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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Snow leopard in the Himalaya

Photo: snow leopard (credit: The Snow Leopard Trust)
I have never seen a snow leopard (Panthera uncial) in the wild however I have been lucky enough to see pug marks (i.e paw prints) and their scat in several places while trekking in the Himalaya. The first time I saw snow leopard pug marks was on the Ngozumpa glacier on the trail from Dragnag to Gokyo after crossing Cho La pass. A few years later I saw more prints on the trail to Advanced Base Camp on Tibet side of Mount Everest. I have also seen scat and pugmarks several times on the Mera Peak Expedition in Nepal.

While leading our Upper Dolpo to Jomsom trek in 2010 we met a trek group coming from the opposite direction and they told us they had seen a snow leopard only twenty minutes earlier, sadly by the time we arrived to this spot the elusive cat had moved on. While leading the Lunana Snowman in Bhutan we have seen evidence of snow leopard activity, I remember while at one camp some locals approached our group to ask if we had a medical kit as one of their horses had been attacked the previous night by a prowling snow leopard. We had several doctors in our group so they were happy to clean and dress the wound so hopefully the horse survived this close call.

On both Upper Dolpo and Lunana Snowman treks there are many blue sheep on the hill slopes above the valleys and these agile animals are prey for the snow leopards. Therefore if there are healthy blue sheep populations then usually there will be snow leopards in the area. Snow leopards also eat Himalayan tahr, goral, snow cocks, pika, marmots and sometimes livestock too.

The snow leopard has a distinctive long, thick grey coat with black and paler spots in the shape of roses all over the body and tail except the underside which is white. Their thick, warm fur keeps them protected from the wintry chill at high altitudes. Their tail is as long as the body and furs on the soles of their paws enable these cats to have traction on ice. Snow leopards prefer rugged country with cliffs, rocky outcrops and ridges although can be seen in highlands in alpine grasslands, juniper, birch and rhododendron scrub up to 5,600m. The snow leopard leads a solitary life and is nocturnal animal hunting mainly a night.

The snow leopard occupies a territory of 12 to 39 square kilometres and marks this area by scent markings and scrapings. Their mating takes place during the winter in February or March and a litter of four cubs would be born in June or July.

There are between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards living in the high mountains of Asia and over last two decades the population has declined by more than 20%. Sadly poachers have been targeting snow leopards for their pelts and also for internal organs which are prized in traditional Chinese medicine. At times herders hunt them because snow leopards sometimes eat their livestock. Tibetans are also traditionally known for wearing coats of tiger, leopard and snow leopard skins while displaying them during a traditional festivals. However in 2006 the Dalai Lama called on all of his followers to stop buying, selling and wearing wild animal skins as this was against Buddhist principles.

Although it is relatively unlikely in practice to see a snow leopard while trekking in the Himalaya, I like the idea that these wild cats are also roaming in the hills while I am in these remote areas. I have seen only one snow leopard on my travels and that was in Darjeeling zoo but I am hopeful one year I might catch a glimpse of this beautiful cat in its natural habitat.

If you would like to find out more about the snow leopard or to get involved with their conservation please take a look at Snow Leopard Conservancy website

Roland Hunter


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