Eye witness- Tracking the elusive Snow Leopard in India’s Kargil

By Aishwarya Maheshwari,
as told to Nikita Aggarwal and Ameen Ahmed

I was on the frontier of India’s remotest wildness, where few humans have treaded before and fewer to study wildlife. Kargil, among largest districts of India, is best known in recent history for the major military conflict that occurred here in 1999. This unfortunately overshadowed the region’s rich wildlife. For, it is here that one of world’s most elusive creatures- the Snow Leopard, roams wild and free. To highlight this wildlife, I chose the district with Drass sector as the site of my project, despite the fact that I had to scour through 12,000 sq km of cold desert, which is frozen for much of the year. During my interaction with locals, I learnt about the tremendous decline in their (locals’) wildlife sightings, post-1999. They claimed even the common local resident birds had disappeared. Fortunately the situation was improving these days, they added.

I had been carefully walking and observing Kargil’s hills for a month now and 13 June 2009 was like any other day in the field for me. This day, we had started at 7:30 in the morning from the village Kanji which is located 3850 m above sea level and nearly 70 km by road from Kargil town. I fought my way up against nature, in this part of the Himalaya Mountains along with my field assistants - three local youth, one of whom was a forest guard. We had already ascended 350 mts and my legs felt like lead as we meandered through cold barren peaks that glistened with the omnipresent snow on their crowns. These mountains are inter-spread with sporadic plantations and scrubs. They have no charming green tree cover, as they are located above the tree line. Yet, they are beautiful in their own way.

Four km into the trek we came across a herd of Asiatic Ibex (Capra ibex sibrica), a species of mountain goat. At some distance, a 4600 m high mountain looked down at us as we stalked the herd. I decided to follow them and maintained distance, ensuring the disturbance was bare minimum. But following them was an extreme challenge, as the terrain had broken ridges and I had to cross the river and steep valley nearly seven times. My field assistants were not very excited with the idea of climbing up and down these steep mountains in biting cold ‘all for a few wild goats’, as one of them put it. 

As we moved along the dusty, rocky path, I was getting indirect evidences of the presence of carnivores. I could see signs of Snow Leopard and Tibetian Wolf (Canis lupus chanco) – pugmarks and scat, and hence decided to keep walking. As the herd of wild goats stopped on a hill, I decided to be on the one opposite theirs, to let them get used to our presence. My friends went about setting up a tent to rest and also to use it as a camouflage to observe wildlife, as I walked aside a few steps and found a small stone wall, probably built and abandoned by roaming shepherds many years ago. I slowly hid behind it, keeping a close eye on the herd.

There were nearly 30 goats in the herd. I counted two burly males, four females and close to fifteen young ones. The rest were sub-adults. The adults always shielded the young, who remained at the group’s center. They clung on to the rocky cliffs, feasting on the lush grass, which was here in abundance as it was summer. There was peace and danger seemed miles away. The moment was almost surreal.

But these serene moments did not last long. At around 4:40pm, a huge cloud of dust rose from where the Ibex were grazing. The view through my binoculars suddenly became hazy. All I could see was the wild goats running helter-skelter, in almost every direction. It seemed they were blind with fear of something. I wanted to find the reason and desperately panned my binoculars in all directions. But, the dust that arose made it difficult for me to find the cause of this commotion. 

I was excited. This was something I had rarely experienced. My hands trembled. I did not know what to expect. Amidst confusion and specks of dust, I spotted a tail. And…stop! It was not of a wolf. Oh my God, it was a Snow Leopard! The cat had silently stalked the herd, only as a wild cat would do. It had come very close to them without being noticed and charged. But guess what? The goats actually outsmarted it and gave it a miss. They quickly reappeared on a nearby ridge. But surprisingly, they went back to what they were doing minutes away as if nothing had happened. 

After the failed attempt, the Snow Leopard looked tired. It went to a cliff, which looked down on a vast valley of stones and rocks. The air was cold and the sun was setting. 

Soon everyone in my group wanted to have a glimpse of one of the world’s rarest cats. Though they were locals, the field assistants, surprisingly, had never seen one before. The guard had seen it once, six long years ago, but that was probably for just a second.

The Snow Leopard decided to rest. Probably not knowing it was being watched, it stayed put in front of us for seven minutes. It was about 300-400m from me and I was tempted to go closer and capture the animal forever in my mind and in my camera. But I wanted it to enjoy its freedom, unhindered. Hence, I did not to go near it. At the end of the shortest seven minutes of my life, the Snow Leopard got up and went to the other side of the hill and away from our sight. But I was still hopeful. I wanted to repeat my ‘Ibex act’. I followed the Ibex herd as I thought the Snow Leopard would comeback to hunt them. Into near darkness, I waited near the herd for 2 hours, but to no avail. It did not return.

Early next morning, I discovered fresh scat when I hiked up the same path again. I also saw some pugmarks but they were unclear because of dense undergrowth. I climbed the same hill, which I had ascended last evening, but there was no Snow Leopard on this day. 

But I am in pursuit of this cat for another 10 months and I am sure luck will smile on me again. In the process of documenting the Snow Leopard, I have also had the chance to observe Ladakh Urial (Ovig vignei), Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), Longtailed Marmot (Marmota caudats) and a species of Pika, apart from Tibetian Wolf, as mentioned earlier in the story.
© Klein & Hubert / WWF
© Klein & Hubert / WWF
© Aishwarya Maheshwari/WWF-India
It was about 400 meters away from us.
© Aishwarya Maheshwari/WWF-India
© WWF-India
Aishwarya Maheshwari
© WWF-India

Aishwaraya Maheshwari is a field researcher from WWF-India who is documenting high altitude wildlife in Himalayas since 2007. His current project is 'Study and Distribution of Snow Leopard, its co-predators and their prey in Kargil and Drass, Jammu and Kashmir, India.' 
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