THE SNOW LEOPARD: In Search of the World’s Most Elusive Cat

WHAT: Search for The Snow Leopard

In the high-altitude heart of the Himalayan mountains, rules a stealthy, powerful, phantom feline. It’s the wildlife photographer’s “Holy Grail” animal, and the quintessential lucky sighting. It is solitary, shy, and doesn’t like posing for photos. It is the Panther Uncia, AKA, the “Grey Ghost,” AKA – The Snow Leopard. Searching for a wild snow leopard  is, say Himalayan guides, a moving meditation. Seeing one – a privileged spiritual experience.

 

Snow Leopard looking toward camera
The Snow Leopard AKA “The Grey Ghost.”     Photo Credit: Wyssu. Fotolia

Indigenous shamans believe the creature to be the chosen physical format of individuals reincarnated to erase past life sins. As well as paying for the sin of its murder, anyone who kills one absorbs the karmic debt the creature came to earth to settle.

To conservationists, the snow leopard is the poster child for all trophy creatures fallen victim to their own beauty. Threatened by poaching and habitat destruction, this iconic predator numbers less than 10,000 wild individuals, with numbers falling.

The Holy Grail of Wildlife Photography

Then, there’s another group who wish to shoot them, but thankfully just through a long lens. To a hardy group of wildlife photographers with the means, motivation, and physical fitness required to stand a chance of glimpsing this scarcest of creatures, venturing into the freezing Himalayan thin air is a small price to pay. However, despite their enthusiasm, the scarcity of footage and photographs of wild snow leopards speaks for itself.

 

snow leopard walking through snow
Locals Believe Snow Leopards to be Reincarnations of Those Returned to Settle Karmic Debts.          Photo Credit: www.worldwildlife.org
HOW

The hide-and-seek world champion

In the highly unlikely event you enter the creatures range, the snow leopards’ camouflage, combined with its ability to remain motionless for long periods, makes it nigh on impossible to distinguish from the immense, snowy backdrop. In the search for the wild snow leopard, many try, but few succeed. Even after years spent hunkered down at altitude in the Himalayan snow.

For example, Peter Matthiessen was a naturalist, wilderness writer, Zen teacher, and CIA officer. In his critically acclaimed book The Snow Leopard, he shares an account of his exhaustive search for the cat in on the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas. Although the book won a string of literary awards, his quest to see a wild snow leopard failed. As a result, many naturalists assumed if a CIA-trained nature ninja, along with countless big-name, well-funded wildlife documentarians came back empty-handed, what hope was there?

 

Snow leopard photograph taken by Steve Winter
Wildlife photographer Steve Winter waited nearly six months to get this shot, taken when a Snow Leopard triggered a camera trap in the remote North Indian mountains.   Photo Credit: Steve Winter.

The Ultimate Lucky Sighting

Well, there is indeed hope. But first, the following disclaimer: The most experienced guides in the business make it clear from the outset that seekers should count their stars if they even stumble across a paw-print. And there are no refunds.

However, as time passes, and local guides gain a better understanding of their habits and habitats, the chances of seeing one have risen, albeit marginally. Wild snow leopard corridors have been identified. So have the times and seasons during which the cat is likely to descend to lower ground. With local knowledge, trained trackers, spotting scopes, zoom lenses, perseverance, and a supernatural amount of luck, you may just get a glimpse.

 

snow leopard walking through mountains
Only around 10,000 Snow Leopards are Thought To Exist in the Wild.         Photo Credit: Daniel Muenger
WHERE

Between 10-15,000 ft among the cold, rocky clifftops and plateaus of Asia. Namely, Tibet, Mongolia, China, India, Nepal, and some of the surrounding ’”Stans.”

Despite zero guarantees, in recent years Ladakh’s Hemis National Park in Northern India, and Nepal’s Shey Phoksundo National Park have emerged as the best place to see snow leopards.

 

Photographer in snowy mountains
The Snow Leopard habitat range covers 2 million km2 and extends into 12 countries. Each cat’s hunting range is between 50-80 square miles.     Photo Credit: Darter Photography
RISKS
  • Freezing cold environments
  • Thin air
  • Avalanches and Falls
  • Other standard mountaineering hazards
REWARDS
  • Hang out in the Himalayas.
  • Bring attention to snow leopard’s ongoing struggles.
  • Score the cover of National Geographic.
A snow leopard on a ridge
“Panther Uncia” – The Hide and Seek World Champion.    Photo Credit: Behzad J. Larry

 

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