Many adventurers are drawn to the Himalayas of northern India either for the challenging mountain climbing or for the rich Tibetan Buddhist culture. But among sheer cliffs, snowfields and whitewashed monasteries flying their primary-colored prayer flags live some of the most elusive, tough and fascinating creatures on Earth. This harsh environment is home to not only the snow leopard but also to the yak, golden eagle, bearded vulture and three large ungulates: bharal, ibex and urial.
Let’s start with the alluring snow leopards (Panthera uncia). These animals have reached almost mythical status. Videos abound online that show them chasing prey off of steep cliff faces, tumbling 300 feet, bouncing off jagged rocks the whole way, yet somehow never once losing focus on the hunt. While they never reach in size past 7 feet themselves, they can leap as far as 50 feet. Their thick white and silver-gray coat spotted with large black rosettes blends in completely with the rocky and snowy Himalayas and because their incredible natural camouflage renders them practically invisible in their surroundings, snow leopards are often referred to as the “ghost of the mountains.” Impressively agile and powerful, they are built for hunting large animals. They use their long, thick tail for both balance and wrapping themselves up in against the cold, and traverse snowfields on massively broad paws that work like snowshoes. These trans-Himalayan wild cats have evolved to thrive in some of Earth’s harshest alpine terrain, mostly above the tree line and up to 18,000 feet in elevation. India’s largest national park, Hemis National Park, has one of the highest population densities of snow leopards in a protected area on the planet. Here in India’s Ladakh territory, approximately 200 or so of these wild cats with an International Union for Conservation of Nature status as “vulnerable” still reside.
Because they like to hang out in rugged terrain with rocky outcrops where prey can be hard to come by, these carnivores require a huge amount of space to roam: male leopards require up to 80 square miles—an area bigger than three Manhattans!—while females need ranges of up to 48 square miles. The most important prey species for snow leopards are the bharal (Pseudois nayaur, also known as blue sheep), the Asiatic ibex and the urial.
Bharal, Urial & Ibex
Bharal have a stocky body and stout legs, with robust shoulders and a broad chest. Their fur ranges from grayish brown to slate blue, hence the name “blue sheep”. They have features of both sheep and goats. They are sheep-like because they don’t have a beard, nor do they have the signature goat-like smell or calluses on their knees. On the other hand, they do resemble goats because of their broad, flat tail that is naked underneath, large dewclaws and markings on the front limbs, and some skull features typical of goats. Unlike the snow leopard, the Asiatic ibex, (Capra sibirica), is somewhat simpler to spot, because of their magnificent horns and the more amicable terrain they like to wander in. They forage in alpine meadows, gentle slopes and even wet meadows of mountain streams. They happen to be the largest wild goat in the world. Urial (Ovis orientalis) are also known as the arkars or shapo, and they are big wild sheep. These sheep form herds of related individuals and are interesting to observe. The make-up of a herd is usually females, lambs and juveniles, while older rams create separate all-male groups where dominance is based largely on horn size: the bigger the horns, the higher up the ranking is the individual. Dominant males are a stabilizing force for sheep society in that they prevent younger rams from harassing females—younger males can be bullies and can show much more aggression towards ewes than older males.
Another, albeit less common, prey of the snow leopard is the yak. Snow leopards are opportunistic predators and sometimes hunt livestock such as sheep, goats, horses or young yaks, especially stragglers that get left behind in pastures. Snow leopards have been spotted boldly entering a corral and killing multiple animals. The expansion of human settlement, especially livestock grazing, has led to increased conflict for the snow leopard. Herders have been known to kill snow leopards to prevent or retaliate against the predation of their domestic animals.
Golden Eagle & Bearded Vulture
Not touched by the snow leopard, but just as fantastic to spot in the Himalayas, are the golden eagle and bearded vulture. The golden eagle is one of the largest, fastest, nimblest raptors around and has gorgeous lustrous gold feathers that gleam on the back of its head and neck. This bird is about the same size as the bald eagle and it is a formidable predator that regularly hunts prey the size of foxes. Bearded vultures are just as interesting. Most people think that they hunt live prey, but in fact, they are the only vulture that has specialized in feeding primarily on the bones of dead animals. Bones make up more than 85-90% of its diet! This vulture is even capable of swallowing and digesting bones the size of a sheep’s vertebrae. If bones are too big to swallow, the bird gains great heights of up to 300 feet and drops the bones onto rocky surfaces to shatter them into edible pieces. It can take the vulture years to master this skill.
While the birds in the air are fairly easy to spot, the other animals have the best chance of being spotted by the keen eyes of a team of local scouts and trained guides. On a trip to northern India with Nat Hab, for example, seasoned trackers scour the landscape early each morning to help plan the route for the day and increase the chances of seeing these animals who often blend in seamlessly with their habitat. Nat Hab also retains radio contact with trackers during the day so we know when the elusive snow leopard wanders into our area, and the fact that we have access to private vehicles maximizes our flexibility to move quickly to where the snow leopards are.
Factors such as climate change that shrinks the species’ alpine habitat and drives competition with other predators like wild dogs and tigers, and poaching for their skin (which is used for luxurious furs) as well as for their bones (which are used for medicinal potions in some parts of Asia) means that the snow leopards are in danger. It is estimated that there are less than 500 left in the wild in India. Healthy populations of snow leopards indicate the good health of the ecosystem that it inhabits. Without the snow leopard, the ecological balance would be disrupted. For example, herbivore populations would increase resulting in changes in the vegetation that will affect other wildlife. The Himalayan ecosystem provides food and other important resources for the locals, including medicine, wood for shelter, heat, fuel and grass for the livestock. Protecting the snow leopard benefits the entire natural environment in these areas and the people who rely on it. Responsible nature tourism is part of the solution. The trips we guide at Nat Hab to view Ladakh’s snow leopards benefit local communities and create an incentive to protect the wild creatures in the region. In addition, we make a donation to the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust for each traveler on our adventure to the Land of the Snow Leopard.
All photos © Surya Ramachandran