What are we to make of elusiveness in an animal? If a creature is difficult for humans to see in the wild, is that nature’s way of hanging a Do Not Disturb sign? When the animal lives in a fragile ecosystem imperilled by human activity, what are the ethics of going there, even when tourism might drive conservation? As I looked out over the Himalayas on my flight into the city of Leh, in India’s far-northern region of Ladakh, I found myself picking at these questions. I was on my way to join a trip – an expedition, in the preferred nomenclature of adventure travel – that had as its goal the sighting of an animal that has become so defined by elusiveness it wears the adjective like an epithet. There is the brave lion, the sly fox and the elusive snow leopard.
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Beside me napped a young Buddhist monk in burgundy robes and a red baseball cap with ‘Dope’ written across the front. Below, toothy black peaks cut through undulating snowfields, mountains so gigantic their summits seemed to skim just under the plane’s belly. Fifteen years ago, the summer after I graduated from college, a friend and I took a bus more than 600 miles from Delhi to Leh, an old Silk Road trading hub and a centre of Tibetan Buddhism. After three precarious days of hairpin turns, rockslides and passes topping 17,000ft, we arrived deep in a star-strewn night and woke in a green oasis spread across the floor of an austere valley. Shimmering poplar trees and fluttering prayer flags ringed our guesthouse. Monasteries sat on rocky outcrops above the Indus River. It was a place I wanted to return to before I’d even left it.
I came back in winter. It was February, in the last weeks of what we now recognise as the Beforetimes, when Covid-19 hadn’t yet broken out globally. In Leh, the Tibetan-style houses and roving street dogs and old women selling dried apricots I remembered were still here, but most of the shops and restaurants were shuttered for the season. At dawn, out of my hotel window, the mountains glowed ice-blue. Snow leopards were up there, going about their business. Some of the cats’ elusiveness is attributable to their agility at high altitudes and tolerance for harsh conditions. Other factors include their small numbers and sparse distribution: the global population is estimated at between 3,900 and 6,300 individuals spread across 12 countries. My destination was Hemis National Park, India’s largest at 1,700 square miles and home to roughly 40 of the animals – one of the densest concentrations in the world but still just 40 or so needles in a very big, high and cold haystack.
On the flight I’d read Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 book The Snow Leopard. In it, he recounts a taxing expedition through remote Nepal with naturalist George Schaller, who was researching the creatures’ favourite prey, the nimble blue sheep. Schaller glimpses a leopard, but, in two months, Matthiessen sees only tracks and scat and the remnants of kills. A dedicated Zen Buddhist, he decides he did not spot one because, in fact, he was not ready to. ‘That the snow leopard is,’ he wrote. ‘That it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain – that is enough.’
Would that be enough for me? Was I wrong even to try?
‘Snow-leopard tracking is a ritual,’ said Behzad Larry, the founder of Voygr Expeditions. After a day and night acclimatising to Leh’s 11,550ft elevation, we were climbing the many steps of the terraced 15th-century Thiksay monastery on our way to early-morning prayers. ‘And when we’ve seen this ancient ceremony performed in the heart of snow-leopard country, exactly as it’s been done for thousands of years, it brings some form of peace.’ Larry was born in India and educated in the USA. An accomplished photographer with a dark bushy beard, he worked for non-profit organisations in Asia and Africa before turning ambitious, conservation-oriented travel entrepreneur.
I asked about rumours I’d heard of tour operators in the area engaging in unethical practices such as baiting – luring snow leopards close to villages with a goat or baby yak to guarantee a sighting for guests. Larry recoiled, pointing out that teaching the big cats to seek food in villages would foster human-animal conflict, further endangering the species. His mission, as he perceives it, is more holistic than just helping clients with their bucket lists. ‘You have to be the social enterprise,’ he said. ‘It’s critical that more people come because every single dollar that is going into the community is reinforcing the fact that these animals need to be preserved.’
At the monastery, we reached a high balcony under a cold sapphire sky. Woodsmoke hazed the valley below. Our group included a Bulgarian father and daughter and a retired Englishwoman, who was following her passion for wildlife photography around the world. Two monks in crested hats blew conch shells to call the morning assembly. Novices, children still, milled around the entrance to the prayer hall, bumping shoulders as they slid on the marble tiles.
Under painted beams and silk hangings, the monks began to chant. A novice pounded a drum. Matthiessen’s Buddhist fatalism, while admirable, might not be a selling point for a tour operator, and in five seasons of offering these tours, Voygr has maintained a perfect streak of sightings. The key has been energetic collaboration with the best spotters around: Ladakhis born and raised in Hemis who have exceptional eyesight, unyielding persistence and a fervent desire to save the snow leopards.
To get to Voygr’s camp inside Hemis, we rode for an hour in a minibus, the Dalai Lama’s photo swinging from the rear-view mirror, then walked three miles uphill through a winding canyon, huffing and puffing behind pack ponies carrying our luggage. A frozen river ran beside the trail, but snow was sparse. The camp was situated on a slope of hard-packed earth near the juncture of three valleys, downhill from the nine-family village of Rumbak and just above the fallow barley field where the spotters set up each day. There was a geodesic dome for dining and neat rows of bell tents for guests, prayer flags strung from their peaks, all with heaters and heavy-duty sleeping bags for the single-digit nights. Other tents housed the staff and the kitchen, where Nepali expedition cooks put out three meals a day using just a few gas burners. All of it had to be packed in by horses and carted out again at the end of the season.
The first afternoon, as the sun and temperature dropped, we all trooped down to the barley field, known as the Field of Dreams. Snow leopards are crepuscular, most active around dawn and dusk, and although the spotters kept up surveillance throughout the day, everyone joined the vigil during the likeliest hours, from roughly 4pm until darkness or cold drove us back to camp for hot Kashmiri cider spiked with rum. The younger guides wore sneakers and tracksuits; the more senior ones favoured camo and puffa jackets. They chatted while leaning over powerful Swarovski scopes mounted on tripods, scanning the ridges.
Peering through my binoculars, I quickly grasped that, barring a lightning bolt of dumb luck, no one except the spotters was going to find a snow leopard, or shan in Ladakhi. The landscape was overwhelming in scale and everything that lived in it, predator and prey, was adapted to blend in. A dusty slope in the middle distance, blank to the naked eye, might harbour several dozen grazing blue sheep. The guides would beckon me over, and I’d look through their scopes and see, in crisp detail, a faraway woolly hare or golden eagle or partridge-like Himalayan snowcock. One evening, the circle held two Tibetan wolves, miles away, specks leaping and pouncing in the snow, their bushy tails catching the last light.
Two of Voygr’s spotters, Khenrab Phuntsog and Smanla Tsering, were shown special deference. Both are compact, soft-spoken men from villages inside Hemis; together they have undoubtedly seen more snow leopards than anyone in the world. Twenty years ago, fresh out of school, they’d beaten 2,000 other applicants in a written test and then a half-marathon at altitude to win jobs as Hemis’s government wildlife guards. Suddenly they found themselves with almost sole responsibility for managing all the animals in a massive, rugged area that contained 21 villages. Inhabitants had been relocated from India’s other national parks, but Phuntsog and Tsering saw an opportunity. ‘Hemis Park is a special place because we have both humans and animals coexisting,’ Phuntsog told me. ‘Conflicts come because snow leopards will sometimes kill livestock, so we work on how to reduce the conflict. And we have to educate the people on how important these animals are for their ecology and balance.’ The guards viewed their fellow villagers as potential deputies – they just had to persuade them that what they saw as livestock-killing pests were agents of economic opportunity.
A first step was encouraging families to set aside a room that could be rented out as a homestay for snow-leopard tourism in the winter and for trekkers in the summer. When the scheme succeeded, more homestays followed, and a rotational system was established to make sure families took turns. This led to jobs for guides and spotters, and an entire secondary economy for locals: managing packhorses, renting fields for campsites, selling handicrafts and operating a women-run café in summer. Phuntsog and Tsering also raised park fees and capped visitors at 50 per day. Most of the fee increase went to communal funds shared among Hemis residents as direct income and to pay for improvement initiatives, including fences to discourage blue sheep from eating crops, predator-proof corrals and solar projects. Outside the park, occasional kerfuffles have erupted when a village has decided a neighbouring settlement is unfairly taking the lion’s share of tourism revenue and enacted retaliatory measures such as roadblocks and access fees. The careful fairness of the Hemis model is designed to prevent such bickering and respect the human ecosystem within the natural one. As stakeholders in a collective system, the villages are positioned as allies rather than rivals.
Preserving a way of life doesn’t mean being frozen in time, though. Among our camp staff was Rigzin Chosdon, a woman who grew up in a Hemis village but is now pursuing a master’s in economics in the city of Jammu after graduating from India’s top mountaineering school. She’d come home to work for Voygr during the winter holidays. Her sister is a graduate student in mathematics in Delhi. Both hoped to return to Ladakh to live.
As Phuntsog and Tsering built their grassroots conservation programme, they also performed population surveys, rescued injured cats, tracked the animals for the filmmakers of Planet Earth II and trained every spotter in Ladakh. These days, if one of the wild creatures shows up in a village, people no longer shoot on sight – they call Phuntsog and Tsering. ‘They’ve put in 20 years of work convincing villagers that snow leopards are their friends,’ Larry said. ‘If they hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t be here. It’s impossible for a non-Ladakhian to come and do it. But using the foundations they’ve built, I can now take it a step further.’
One afternoon our group strolled up to Rumbak, passing two children sliding down the frozen river on flattened cardboard boxes. An old woman in wine-coloured robes walked clockwise around a low wall made from stones carved with the compassion mantra in Sanskrit, ‘Om mani padme hum’. She sang the syllables to herself as she went. Sometimes I had heard spotters praying, too, as they carried their scopes along the trails.
In a Rumbak home, we settled on low, rug-padded platforms around a stove to eat biscuits and drink butter tea. I asked our hostess through a translator if she found it strange that people would come from so far away for a sighting of a snow leopard. She furrowed her brow and shook her head. ‘No,’ the translator relayed. ‘Sometimes visitors go back without seeing one, and she gets a little nervous. When they do spot one, they feel happy. She used to be scared the leopards would kill her goats and sheep. Now when people see one, she is glad because she gets good income.’
Early on the third morning as I sat drinking coffee in the dining dome, the camp radios crackled to life. ‘Shan! Shan!’ I trotted down to the Field of Dreams as quickly as the limited oxygen would allow. I had told myself I was not on a quest, but it was impossible not to be swept up in the search. A spotter pointed me to his scope. There it was: a snow leopard, climbing without apparent effort, holding an elegant curl at the tip of its extravagantly thick tail. At the summit, it paused against the sky and surveyed the slopes below before it crested and was gone. To my surprise, I found I was crying. I felt as I had after seeing a solar eclipse: awed by nature’s autonomy, shrunk to nothing but somehow also expanded.
In an ideal world – a just world – wild creatures, like solar eclipses, would exist outside of human economies, beyond our reach, but the reality is that on our increasingly crowded planet everything must find a value. ‘Right now the snow leopard and all these ecosystems are being conserved because the villagers connect their economies with it,’ Larry said. ‘That balance can only work with tourists here.’ With the advent of the coronavirus, that balance is facing an unexpected new challenge as, instead of potentially too many tourists, now there are too few. If the locals suffer from a sudden lack of income, so too may the snow leopards. And the stakes are even higher still. Because these animals require large expanses of habitat to survive and, as apex predators, regulate the populations of their prey, they can be considered an umbrella species: one whose preservation depends on maintaining the integrity of an entire ecosystem.
‘I’m always hopeful,’ Larry told me. ‘But we need to rapidly develop these pockets, to keep them relatively pristine.’ To that end, he is seeking to apply the positive lessons of the Hemis model to other Central Asian countries where snow leopards live, starting with Kyrgyzstan. He envisions a kind of international ranger school in Hemis, where future guides can learn from the masters. As Phuntsog and Tsering have shown, a few individuals can precipitate major change, but the situation is urgent. ‘One of the things that motivates me is lack of time,’ Larry said. ‘We have no more time. To be able to see snow leopards forever – that’s success.’
The day after our first sighting, a spotter found a mother and two cubs resting high on a slope. We took up position across the valley, watching for hours through scopes while the cats stretched lazy paws and tails. As afternoon faded, the photographers, citing the dimming light, headed back to camp, but I stayed on with the guides and spotters. These veterans of countless sightings still gasped with excitement as the cubs chased each other over ridges and hid behind tufts of vegetation, practising their stalking and pouncing.
‘This is one of the great sightings,’ Tsering said. ‘To see cubs playing…’ He shook his head, at a loss for words.
In the dusk, the family turned to faint silhouettes, vanishing as snow leopards will. I followed Larry back to camp, our iPhones lighting the way. Peter Matthiessen was right – it is enough that the snow leopard is. To see one is better than enough, an overflowing of good fortune. To see what I’d seen was an unthinkable abundance. We know the snow leopard is vulnerable, but it knows nothing of this. The snow leopard only knows it has been born to walk on mountaintops.
Voygr Expeditions runs 11- and 14-day snow leopard trips in India’s Hemis National Park in February and March from £5,340 per person, including accommodation in a remote heated camp and three nights at a hotel such as ITC’s Hotel Shambhala in Leh. It also runs private tours from November to May. voygr.com
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