by Ranjini Murali
In the high mountains of Central Asia, where the climate is too harsh for even trees to grow, lives an animal almost as mythical as the Yeti. This is the Snow Leopard, the most elusive of the big cats.
Peering through my binoculars, I was sure I was looking at this fabled animal.
“There! Can you see? It’s resting, just below the cliff”
“That’s a rock!” my friend Thilley, replied.
We were in the Spiti Valley, one of the few places where snow leopards live in the world. In India, they live in the cold deserts of the trans-Himalayas. The temperature was -20°C and we were lucky, as in winter it could go as low as -40°C. By contrast, summers, occasionally get as warm as 30°C: talk about extremes!
The sounds of humans drifted up in the wind. They can be so noisy! I lazily opened an eye, and sure enough I could see them clumsily trudging up the path. Slipping, stumbling, huffing, and puffing. It must be cold, I realized. I could see them rubbing their palms together and shuffling from foot to foot when they stood still. I like the cold; I’m built for it, with my thick fur. I wrapped my long tail snugly around myself and settled down to watch.
A herd of bharal , a wild sheep, was grazing on the steep slope directly opposite us. “Maybe if we watch them, we might see the snow leopard,” Thilley said. Snow leopards are carnivores and in Spiti bharalsare their favourite prey. “They might be difficult to catch. Look at that steep slope!” I said.
Difficult to catch? Ha! I felt insulted. I thought for a moment of showing them what’s what. But my tummy was still full from the meal I had the other day, and I wasn’t hungry. That had been a tough chase, but in the end I had managed to catch the wily little fellow. I knew he was the one I wanted when I first saw him from the distance. He was smaller than the rest, and was grazing a bit away from the herd. Big mistake. I crouched low and crept as close to the herd as I could, slowly slowly, without them seeing or smelling me. When I finally leapt forward he looked up, startled, then turned and ran. The game was on. A mix of snow and dust swirled behind us as we ran up the steep mountain. He made a sharp turn, jumping over a rock, and ran in the opposite direction, trying to shake me off. I turned as well and my long tail helped me maintain my balance. I was gaining on him. When I was close enough, I stretched out a paw and tripped him. He stumbled. Before he could regain balance, I was on him. That had been a heady experience. My heartbeat accelerated in excitement, thinking of it. Ah, the thrill of the chase!
While the bharal might not be too keen on seeing a snow leopard, I was very eager. Shivering in the cold, I carefully scanned the cliffs, binoculars pressed to my eyes. With a jolt, I thought I saw the swish of a tail.
“There! Thilley, there! It just moved its tail!”
“That’s another rock!”
I had to smile at that. They were looking in the wrong direction. Turn around! But even if they did, they wouldn’t have seen me. I am the master of camouflage and neither humans nor prey can spot me, unless I wish them to. No wonder the humans around here call me Nono, the king of the mountains.
I was learning the hard way why it was called the Elusive Cat, the Ghost of the Mountains, a Mythical Creature. Snow leopards were definitely not easy to spot!
Or maybe you are not looking carefully enough.
The elusive big cat
These large cats make their home at 3,000 to 5,400 metres above sea level across the mountains of Central Asia.
China has more than 60% of the snow leopard population, which extends across 12 countries.
They most often hunt wild sheep and wild goats, including bharal, Asiatic ibex, and argali.
They are the only large cats that don’t roar!
They are threatened by poaching, loss of habitat (most severely by mining) and decline of prey.
Picture: A snow leopard in Chitral,Pakistan and (below) one in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh.
Credit: AP and NCF/SLT