Ladakh, the mountain valleys support healthy populations of the cat together with prey such as the bharal (or blue sheep), ibex, urial, argali and other predators including the wolf and lynx. It’s also not unusual to see golden eagle, lammergeier or other birds of prey gliding high in the sky.
The Snow Leopard is highly adapted to a harsh Himalayan environment, with long thick fur, small round ears and wide paws that distribute weight effectively when walking on snow. Its tail is long and flexible, helping it to maintain balance and it is an outstanding athlete leaping across wide rocky ravines. It can bring down prey three times its own size but will only kill one large animal twice a month, its favourite meal being bharal.
Numbers of snow leopards have declined over the years to the point of being put on the list of endangered species. Their fur was highly prized, they were killed as pests and their natural prey declined, however in Ladakh, they survived the main excesses of hunting essentially because the Buddhist religion considers killing sinful.
The Snow Leopard Conservancy works actively in Ladakh, believing the best protection comes through working with the communities living with the cats. Initiatives such as the Himalayan Homestay Programme help increase household income in a sustainable way and provide visitors with a unique experience – bed, breakfast and evening meal in village homes on the Tibetan plateau.
Conservation has been so successful that the village of Rumbak in the Hemis High Altitude National Park is known as the snow leopard capital of the world! And attitudes to the leopard have dramatically changed – here’s the view of one villager:
“the snow leopard has gone from being a pest
to becoming the necklace around our mountains”
Ladakh lies deep in the Himalayas at high altitude (mostly over 3,000m / 9,800ft) on the south-west corner of the Tibetan plateau in Northern India. The scenery is stunning with snow capped mountains, rocky barren slopes and lush green valleys, the mountain air is remarkably clear and pure, and the skies deep blue with white fluffy clouds.
Ladakh means ‘the land of high passes’ and as its name suggests is only accessible by road through mountain passes over the High Himalaya and (until 1949 when China closed the border) the Karakorum Range. These great mountain ranges are separated by the upper reaches of mighty River Indus that makes its way northwards fed by melting snows and high altitude glaciers. Temperatures in summer range 20-25oC, like an English summer, but in winter drop well below 0o and can reach -30oC in Leh with around 6-8 inches of snow in the valleys.
And above all there are the friendly and gentle people with ‘Julley’ the universal word of greeting for hello, good day, thank you… Predominantly Tibetan Buddhist (indeed Ladakh is sometimes known as ‘Little Tibet’), the countryside is dotted with monasteries perched high on rocky hillsides or outcrops, and other Buddhist monuments; stupa, mani walls and prayer wheels. One of the best experiences is to join the Ladakhis at a colourful and vibrant Buddhist monastery festival to enjoy the music and masked dances .
Hiking Women, if you’d like to search for the snow leopard, check out the Snow Leopard Ecotour with Discover Ladakh for an inspiring and unforgettable experience – staying in mountain village homes, exploring Himalayan valleys for the snow leopard and other wildlife and visiting a winter festival.