Record breaking snow leopard sightings in Ladakh!

Feb 25, 2013 11:42 am

The snows have been good this year, keeping snow leopards to the lower elevations, and closer to tourist camps in the Husing Valley of Hemis National Park.  Hemis is truly the Snow Leopard Capital of the World, thanks to protection by the J&K Wildlife Department and local villagers who now perceive the cat as an asset instead of a pest to be eliminated.

It had been over three years since I visited Hemis with one of our special Winter Quests for the Snow Leopard, which we have been offering since 2005, in partnership with KarmaQuest Ecotourism & Adventure Travel.  This winter we have two groups, and I joined the first near the end of their stay in the Husing Canyon tented camp along the main trail leading to the small hamlet of Rumbak.  This community is the protector of one of the world’s rarest cats.

Under the diligent guidance of SLC-India Trust’s Jigmet Dadul—whom many consider to be the world’s best leopard spotter—Brian and his wife Pam, Karen, Katrina, Gaye and David had the amazing run of six snow leopard sightings in four days!  On Day One, they watched a female and two nearly full-grown cubs crossing a high ridge, and an adult male, possibly the dominant cat of the area, resting on a rocky outcrop.  The next day they saw a snow leopard moving upslope above the Husing poplar tree plantation, and the following morning they saw another cat on the slopes immediately above camp.  Wow!  In the 1980s, when Darla and I started our work on snow leopards, this would represent 3-4 years worth of sightings.





I was also in luck.  Within 15 minutes of arriving at camp around noon on February 14th  (Valentine’s Day, and peak mating season for the cats) my eyes were glued to a spotting scope taking in a minutely detailed male snow leopard happily asleep on a sunny knoll high above the “camp,” and watched by about 25 excited tourists.   Actually, there were three separate trekking groups, ours, another comprised of 6 or 7 members and one of 17.  The latter were professional photographers from South Africa (with massive 700m + camera lenses), and travel agents from around the world. Fortunately two park wildlife rangers were there to ensure that no one got too close to the cats.  Though the people were a good 250-350 meters away on a nearby ridge, the mass of human eyes hovering over tall tripods and long lenses surely presented a somewhat intimidating image to the cat. In typical cat fashion, he would periodically flick his tail several times, only to fall over and sleep for 10-15 minutes—before some movement from the tourists caught his attention, and he would abruptly sit up and stare intently.


Meanwhile, Jigmet and our group were watching a female on a blue sheep kill stretched out on a scree slope in the cold confines of the Husing Gorge.  Here, the sun barely penetrates during winter, and it feels as icy and cold as a walk-in freezer.  If someone moved abruptly or approached closer than about 130 meters, she would walk upslope to a rocky cliff and sit quietly, all the time carefully watching her kill.  After Jigmet moved the group back from that margin of her comfort zone, she immediately relaxed.  However, her patience was taxed by the two magpies in attendance, constantly alighting on the kill to sneak some meat.  Then she either walked or ran back to lie next to or indeed right over the 2-day old carcass; “Its mine, stay away!“

We returned the following morning, not really expecting her to still be there.  But she was!  And we enjoyed the privilege of spending 6-8 hours quietly observing her alternatively feeding, resting or chasing those pesky magpies.  Clearly, this cat was not about to share her hard-fought meal with any bird, yet she was prepared to tolerate 20 humans watching her every move.  I could not but marvel at her tolerance of the over-abundance of two-footed critters.  Perhaps this is because so few snow leopard hunts actually end in success.

Enjoying the hospitality of a homestay at one of the Rumbak family’s a few days later, I thought back on the 5-8 years it had taken the Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust, SLC-USA, and the wildlife department to favorably turn local attitudes toward this elusive predator.  Now these villagers are earning far more income from tourism-related activities than from herding sheep or goats, which all too often end up in the cat’s belly.  Many households have abandoned keeping small livestock, thereby lessening the pressure on the sparse and fragile vegetative cover, and leaving more forage for blue sheep, the snow leopard’s natural prey. Using the new found cash to send their kids to good schools, they no longer feel the need to throw stones at or otherwise harass snow leopards—who in turn have become remarkably habituated to human presence.

Not so long ago, it would have been a dream to see just one snow leopard during a 10-day winter snow camp, but last year our group had four sightings, and this group ended up with seven.  This is a testament to conservation action, but there are simply no words to express my sense of awe and privilege when this Asian mountain ghost comes into the presence of humans and allows us to marvel at her sheer beauty and superb adaptation for living in this steep, cold mountain desert.


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Harsh weather in Kazakhstan calls for reliable transportation!

Jan 16, 2013 2:38 pm
Our partner and guiding conservation voice in Kazakhstan, Oleg Loginov has updated SLC with the current snow leopard news in his country. Oleg and his wife, Irina, have been integral in establishing the snow leopard as an ecological symbol in Central Asia. In this report of treacherous travel, Oleg expresses the necessity in having a reliable, sturdy car in the mountains of Kazakhstan. Please visit our fundraising page on CrowdRise to donate toward buying a new field vehicle for Oleg.
Now on to his story:
“I only have arrived last night from Katon-Karagay. We went by Sergey Starikov’s very old car “UAZ” (1983). It is a hearty, all-wheel drive minibus with some problems with the brakes and windshield wipers. Also near to Katon-Kargay the back wheel burst. In the full darkness we changed it. The car does not go faster than 90 km/h., therefore it took us 8 hours to get to our destination. On my Nissan it would be much faster, but risky as on passes have not time to clean snow and a wind inflates the big weights of snow through road. Some times we “punched” such “snow hills” literally. But in Katon all is much better. It is much warmer there, more like the Almaty area.
Sergey Starikov with his car in Katon
Sergey and his Minibus en route
We met all research assistants of national park, and discussed the Agreement on cooperation. As a result – on January, 11th we met with the director of the park Erlan Mustafin, who signed the agreement. Now it is necessary to send the Agreement to Astana for the signature by the chairman of the Forest Committee. Employees of park have sent me photos of the snow leopard traces found in the last year near Archaty. Under their data of 2012 in Katon-Karagajsky national park, 10-12 snow leopards were found. But, Vladimir Vorobjev considers that this figure needs to be reduced twice. Till the end of February of a photo-trap we will leave on a ridge of Sarymsakty (great chances to photograph a snow leopard here), and then we will move to ridge Southern Altai area, is closer to border in Russia and China.
 snow leopard trace on Sarymsakty
snow leopard tracks!
Also I have met the manager on a teaching department of Katon-Karagajsky secondary school. She also has approved our program of additional information-ecological education and promised to send her opinion by e-mail. As a whole, our trip was successful and it was possible to meet all necessary people in the winter (unlike the summer period). “
setting camera traps
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Updates from our Nepal Program

Dec 20, 2012 1:34 pm

With the end of the year approaching, our US-based staff has been laden with the gift of updates from our partners abroad! Notably, our Nepal program has been expanding and progressing in exciting ways! Regional director, Som Ale’s reports have shown us that our community engagement plans are both effective and quite fun.

Two things make and keep a society great and long lasting: its people and pristine nature.  ” -Som Ale

Many great societies of past (for example, Mayan, Egyptian, Easter Island societies) collapsed because of the environmental collapse due to habitat destruction and over harvest of local biota.  The notion that man and nature are inseparably bound in an intricate web of interrelationships and interdependencies should be realized and essentially percolated into minds of people from young age.  This level of awareness and education should start with young students and depends on how they interact with nature in the outdoors – that is, they learn much in the field.  We believe in experiential learning.  In other words, “field is the classroom”.

The education component of snow leopard project in Nepal has been to organize school youth, as snow leopard scouts, so they have collective voice in raising awareness in their local communities and society at large.  The program trains and supports high school youths (Snow Leopard Scouts) to work with local teachers, guardians, park rangers, livestock herders, and other stakeholders, in community-based wildlife monitoring targeting snow leopards and prey species.  Snow leopard scouts work with herders, their parents, and other community stakeholders.  The hidden agenda is to help curtail people-wildlife conflicts, exacerbated by lack of awareness and commitment to wildlife conservation on some segments of local population. The Conservancy has reached two objectives:

1. Elevate local students’ awareness level on snow leopards and local biodiversity by conducting special students’ snow leopard/environmental camp while delivering a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” featuring wildlife watching, essay-writing and nature drawing

2. Create a net-work of young snow leopard scouts who promote snow leopard conservation

And in 2013 we plan to reach our final objective:

3. Make the snow leopard network self sustainable at the regional level so the network runs the activities at local level on its own.







The snow leopard scouts program has been and will continue to be popular not only among students but also among guardians, park and buffer zone authorities in Everest. Activities in several frontiers have been recommended –
– Continue the environmental workshop and field-excursion, every year, in which new batch of students will get exposure.
– Continue publication of snow leopard scouts booklet series.
– Find mechanisms for self-sustainability (Already, a portion of the interest of the snow leopard savings and credit program comes directly to support snow leopard scouts activities)
– Equip students with cameras to track snow leopards.

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News from Tshewang and Rodney from Bhutan

Dec 11, 2012 5:43 pm

On Tuesday, October 16, Rodney Jackson posted on his Facebook page:

“I’m off to Thimpu, Bhutan for three weeks to work with our partners to establish a community-based stewardship program. I will report back at the earliest opportunity!”

Here is the first report on the trip from Tshewang Wangchuk, the executive director of the Bhutan Foundation and member of the board of the Snow Leopard Conservancy:

Rodney and I made the two day trek into the mountains and are now in Soe Dangojang, at the base of Mt. Jumolhari, Bhutan’s sacred mountain.

For the last two days we were working with local communities, the park officials and other government officials to discuss details of a community-led snow leopard conservation program for the region. Today we will hike with community members to set up their camera traps. We will then cross the ridge, two lakes, a big pass and then move to the next community, Soe Yaksa.

During the day we get clear blue skies, great view of the peaks, but night time temperatures are well below freezing. Cell phone coverage is amazing here, but the internet is very very slow – so we will send pictures later. However from today we are behind another mountian so there will be no cell phone coverage.

There is a lot of snow leopard activity in the region and the people are excited about working together to minimize yak mortality, increase their income, and conserve snow leopards.

Will send you more updates once we have better access to the internet, which will only be around the 29th or so. Best wishes from the base of Mt. Jumolhari where the yaks are strong, the snow leopards thriving, and internet rather slow (but at least we have it).

Yakse village viewKnot exercise_Soe


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There and Back Again: An Update from the Altai, September 2012

Dec 11, 2012 5:34 pm

Greetings from Gorno-Altaisk, the capital city of the Altai Republic. We arrived here three days ago and it really feels like an emergence into the modern world. The streets are bustling with people living their city lives, destinations in mind, plans to meet and people to see. Gorno is a picturesque city, nestled between rolling green hills and lined with trees, changing with the arrival of autumn–the city will turn on the heat soon, warming the lives of the Siberians who endure a frigidly cold winter that lasts until May.

It couldn’t have been a better time to arrive, as we got to celebrate the 84th birthday of the city with what seemed like the whole population last night. The city square (where the Snow Leopard Day Festival will be held in just one week) transformed into a stage filled with music, dance, light shows and fireworks. Children sat on shoulders, teenagers pushed through the crowd, old women watched in awe and we just soaked it all in.
We are staying in the apartment of our translator, Natalya and her two young daughters. Much time is spent in humorous ways of communication: funny faces, humming and singing, and the very few words any of us know in our non-native tongues. Kids are always the most fun to communicate with when there is a lack of linguistic relation.

Now that I’ve brought you up to speed with current life, let’s go back two weeks to where I last left you.

We left Kosh-Agach after helping in the museum interviewing students, teachers, and local conservationists. This is a much deserved shout-out to Alice, SLC volunteer, who has been a great help throughout the trip, especially when it comes to entertaining the unusual amount of babies that have been present during our interviews. Without her, our film would be laden with the hiccups, screams, laughs, and chirps of Russian infants. And more notably, Alice has contributed countless valuable questions that will enrich and further our understanding of the development of SLC’s work in the Altai.
Our journey back along the road that we came signified the turning of our trip toward the our ascent back to the States. Chiminsky Pass, the paved two-lane highway that cuts through the Altai mountains, is said to have been built  on the bodies of the Russians who did the work, which means this highway was extremeley dangerous and difficult to build but now allows access into some of the most remote territories on earth.

The thick clouds dispersed in front of a beautifully sunny day made for some of the most dramatic scenery as we twisted down in elevation to our next destination, Chui-Oozy, a small eco-tourism settlement. Before arriving, we witnessed the most breathtaking double rainbow in the existence of my little life. We all sat in awe, in the middle of the empty highway, staring, mouths open.

We spent three days in Chui-Oozy, under the hospitality of Galina, a kind-eyed Altaian woman who let us interview her about tourism and her perspective of the current issues in the Altai and her hopes for the future. We also  visited a petroglyph site that depicted life up to 15,000 years ago. Wild animals, people, and the heavens were all strewn about the rocks–such ancient history so tangible and present. I felt human, and a part of such a truly amazing history of human consciousness.

We left Chui-Oozy, toward Inegen, a small settlement along a truly terrifying road that, as the locals told us, government officials won’t even travel. To travel this road was the best choice we could have made. Inegen is a magical place, as if from a fairytale you only fantasized about as a child. Set along the jade-green Khatun River and nestled in a lush, green valley between tall, protective mountains, Inegen probably only has 100-200 residents. It’s unique placement in the Argut River Valley, is a microclimate, perfectly abundant with healthy soil, sunshine and rain to have endless gardens. Each house is enveloped in green, thick gardens bursting with colorful flowers, perfectly delicious produce, and apple trees bearing the most crisp, sweet fruit.

We stayed in Irbis Eco-lodge, a small settlement on the outskirts of town owned by Olga and Slava, a sweet couple who have lived in Inegen all of their lives. I was gleeful, admiring the craftsmenship of their wooden yurts and felt blessed to spend a week sleeping in these round homes that I have had the aspiration to build ever since I spent time in Mongolia. With a sweet little dog named Malush (little one, in Russian), a fuzzy, furry white goat, and a lone horse, we spent our days enjoying the simplicity and quietness of life in Inegen. Again, we were greeted by the town with a curiosity that turned in to honest hospitality. And we met people passionate about saving the snow leopard and protecting the land that these people share with the wild animals of the Altai. We visited the school, visited peoples’ homes and shared countless cups of tea, homemade bread and jams, preserved vegetables and various salads.

It was hard to leave this place as this is the life I strive to live: simple, honoring nature and our place in the family of things, harvesting food grown in the yard, building the home I live in.

We left as dawn broke on Friday and as our trusty Russian utility van left the last of the bumpy, unpaved, dirt roads to be traveled on this trip, I felt a wave of nostalgia (already!) for the unpaved life, the gritty, the unpredictable, the undeveloped–a life that I revel in each time I leave the comfort of my own.


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