In Search of The Snow Leopards Of Ladakh
The snow leopard, locally known as shan or the grey ghost of the Himalayas, is one of the world’s rarest, least seen and most exciting big cats. Primarily an opportunistic hunter, snow leopards have been known to leap up to 50 feet high and are able to kill and carry up to three times their body weight. They are typically found in the high mountain ranges of Central and South Asia and are an endangered species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They are particularly difficult to see in the wild because of the remote and rugged terrain they live in and their excellently camouflaged coat.
In recent years, the Ladakh region of the Indian Himalayas has emerged as one of the best areas in the world to see this most elusive of big cats, with past trips typically involving camping in the high mountain valleys and searching one locality for the snow leopards. What makes this tour different is that we spread our search over two different snow leopard habitats: The Hemis National Park and the Ulley Valley thus increasing the chance of an encounter. In addition, rather than camping, we use a series of local homestays providing heated rooms, home-cooked food and the opportunity to meet some of Ladakh’s fascinating and friendly people.
The timing of this group trip is crucial because in the bitter cold months of January, February and March, blue sheep, the primary prey of the snow leopard, descend down to the lower valleys where the leopards follow them. The lower valleys have human inhabitants too so their livestock also provides prey for snow leopards at this time. Ladakh is also home to other exciting and hardy species that may be seen on the tour including the sandy coloured Tibetan wolf, fluffy Tibetan red fox, Eurasian lynx, argali (great Tibetan sheep), bharal (blue sheep), shapu (Ladakhi urial) and Asiatic ibex. There are also some spectacular birds including the peculiar ibisbill, lammergeier (bearded vulture), Himalayan griffon vulture, golden eagle and Himalayan snowcock and Tibetan partridge.
The 2017 group had a very successful trip with 5 different snow leopards seen, almost daily sightings and one extremely rare sighting of a family of four snow leopards together (click to see our 2017 snow leopard tour report). With such a rare and elusive animal and a reliance on local conditions, luck plays a huge role with sightings but we feel this group provides one of the best chances of glimpsing snow leopards in the wild.