When the cat did not have its fill

Or How apparently harmless human presence can disturb an elusive carnivore

by Rishi Kumar Sharma

(Rishi is in field at the moment with little access to email and I am posting this on his behalf)

It was a usual summer morning at Spiti; the first rays of the sun were illuminating the tops of the lofty mountain peaks as if pouring vermillion over the ridgelines. Still cuddled in my sleeping bag with a chilly breeze slapping my face, I was not sure if I wanted to leave the cozy warmth and start out for the day. However the increasing brightness at the eastern horizon seemed to be making a silent promise for a warm, bright and sunny day. Oblivious of these human dilemmas a snow leopard had been slowly and deftly stalking its prey somewhere in the mountains. In an hour I was out in the mountains with my team of the high altitude program at NCF. Soon we sighted an all male group of 36 blue sheep on a ridgeline basking and enjoying the warmth of the morning sun.

All male Blue Sheep group
All male Blue Sheep group

A few males had very large re-curved horns and Sushil (our field coordinator) took no time in passing the verdict that they would not survive the winters as they were too old and weak and would soon find themselves on the plate of a hungry snow leopard.  We watched the group for half an hour; the males were very content with their present activity and did not appear to give any importance to our presence. I moved a bit closer and took a picture; a beautiful moment in the mountainous canvass of nature was now captured forever in my camera. Moving on we came across another small group of blue sheep, two females, this time perched on a steep slope much above us. I had always envious of the ability of my field assistants to spot animals that to me look like mere specks without the aid of binoculars. Since we were in a rugged terrain, we were hopeful of seeing a few Ibex as well. Another hour of search did not lead us to any Ibex, but suddenly I spotted a few vultures (Himalayan griffons) in the mountains about a mile away. Vultures are almost a sure sign of a snow leopard kill and thus filled with excitement and expectation, we headed in their direction. Soon we reached a flat mountain base which had a few “dongri’s” (summer camps for agriculture) scattered around. From here we could gain a clear view of the hillside that seemed to be bustling with vultures mainly Himalayan Griffons.

in flightlittle away from the kill

From our binoculars we could see a kill, but could not clearly make out what exactly it was. Sushil was soon out of the group, chatting with the people at the “dongri” and he signaled to me to come over. The young lad there was eloquently narrating interesting anecdotes. He and his father had arrived at the fields early in the morning and the boy had seen a snow leopard sitting very close to a dead horse. Excited, he called up his father and both of them climbed up to the area to where the snow leopard was. The snow leopard however refused to budge from his place until these people reached very close and made a lot of noise, shouting and screaming at the beautiful cat. At this, the cat retreated slowly and unwillingly and vanished into the mountains.

However, I must point out that these people did not mean any harm to the cat. Even the people who have lived all their life in the mountains seldom get to see this mysterious cat. Hence they were probably very excited at having seen one at such a close distance and could not resist the temptation to get closer. I could also see from their expressions that they were probably a little scared to having moved in so close to the cat and since they explained everything to me in such a detail I had little reasons to doubt them. When I was told that the animal had only a short stump instead of a full grown tail, I knew it was “Cut tail” and this area was a part of his large home range. Only a few days back I had captures of “Cut tail” in one of my camera traps. There were some cliffs about 500 meters from the kill site and I was sure that the cat might be hiding somewhere there watching us and its prey which the vultures were now gorging upon. I took out my binoculars and Sushil and I set out to scan the mountains.

There was no sign of the cat. The cliffs though were good as a vantage point, they afforded little protection or hiding place for the snow leopard and we concluded that the cat would have moved to the other side of the mountains due to constant presence of humans. By now a group of labourers had also arrived to repair a water channel and with that my hope of the cat returning to the kill in broad daylight faded away. I decided to go and inspect the kill and climbed up to the site. It was a young horse in prime health and must have been 3-4 years old.

There was no hiding place or cover from the kill to the cliffs and I began wondering how much time and energy the cat would have invested in stealthily approaching close enough to its quarry to make the kill in such an open space. From here I could put the pieces of the puzzle together. The snow leopard would have had to spent a lot of time and energy first to come close enough to the horse and then to bring it down. The neck bite of two neat canines was fairly clear and a bone had been pulled out of the throat. Tired and exhausted the snow leopard must have been resting before it could start feeding, when it got disturbed by people and had to leave. There were no signs of feeding by the snow leopard and its unwillingness to leave even when approached at a close distance by people were a clear indication of the fact that it had not managed to eat the horse it would have struggled to bring down.

The elusive "Cut tail"
The elusive “Cut tail”

I decided to return to the field camp to fetch my camera traps. I was sure that a hungry snow leopard would return to its kill if not in broad daylight, then definitely in the dark of the night. When I returned with the cameras four hours later, the vultures had finished the kill and only bones remained with a few thin layers of meat still clinging to them. After setting up a few cameras; camouflaged and strategically placed, we returned to the mountain base, requesting the people there not to make too much of a noise and not to light up fires outside the hutments. The next morning I went up to check my camera traps.

There was no sign of snow leopard, no pugmarks, nothing. One set of tracks revealed that a red fox might have visited the kill. On returning to the base camp I hurriedly punched in the memory cards of the cameras into my computer and ran through some 3000 pictures that the camera had managed to record. I was still hoping that one of these three thousand must be a snow leopard. However that was not the case. A red fox had turned up at the kill sharp at 8:00 pm and stayed at the kill till 4:30 am, followed by the arrival of a Lammergeier vulture at 5:40 am which retreated with a big bone in its beak after probably being harassed by Red Billed Choughs. The cat that made the kill however did not return, hungry as it might have been, now forced to kill another prey, wild or domestic we do not know.

Red fox at the kill
Red fox at the kill