Tracking the elusive snow leopard in India – just how hard are they to spot?

Mike Unwin
The prowling snow leopard is master of this wilderness - WARNING: Use of this copyright i

It’s a snow leopard, at point-blank range. I freeze as the cat’s amber eyes bore into my own. The ears flatten and lips curl in a silent growl; the lithe body hugs the rock, shoulder muscles bunching to leap. I can see every bristling whisker.

Sadly, it’s only a photograph. Each time I enter the dining room of our lodge, the framed images on the walls seem to mock me: snow leopard tracking; snow leopard with cubs. Yes, I think, as I join my companions for a chicken biriyani, I don’t doubt that somewhere out there – out in the swirling blizzard beyond these ice-frosted windows – there’s one prowling around. And I don’t doubt that some intrepid photographer once got lucky.

But us? Seriously? The chances of our laying eyes on such an elusive beast in these immense mountains seem negligible, at best.

I’m in Ulley: a tiny Buddhist community of some seven households perched 12,500ft up a mountain valley in Ladakh, northern India. Our small party arrived three days ago from the state capital of Leh. Fresh snowfall turned our “road transfer” into a five-hour expedition, inching up endless hairpins, with windows misting and snow chains falling off tyres as we climbed ever deeper into the clouds.

Not wanting to dampen spirits, I keep my doubts to myself. After all, our guide and snow leopard expert, David Sonam, has assured us that Ulley is a top spot for sightings. Last week, a female with two youngsters was seen just above the village itself. What’s more, our head tracker is local legend Tchewang Norbu: snow leopard whisperer extraordinaire.

The mountains of Ladakh Credit: GETTY

Still, I can’t shake my memory of The Snow Leopard, the natural history classic in which author Peter Matthiessen spends six months combing Tibet in a fruitless search for the eponymous beast. As the story meanders increasingly into Buddhist philosophy, the animal becomes more myth than reality. Now, after three days peering into the impossible vastness of these mountains, I can see where Matthiessen was coming from. I’m beginning to think we’re chasing a ghost.

Thankfully, Ulley is a delight: a cluster of simple dwellings festooned in prayer flags and ringed by a chocolate-box panorama of towering peaks. Our homestay – a purpose-built tourist lodge – sits at the centre, looking down a perfect valley. Village life goes on around us: yaks are milked in the yard; hay is piled high on the roofs; children scamper through the snow, peeking shyly at the curious strangers.

Inside, we enjoy comforts that our hosts have never known, with gas heaters, scatter cushions and hot, sumptuous meals. A discreet wake-up call heralds a cup of tea and a steaming bucket of hot water. But, still, the conditions take some getting used to. At night, the temperature touches minus 20C (-4F). We struggle in and out of multiple layers of clothing and, at this altitude, just bending to tie bootlaces has us gasping. 

Mike Unwin’s long-distance photo of the snow leopard, pictured here just slightly left of the centre Credit: Mike Unwin

Each morning, the sky sets the mood: dazzling blue after fresh snowfall means perfect visibility, so spirits soar; a white-out, with cloud spilling over ridges like an over-boiling porridge pot, brings despondency. But it’s not our spotting that counts. As we gather over breakfast, Norbu and the team are already outside scrutinising the slopes or filing down the hillside, returning from a dawn search for tracks.

For us, walking proves trickier. On our first morning, we tramp uphill behind the village for an hour, gaining perhaps 500ft in height. This modest exertion leaves us shattered, and stopping to scan through binoculars is a good reason to rest. The sheer scale of our backdrop is bewildering but, as we get our collective eye in, wildlife emerges: huge-horned ibex crossing the high slopes like beetles on a bed sheet; a fiery red fox stalking partridges in belly-deep snow; a golden eagle spiralling skywards. Tripod tracks in the snow lead me to a mountain hare, which bounds away on snowshoe feet. 

Drives take us further afield. We descend to a rushing meltwater river and climb a summit of prayer flags to drink in the view. And at every stop we resume the scanning. Hot coffee and spicy wraps appear from the vehicle as we rub hands, lower snow goggles and raise binoculars. 

Then, on day three, the sign we’ve been waiting for. We clamber excitedly from the vehicles to examine fresh pugmarks in the snow. Overnight, a snow leopard has crossed the very road that we walked along yesterday afternoon.

“We know this male,” says David, pointing out his yellow-stained territorial signature at the foot of a boulder. “He climbed up there last night, hunting ibex.” I follow his gaze, tracing the trail up a gully until it is lost to all sight except Norbu’s: “He may still be up there.” 

Snow leopard tracks have not always brought such elation in these parts. Back in Leh, three days earlier, we visited the offices of the Snow Leopard Conservancy, where young conservationist Tsewang Namgail described how his mountain upbringing once taught him to revile snow leopards.

Colorful rock formations are seen along the Indus river Credit: GEtty

“I once had a lot of anger inside me,” he told us, describing an attack on his uncle’s village that left 12 sheep dead. Today, he is helping this enterprising NGO address the conflict through initiatives such as community education and better livestock husbandry. He has also pioneered ecotourism projects – including our homestay – that offer real incentives for impoverished villages to protect their wildlife.  

Our time in Leh taught us about more than snow leopards. Sensibly, the itinerary included three nights in the town, both to acclimatise to the altitude – Leh sits at 9,840ft – and to taste some local culture. From our base at the Grand Dragon hotel we ventured out on foot, climbing ice-encrusted steps past thick-furred stray dogs to the mud-brick walls of the towering royal palace. 

Taking to the vehicles, we left town to follow the Indus river across the high desert plateau past wild ravines and craggy monasteries. And each day the altitude felt a little easier as, on David’s advice, we topped up on the local spiced green tea, kahwah.

At Spituk monastery, just outside town, we found a festival in progress. We joined the throng, filing up the steep ramparts, through a musty rabbit warren of inner chambers and out into an open courtyard, where crimson-robed monks corralled us into cross-legged rows. From apparent chaos, we watched an extraordinary performance take shape.

Successive groups of dancers entered the arena, decked out as mythological characters in outlandish costumes and gurning, lacquered face masks. Snow swirled around gyrating performers and spellbound audience alike, while monks kept up a blaring, atonal accompaniment on cymbals, gongs and python-sized horns. For three hours I had no idea what was going on. It was gripping. 

A festival at Spituk monastery

Five days later and the festival is long forgotten. It’s a blue-sky day and we’ve returned to yesterday’s tracks. Norbu and his team have had their telescopes trained on a panoramic sweep of ridge and valley for the past hour when suddenly there’s a commotion among them.

“See the ibex?” says David. What ibex? Now I’ve got them, sparking a mini avalanche as they gallop across a gully and leap up a cliff on the other side, stopping as one to stare back the way they came. “Shan!” breathes Norbu, eyes glued to his scope. No translation needed. But where? 

David relays Norbu’s directions and we all scramble for shared reference points in the distant jumble of rock and snow, desperate for a glimpse.

“You see that gully…”

“Which gully – the one on top?”

“No, no, to the left. Below that slab of cliff – looks like a map of Australia.”

A new animal enters my binocular field from stage right. Details are hard to make out at this distance but there’s no mistaking that low, prowling profile – nor the huge tail, still switching with the irritation of an ambush thwarted. There are gasps as we all get on to it, watching together as the cat pauses at the foot of a cliff then springs up in two fluid bounds to a ledge. It may be a kilometre (0.6 miles) away, but it’s a thrilling sight. High fives all round. 

For another hour, we peer through the scopes in hope that it might jump down and come closer. But clearly it is doing what cats do best: curling up for a snooze. And, as the cloud rolls in, we are forced to call it a day. 

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Back at the lodge we peer at each other’s photos. Let’s face it, none of our shots will be going up on the wall. But close-ups miss the point. The snow leopard is an animal of vast landscapes; the living embodiment of the wild and the unreachable. To have watched one moving against its grand mountain backdrop, its prey scattering before it… My heart is still racing.

And if we’d failed? Well, there are no guarantees in these mountains. Perhaps the nearest monastery would have shown me the path to spiritual acceptance. After all, it worked for Peter Matthiessen.

Essentials

Steppes Travel (01285 601050; steppestravel.com) offers a 13-day itinerary to India to track snow leopards in the company of David Sonam, founding trustee of the Snow Leopard Conservancy India; from £4,495 per person based on two people sharing in February. The price includes internal flights and transfers, room-only accommodation in Delhi and full-board accommodation and expert guiding in Ladakh. International flights from London can be added from an extra £675 per person.