A New Year’s Snow Leopard Encounter

This post first appeared on Snow Leopard Trust’s blog.

Our team in India’s Spiti Valley was treated to an extraordinary sighting of the elusive Ghost of the Mountain on a recent field visit. For Research Associate Ajay Bijoor, it was the first encounter with the cat he’s dedicated his life and career to. Read his account of an unforgettable day – and watch the amazing video footage the team managed to capture! 

The first day of Losar—the Spitian New Year—had brought the season’s first hint of snow. For most locals, this was an auspicious sign following a difficult year that had seen scant snow fall, a heavy shortage of water and a fall in crop yields in almost every village in Spiti valley.

Three of us—Thinley (our Spitian field coordinator), Raghunath (our GIS expert, on his first trip to Spiti) and I—decided to start the New Year with a visit to the villages of Gete and Tashigang. These small villages, only five households each, are nestled along a cluster of agricultural fields and surrounded by steep cliffs.

local-people-are-largely-indifferent-to-red-fox-presence-in-and-around-villages-as-also-is-this-cow-while-the-red-fox-feeds-right-next-to-it-gete-villageGete village in Spiti. Photo: NCF India

 

 

On the slopes above, one can frequently see herds of blue sheep – the snow leopard’s main prey in this area. In the last few years, locals had reported a great deal of damage one to their crops by blue sheep. After validating their claims, our team had helped appoint local guards from the villages to protect the fields against crop damage. Both villages performed this task communally and were happy with the measure taken. In fact, the main purpose for our visit now was to review their work from the previous year and pay honorariums to the villagers for their efforts.

 

 

paying-honorarium-to-crop-guard-in-geteRaghunath is paying a honorarium to a Gete crop guard

 

 

Having finished our meetings with the community of Tashigang, we had reached Gete in the afternoon. We gathered inside the house of one of the villagers. Most villagers—in all 10—were in the house with us. The New Year celebrations had concluded just a few hours ago, and the mood was festive.

 

 

village-meeting-in-geteThe village meeting in Gete

 

 

After having discussed the work and made plans for the next year, we decided to head back to our base in Kibber. It was close to 4 p.m. The sun was just about to set and the wind was picking up. Once the sun disappears behind the high hills in these parts, there is a significant and sudden drop in temperatures. As we all stood outside the house we had gathered in to say our goodbyes, we spotted a herd of blue sheep on the slope to our left.

 

 

kullu-blue-sheep-bharal-mountain-1Blue sheep (also known as bharal) are a key snow leopard prey species in Spiti. Once rare, they’ve become more abundant in recent years thanks to NCF’s work in the area.

 

 

This was exciting because rutting season was approaching – the male sheep in herd could be seen sniffing at the females, making their presence felt. As we looked at the herd through the single binocular we were carrying, our host told us about a large male blue sheep that had been hunted down a week back. There were two snow leopards. They too celebrated New Year’s with a sumptuous kill, he giggled.

Villagers here had often reported seeing snow leopards nearby, and our camera traps have verified the cat’s presence as well.

 

 

get-camera-trap-picA snow leopard roaming around Gete village

 

 

We were preparing to head out, when Thinley froze in his steps.

What’s that?, he said. He was pointing to the ridge in front of us. This was about two hundred meters away and one could only see silhouettes along the ridge.

Boulders, I shot back.

No, I think it’s a snow leopard.

Thinley has this uncanny knack of pulling a quick one on me. Especially when it comes to seeing snow leopards. In the five years I have spent in Spiti working on protecting these cats, I have never actually seen one!

No, it is a snow leopard! There was a quiver in his voice. This was not his banter tone.

Looking at the silhouettes of boulders, Thinley had noticed that one of them had something that looked like ears. Even without binoculars, and at 200 meters’ distance, he was pretty certain that he had spotted  a snow leopard sitting on the ridgeline. Our excitement grew.

Raghunath scanned the ridgeline with the binocular. Yes, snow leopard!

When the binocular came to me, I could barely contain my excitement. As I caught my first glimpse, I noticed some movement. There are two, I beamed. As I said that, I could see both snow leopards rub their faces against each other,  in the way you only ever see in wildlife documentaries.

 

 

spiti-encounter-featuredNot just, one but TWO snow leopards for Ajay’s first-ever encounter!

 

 

Ah, I told you they were around. They are almost like residents of our village. Let me take a look, said our host.

After him, all of the villagers who had gathered around looked at the local snow leopards through the binocular. After about half an hour, the cats finally got up and walked down the ridge, into the cliffs.

The three of us moved towards the ridge. As we reached the spot where the snow leopards had sat Thinley looked at us and said, I’ll be right back.

I knew he would try to walk down the cliffs and chance his luck with seeing the snow leopards again. After all, you don’t see them every day, do you?

Walking in these cliffs is not for the faint of heart. Raghunath simply turned away, while I watched Thinley walk along. Like most other Spitians, he walks (or even runs) down these cliffs with ease—almost like a snow leopard. After he had walked some distance, I saw Thinley squat. The wind had picked up, and it was getting darker. I couldn’t see much, but it seemed as though he was putting his camera to use. With the light fading, the temperature must have dipped below freezing by the time Thinley returned a few minutes later.

Saw anything? I asked.

He smiled wisely as he handed me the camera and began to rub his freezing hands. This is what I saw on the screen:

 

 

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