Phantom Of The Snow: On The Trail Of The Elusive Snow Leopard

Ulley village in Leh is a key habitat for the endangered Snow Leopard. Conservation efforts focus on preserving the balance between nature and Ladakhi culture
Snow leopards are often called the “ghosts of the Himalayas” because they spend most of their lives in solitude
Snow leopards are often called the “ghosts of the Himalayas” because they spend most of their lives in solitudePhoto: Shutterstock

It was 7 in the morning, and time stood still in Leh's Ulley village. Tsewang Norbu, an expert "spotter," had his eyes glued to his telescope, scouring the endless folds of the mountains around him. His target? The legendary snow leopard (shan in Ladakhi), the "ghost of the Himalayas," a creature so elusive it seems to exist only in whispers and fleeting shadows.

"Being patient is crucial," Norbu whispered, his eyes focused on the faraway mountains. "Sometimes, it takes weeks for us to spot a snow leopard. They excel at blending into the rocks, almost like ghosts."

We met Norbu sometime in December 2023 in Ulley, approximately two hours away from Leh. The village is in the Sham region of central Ladakh, located north of the Indus River, and consists of six families, housing around 40 or so residents. Having spent two days acclimatising in the capital of Ladakh, a crucial step for adjusting to the high altitudes, we embarked on our journey to Ulley, curated by Sublime Wilderness Odyssey, a Bangalore-based safari travel company specialising in offering private experiences.

“I founded Sublime Wilderness Odyssey to share my love for nature with others through exclusive safari experiences. The company is born from my passion for conservation, and aims to offer unique encounters while preserving the natural world,” said Uzma Irfan, founder of Sublime Wilderness Odyssey and director of corporate communications at Prestige Group.

Spotting The Ghost

Adorned in an olive-green jacket and military-style cargo pants, Norbu is always armed with powerful binoculars. He joins the village's team of trackers during the early mornings and evenings; each focused on a different point in the valley with spotting telescopes. These trackers are all local men from Ulley and neighbouring villages, such as Saspochey and Hemis-Shukpachan.

Also, like the other residents of Ulley, Norbu—in addition to being a spotter—is engaged in farming and sheep herding. Since childhood, he has dealt with high altitudes, scarce resources, and encounters with the snow leopard.

"I worked as a shepherd with my dad since I was 9," Norbu recalled when I asked about his initial encounters with a snow leopard. "If we stopped for tea or got distracted, the snow leopard would attack a goat. So, we always had to keep an eye on the mountains," Norbu further explained as he sat on a foldable camping chair to ease his legs.

Suddenly, the sharp howl of a mountain wolf ripped through the stillness, shattering the quiet like a gunshot. Norbu's body sprang to life as he swiftly stood up, turning his telescope towards the sound.

"Ebo shan enok! (it's a snow leopard)!" he boomed, his voice laced with excitement. "It's a snow leopard chasing away a wolf!"

His words startled the group, and instantly, every telescope aligned with his gaze. And there they were, not just one but two. One lay against a rock, its black spots faint against the granite backdrop. The other, displaying primal elegance, tore into its prey, likely a blue sheep (bharal) or an ibex.

Elation erupted among us. Handshakes and backslaps celebrated Norbu's triumph—the season's first sighting. Rigzin Dolkar, another spotter, served steaming mugs of masala chai and local biscuits (puli), warming our hands and spirits.

"Siblings, I think," Norbu declared, eyes glued to the lens, "sharing their kill."

The next few hours were a flurry of activity. Cameras clicked, phones whirred, capturing every twitch and movement. Yet, the cruel two-kilometre distance mocked our efforts. Our photos were blurry outlines, mere echoes of the unfolding reality.

Buddhist stupas on the outskirts of Leh en route Ulley
Buddhist stupas on the outskirts of Leh en route UlleyPhoto: Vikram Sharma

After a quick lunch, the true adventure commenced. A 15-minute jeep ride and a bone-chilling 20-minute trek up a slope brought us within a kilometre of the leopards. Word had already spread to nearby areas, and a few enthusiasts eager for a glimpse joined us.

However, the mountain gods had different plans. The leopards, unaware of our presence, remained stubbornly motionless. One crouched behind a rock, its tail a fleeting flash of grey. The other, a blur of movement, continued its meal, seemingly insatiable. As the sun dipped below the horizon, painting the snow in rose and gold hues, we knew it was time to retreat.

However, that one glimpse, that fleeting brush with the ghosts of the Himalayas, was enough to last a lifetime.

A Collaborative Approach To Conservation

The snow leopard's presence is widespread across Asia, spanning 12 countries—Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. In India, an estimated 400-700 snow leopards roam the wild, with 60 per cent residing in Ladakh. Although the snow leopard was downgraded from "endangered" to "vulnerable" in the 2016 IUCN report, the overall population trend is on a decline. Despite it all, hope endures.

Spotters spend hours to catch a glimpse of the shan
Spotters spend hours to catch a glimpse of the shanPhoto: Vikram Sharma

Established in 2000 by the late conservationist Rinchen Wangchuk and wildlife expert Rodney Jackson, Snow Leopard Conservancy—India Trust (SLC-IT) focuses on conserving the snow leopard, its prey species, and its habitat. Over 23 years, SLC-IT has developed a grassroots conservation and livelihood programme renowned globally for its effectiveness. Tsewang Namgail, a wildlife scholar and conservationist, now leads the organisation.

"Over the past decade, the homestay model has been a game-changer for snow leopard conservation, fostering positive attitudes through the economic benefits it brings to local communities," said Namgail.

Once facing a major challenge from human-animal interactions, snow leopards thrive in areas where the SLC-IT has partnered with local communities. This remarkable shift is evident in villages like Ulley, where traditional practices have given way to a collaborative approach to conservation.

In 2001, the SLC-IT urged locals to become aware of the wildlife around them, leading them to fortify corrals with wire mesh roofs. This simple yet effective solution dramatically reduced snow leopard-induced livestock losses.

The Homestay Programme

Recognising the need for economic empowerment, the SLC-IT started a homestay program in 2003 in Hemis National Park and Ulley, offering communities alternative income sources.

"Whatever income was generated through tourism was mostly going to travel agents and hoteliers, especially in Leh. Villagers in remote areas weren't getting anything," Namgail mentioned while discussing the motivation behind homestays.

"The initial idea for homestays originated from women in a village in the Hemis National Park who suggested hosting trekkers in their homes to experience local culture, with a percentage of the payment directed toward snow leopard conservation."

Finally, faced with the dual challenge of safeguarding livelihoods and promoting snow leopard conservation, the SLC-IT spearheaded a groundbreaking approach in 2006. Recognising the limitations of the conventional government compensation scheme, they pioneered community-controlled livestock insurance programmes.

This innovative initiative guarantees full compensation for livestock lost to predators, mitigating the risks faced by communities heavily reliant on animals. "This minimises economic hardship and fosters a more tolerant coexistence between villagers and snow leopards," concluded Namgail.

Losar festivities at 
Hemis-Shukpachan village
Losar festivities at Hemis-Shukpachan villagePhoto: Vikram Sharma

The Spirit Of Losar

Though our encounter with the snow leopards lasted only 24 hours, the entire experience was imprinted in our minds. Yet, fatigue and waning enthusiasm had set in. Recognising this, Norbu announced, "It's Losar time in Ladakh. Let's head to a nearby village and enjoy the festivities."

Losar, stemming from "Lo" for year and "Sar" for new, carries profound cultural significance in Ladakh. The celebrations span 15 days, marking the Buddhist festival around the winter solstice period, typically between December 8 and 30.

Though our encounter with the snow leopards lasted only 24 hours, the memory of their presence and the entire experience was imprinted in our minds

The celebration of Losar comes with a fascinating tale. Legend has it that Ladakh's King, Jamyang Namgyal, preparing for a confrontation with Baltistan forces, was advised by an oracle to delay the battle until the following year. Instead, the formidable ruler advanced the festivities by a month.

After a breakfast of tea, scrambled eggs, and khambir (a local bread), we headed towards Hemis-Shukpachan, a village in the Likir tehsil of Leh. Approaching the village, the sound of musical instruments echoed in the air, signalling the festivities.

Entering an enclosure about the size of a badminton court, surrounded by traditional Ladakhi homes, we found a lively scene, where local men, women, and children in goncha (a voluminous robe for males) and sulma (a flowing traditional robe for females) were taking part in the festivities.

Suddenly, a guttural yell pierced the air. The Losar King, adorned in a feathered crown and white fur cloak, entered the enclosure accompanied by a masked entourage. The Chams (locals and monks in elaborately painted masks) stomped, creating a kaleidoscope of colour and movement.

Soon after, families gathered, and in the warmth of a sun-drenched courtyard, I sat cross-legged with a Ladakhi family, listening to stories of past Losars and hopes for the year ahead.

"Losar isn't just about the festivities. It's a magical time that offers moments of self-reflection, a chance to cherish life's simple pleasures, and a time to come closer as a community," remarked Angchuk, the family patriarch, as I finished the last few sips of butter tea.

Laughter and music echoed in the crisp mountain air as I left the village.

A mosaic of laughter, prayer flags, and shared meals clung to me—a reminder that even in the harshest landscapes, the human spirit, like the shan, burns bright.

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