In Search Of The Himalayan Myth
Puskar Basu embarked on a journey to the remotest corners of the trans-Himalaya to photograph the snow leopard only to discover that this unparalleled, biodiverse landscape had so much more to offer.
Photo: Puskar Basu
As I looked up, I saw the glittering milky way crowning the Key Monastery. It was 3:00 a.m. and I was standing in one of the most pristine habitats – home to the most elusive big cat in the world. I took a deep breath and the pure icy breeze energised me to take on a search that can only be described as ‘a needle in a haystack’.
My only exposure to the snow leopard was the Planet Earth series documentary Snow Leopard – Beyond the Myth by Nisar Malik… plus a few research papers. What was promising was that the snow leopard population that was believed to be under 2,500 earlier was, after meticulous assessments in 2016, estimated to be now around 4,500-7,500 mature individuals. This promoted the species from its ‘Critically Endangered’ status to the ‘Vulnerable’ category.
My photography expedition in the Spiti valley was undertaken during the most hostile months of the year. I hoped to find some snow cover, which was crucial not only to track their pugmarks but also to enhance the photographic aesthetic. My companion, Tenzing Dorjey, a son of the soil, was familiar with this habitat and we were out every day before first light searching for pugmarks or scats.
DEMYSTIFYING THE MYTH
We trekked for eight long days without much luck. The rarefied atmosphere left me breathless after the daily clambering of 15-20 km. Only the thrill and hope of discovering the grey ghost kept me going. We met a team of conservation biologists conducting a survey in this otherwise unexplored habitat. They told us about their sign surveys – recording of scats and pugmark samples, the date and time, along with the GPS location, slope, ruggedness and other terrain features. To avoid the probability of misidentification, DNA was being extracted from the scats and confirmed at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.
Collective efforts from such surveys (see page 74) help in classifying snow leopard habitats according to the categories laid down by the Snow Leopard Information Management System (SLIMS). Trans-Himalayan ranges form the southern limit of snow leopard habitats and are the abode of approximately 10 per cent of the global population. The team also confirmed that in 90 per cent of the species’ habitats in India, little or no research has been done and 70 per cent of the area is still unprotected.
On our ninth day, I was scanning the forward slope of a cliff, when Tenzing pointed toward what seemed like a small crack. I aimed my spotter scope on a heap of stones and to my surprise, one of the stones moved. A chill ran down my spine as I realised it was a snow leopard female with her two cubs. They were inside a small but prominent crevice and blended perfectly into the rocky outcrops.
Photo: Puskar Basu
BLAZING THE TRAIL
Once the family was spotted, I was certain we were going to obtain some good photographs because of their predictable movement pattern. Snow leopards, like most of their felidae cousins, are territorial, and could roam across 30 to 65 sq. km. However, lack of food can result in territorial overlaps. At times three to four snow leopards socialise to share the same territory with merged hunting grounds.
Prey is often found in small isolated groups where pasture for herbivores is plentiful. Not surprisingly, snow leopards often choose to stay at such locations for seven to ten days, if the area is promising. The snow leopard population in Spiti has been found to follow a definite annual pattern in winter as they move along on the circuit of Tashigong – Gette – Kibber – Chicham – Kanamo, always guided by the availability of ungulates. The terrain and analogous precipitation steer the movement of the ungulates on the circuit in a similar manner. Snow leopards do scent mark their territories but primarily to find a mate. The marking is done by scratching their body on rocks, spraying urine and defecating. The approximate prediction of the movement pattern fetched me successful sightings of two different snow leopard families on subsequent days. In both cases, a mother with two cubs. We also spotted two solitary males.
I was speechless with delight. That accounted for almost 1.5 per cent of the total snow leopard population in India! Though solitary in nature, these animals socialise during the mating season between January and March. Gestation periods vary from 90 to 110 days and cubs are generally therefore born between April and July. The cubs I photographed were around nine to ten months old. Pregnant snow leopards often stay hidden in rocky crevices to give birth away from the stress of frequent alarm calls. A litter contains one to five cubs and their eyes remain closed for the initial seven days. Sadly, most cubs don’t survive to see adulthood on account of natural and human impacts. Mothers will raise the cubs alone and if unable to bring down adequate prey, the cubs often die of starvation. Snow leopard cubs begin walking after five weeks and remain dependent up to two years, by which time they are groomed and ready to hunt on their own.
THE ALPINE PREDATOR
Some of my favourite frames are those of one of the males on a hunt (see image on page 73). I had been observing him scratching his back against the ground, a technique I later learned was employed to conceal body odour and maintain stealth. I saw the leopard attempt to stalk a grazing ibex as it inched closer. But the ibex sensed danger and managed to flee. Almost 90 per cent of daytime attempts end in failure. Snow leopards can chase their prey for distances of up to 300 m. and when successful a bharal (blue sheep) or an ibex could keep them satisfied for up to two weeks. This implies that they require 20-30 adult bharal or ibex annually. These ungulates manoeuvre along cliffs with great precision and it is their stealthy hunting techniques and great night vision that gives snow leopards their edge when hunting in alpine zones. Apart from ibex and bharal, they also feed on argali, pika, marmot, Snowcock and woolly hare. They will generally drag their prey to crevices, which are cool enough to keep the kill edible for days. This also safeguards the kill from scavengers such as the bone-breaking Lammergeiers, Griffon Vultures, Himalayan wolves and red foxes. Scat inspections have revealed that during periods of scarcity, snow leopards may even survive on alpine vegetation.
Photo: Puskar Basu
According to experts, the snow leopard population will decline by at least 10 per cent over the next two decades. The primary reason is poaching for their organs, bones, fur and claws, which are mistakenly considered to have medicinal value. The decline is also attributable to habitat loss owing to the rapid shrinking of snow cover at the hands of a warming world and, of course, human encroachments. Anthropogenic activities such as collection of forest produce, and livestock grazing add to these threats. The inhospitable terrain, apart from making research difficult, also restricts effective patrolling by guards. Few people realise just how dangerous feral dogs can be for snow leopards as they often chase and feed on prey populations.
Conservation efforts are correctly focussed on habitat protection and towards this end, communities are being involved at every level. Trans-border initiatives in the form of the ‘Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP)’ have identified prime snow leopard habitats. Apart from the recently-discovered sizeable population in the Spiti Valley, the snow leopards of Wakhan corridor in northeastern Afghanistan is a new addition to the global population.
During my trip, I was welcomed at a home-stay in Kibber where I interacted with villagers. who spoke positively about the cattle-kill insurance programme, which has helped to mitigate retaliatory killings. The ‘shan’ (snow leopard in Spitian dialect) is integral to the landscape and the lives of locals and, hopefully, both will flourish for all time to come.
Author: Puskar Basu, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 12, December 2018.