What to know before you go tracking snow leopards

Snow leopard Kailash yawns in its enclosure during the opening ceremony of the new snow leopard enclosures at the zoo in Stuttgart, southern Germany March 26, 2018. — AFP  pic
Snow leopard Kailash yawns in its enclosure during the opening ceremony of the new snow leopard enclosures at the zoo in Stuttgart, southern Germany March 26, 2018. — AFP pic

NEW YORK, May 2 — On my sixth day in the mountains, a pair of Tibetan wolves emerges from the frozen valley and saunters past, just a few hundred yards away.

Minutes ago, I was sipping warm masala chai; now I’m holding my camera in the biting cold. The duo is bold to come this close, but it’s only because they don’t fear being shot by anything other than my Canon Rebel DSLR. Their coats — patches of red, brown, and white — keep them blended, a rippling optical illusion.

One wolf disappears into the rocks; the other trots up the ridge. Silhouetted against the sun, he lets out a howl few have heard in the wild. And when he howls, I howl back.

“Not bad for breakfast,” whispers Rahul Sharma, a co-owner of the Snow Leopard Lodge, where I’m staying. Since opening in 2007, Sharma has had many moments like this one, but he still smiles so wide that his handlebar moustache practically dances.

Ulley, a high-altitude hamlet in the far north of India, has no paved roads, no wi-fi, and more livestock than people. It’s part of a district called Ladakh, “the land of high passes” to locals, in India’s state of Jammu & Kashmir. The detachment from civilisation is pronounced in its stillness, the kind of digital detox that pundits like to promote but few ever experience.

This is the Himalayas in all their isolating charm, a speck on a mountainous map where even borders are state secrets. China lies to the northeast, Pakistan to the west, and conflicts between ethnic separatists and baby-faced soldiers sometimes erupt into deadly clashes. Although this is the safe side of J&K, an army base a few hours’ drive distant was hit by separatists the day before I arrived.

Tourism here opened only in 1974, and the barrier helped to preserve culture and wildlife. With so many monasteries and pastoralist Buddhist villages, you’d think this must be how Tibet looked before China invaded. Where the Indian plate and the Tibetan Plateau merge, and the Indus River and Zanskar meet, is a desert that is sometimes referred to as Asia’s grand canyon. It’s not as wide, but it may be more striking visually. And as of now, it’s far less visited.

That’s beginning to change. There were 16,449 tourists in 1994; in 2016, more than 2.35 million. The rise is mostly due to travellers from India, nearly two million of which visited in 2016, according to local authorities. Thanks to a score of Bollywood films produced in Ladakh, they come in search of big-screen locales that seem tailor-made for Instagram. Now, Westerners like me are beginning to arrive in search of snow leopards.

Most visitors travel in summer, but I’ve come at the end of winter because the snow makes this the best time to track cats. What I’m after needs the safety these mountains provide. So far, I’ve found golden eagles, red foxes, ibex, urial, and now wolves, but shan, as the locals call them, remain elusive. Why?

“No snow,” explains Morup Namgail, the Lodge’s 22-year-old lead guide. “Strange not to have snow this time of year.”

February is usually blanketed, but this is one of the worst-hit regions in climate change: a front line whose temperatures are rising fast and accelerating glacial melt across the mountain range.

No snow means snow leopards will stay hidden. There are estimated to be fewer than 8,000 left, after all, and still incredibly rare. Numbers have increased enough to convince top researchers from governmental organizations and NGOs to help push the animals off the 

Buddhist nuns from the Drukpa lineage pictured in Ladakh during their cycle across the Himalayas to raise awareness about human trafficking of girls and women in the impoverished villages in Nepal and India August 30, 2016. — Reuters pic
Buddhist nuns from the Drukpa lineage pictured in Ladakh during their cycle across the Himalayas to raise awareness about human trafficking of girls and women in the impoverished villages in Nepal and India August 30, 2016. — Reuters pic

endangered species list last year.

The animal still faces many unknowns. No one knows how many there are, because the land is too challenging to accurately conduct such studies. This year, a new survey began throughout the 12 range nations to finally determine its population.

A few hundred snow leopards are believed to live in Ladakh, making it a veritable haven. And I’ve got the help of Tsering Norboo and his sons, a group that has helped the BBC’s Planet Earth crew find those cats. But after an unseasonably warm week, Norboo points to a dusted peak on the other side of the valley. “That’s where we have to look.”

Anything to see shan becomes my mantra. I work my nerve and head into the void the next morning, icy wind stinging my eyes. We climb 3,000 feet in three hours. “Not bad for a Westerner,” says Stanzin, Norboo’s middle son, who leads me along the ridge. Multicoloured Tibetan prayer flags fly in the wind as I stare down into the valley, head pounding. I barely notice as Stanzin points at the dirt. “Pug marks. Fresh.” Leopard scat, wisps of hair, paw prints — but no spectre. With heat-trapping fur and bodies teeming with red blood cells, snow leopards are upper-atmosphere equipped. We humans are not.

I wouldn’t be here if not for the stories I soaked up from such pioneers as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, from reading Into Thin Air in my teens, and from climbing 18,000 feet to Nepal’s Everest Base Camp in 2013. Wildlife tourism — and 4K photography via Planet Earth and National Geographic — have spawned a generation of well-heeled tenderfoots like me who have grown calluses while attempting to recreate that magic.

In the past decade, over a dozen outfitters have begun offering such trips, including Steppes, Intrepid, and Indian-owned Himalayan Outback and KarmaQuest, which helped introduce a homestay programme giving locals an incentive to protect the land and fund conservation. At the lodge, there’s a US$200 (RM785) per person fee toward this project. With 650-plus homestays in about 4,300 Ladakhi homes, a cottage industry for incredibly poor subsistence farmers has sprouted, but it’s one without answers for the trash that tourism creates. As many as 30,000 plastic bottles are dumped in open-air landfills each summer.

Central Asia is a thrilling place to spend a few weeks, but it’s not without danger. Evacuation insurance in case of injury or force majeure is a smart precaution. I signed with Global Rescue, which, for US$120, guarantees a helicopter evacuation as long as you can contact them via wi-fi or phone. (Both are a negative here.)

The mountains are not for the squeamish. Altitude and cold are exhausting, even if you’re tracking creatures by SUV instead of foot. The meals are repetitive and frustrating for a meat-eater such as myself. Kerosene heating may sound decidedly Spartan, but it’s downright opulent compared to local homes and the tundra-camping options in Hemis National Park at nearby Rumbak Valley. You get the same chances at snow leopard sightings, but the lodge holds 22 visitors, compared to Hemis’s sometimes wall-to-wall trekkers.

“Hemis unfortunately is like a tourist trap,” warns Misty Dhillon, who runs the Himalayan Outback, the tour operator that helped guide my choices. “And it’s harder to sleep on the ground — and colder.”

The cold is worth considering. Temperatures during the day reached only the low 40s F before dipping below freezing at night, so bring plenty of wool. You can expect plumbing, showers, and flushable toilets, but since pipes freeze in winter, none worked during my stay. (My shower was a bucket filled twice a day with hot water.)

Being deep in the mountains with little luxury isn’t for everyone, but the rewards are great. Those wolves trotted right past where I slept, and leopards are often sighted from the lodge. That’s the trade-off. You pay a price to see a place that for most exists only on screen. If the roads were paved and the resorts were all five-star properties, the animals wouldn’t be here. “It’s really that simple,” Sharma, the co-owner adds, and that’s why there are limits to the infrastructure.

If this stirs a hunger to explore, keep in mind that training ahead of time will go a long way. Even if you only plan on walking from bed to your 4X4, get into shape. You don’t need a beach body, but stay as active as possible. I climbed three peaks of at least 10,000 feet in the months before the trip, which was ideal, but even a few car rides to the selected altitude helps. And don’t drink. The thin air makes you feel hung over; don’t make it worse.

Avoid stress by arranging support from locals with established connections. I went with the Himalayan Outback, which arranged a driver and coordinated the logistics. (My 12-night trip ran about US$5,000, excluding airfare). From Los Angeles, I flew to Delhi, then took an early flight with Go Air over the mountains to Leh, Ladakh’s capital, which sits 12,000 feet up. Twenty four hours of travel exhausted me, and I spent three days acclimatising at what’s considered Leh’s best hotel, the Grand Dragon. As soon as possible, take the antibiotic diamox to battle shortness of breath and dizziness. The sooner you take it — rest and drink three litres daily — the sooner you’ll adjust.

Dhillon says the lodge is regularly sold out during leopard season, which runs from December through March. It’s usually a mix of Europeans, Americans, and Indians. The cold keeps the masses at bay, and every summer, Ladakh explodes with trekkers, bikers, and Instagram-happy tourists.

From Leh, Ulley is a two-hour drive past turquoise rivers, army bases, and high passes where the paved roads eventually end and the ruggedness of these mountains really hits. When you arrive, listen to your body. Most stay for about a week, but Indians from neighbouring states often drive up for day safaris. Push yourself, but don’t overdo it.

Most important, stay as long as you need to see what you came for. Two leopards had been spotted the day before I arrived. And for nearly two weeks, I hiked up and down the surrounding peaks, over frozen streams, past bones from yaks and horses and ibex picked clean by hungry predators. I climbed up scree and loose rock, then navigated descents that made me question why I kept teetering so close to the edge in search of my ghost.

I set up six remote camera traps from a trio of outfitters — Reconyx, Cuddeback, and Spypoint — and ended up getting photos that proved these ghosts were real, stepping in the same dirt and ice that they had. I was persuaded that they had seen me, played a game of tag in which I was “it.”

On my second-to-last day, I still hadn’t seen any cats in the wild. I spent six hours scrambling up and down loose rock with Stanzin, a survival situation in the making, and I knew I was pushing it. I pictured them laughing on some steep perch. Had they seen me huffing up the incline and slunk off?

It was sunset when we finally made it down. Stanzin and I hugged at the base of the mountain, solid ground finally under our boots. Back in Ulley, we wolfed down tsampa noodle soup as Morup showed off pictures of the mother leopard they’d named Gyamo, Queen of the Mountains.

On the day of my departure, one of the trackers spotted fresh tracks. The weather had changed, and a cold front brought light flurries. We spent the day collecting my cameras, scanning, climbing, hoping. Someone said they saw a tail at one point, a spectacled talisman frozen against a rock, but when I looked into the spotting scope’s viewfinder, I found nothing. The sun was setting, and a 40-odd-mile drive through pitch black was still ahead. I kept pushing the departure, hoping Norboo and the boys would catch a glimpse. With crows feet forming around his almond-shaped brown eyes, Norboo looked disappointed. “Next time,” he promised, before I loaded up my gear.

A few minutes later, as my truck took the road’s sharp curves, a red fox darted across the path. We stopped the engine and the little fox turned to us as it trotted along, as if saying: “Follow.” Something about that moment made me want to turn back, but I stayed quiet.

The next morning, I learned of a sighting an hour after I hit the road. A female leopard was visible from the same place I had stood with Norboo just hours before. Gyamo! I had been playing hide-and-seek with a living ghost. — Bloomberg

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