The snow leopard is so elusive it is often referred to as the phantom of the peaks.
“Nature is beautiful and full of surprises”, I said to a group of young school students. We were at Chomaling, a pasture close to Kibber village in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh. I was participating in a nature education camp and students from schools all around Spiti were attending. Also in this group of students was Takpa, a young boy studying at the school in Kibber, who was now a friend and also my neighbour in the village.
The pasture was in full bloom. For three months during spring, flowers of every hue appear in this otherwise stark landscape. We had spent all day observing them and exploring the pasture, looking for signs of other wildlife. After a full day, we had just got back in our tents when we heard a commotion outside. It was Tenzin the ‘lukzi’ (livestock herder) and he was panting hard.
Tenzin’s job was to gather all the livestock in the village every morning and take them to the pastures to graze. Every evening he would round them up and bring them back to the village. ‘Snow Leopard! I just saw one, not very far from here. I was gathering the livestock, when I saw him resting on the cliff. He might still be around’, Tenzin exclaimed.
Both Takpa and I were excited. The snow leopard is so elusive it is often referred to as the phantom of the peaks. These high, rugged mountains provide snow leopards with the perfect habitat. In these precipitous cliffs snow leopards are skilled at hunting down nimble-footed blue sheep and ibex. If ever there was a chance of sighting one, this was it!
Without a second thought, Takpa and I grabbed our binoculars and ran out of the tent. Within minutes we were at the place Tenzin had described.
There was an unusual silence in the air. Careful not to make the slightest sound, we scanned the surrounding cliffs through our binoculars. Nothing. Then, I felt a nudge on my shoulder. ‘There’s some movement. There!’
Takpa had spotted something. My hands were shivering as I set my binoculars to my eyes. I could see it too: a group of blue sheep.
Blue sheep are commonly found in these slopes. They move around in a flock, which makes them safer from the attentions of hungry snow leopards, wolves and foxes.
‘What a beautiful sight, no? Look, there seem to be some young lambs that are just a few weeks old’ Takpa said. ‘Yes. But I’ve seen blue sheep before. I was hoping to see a snow leopard; I can’t believe we missed it by only 15 minutes!’ I was terribly disappointed.
‘Well, nature is beautiful and full of surprises’ Takpa quipped.
Picture: Snow Leopards caught by an automatically-triggered camera
Credit: Himachal Pradesh Forest Department/NCF-SL