In the autumn of 1973, wilderness writer and naturalist Peter Matthiessen joined preeminent field biologist George Schaller high in Nepal’s Himalayan Mountains on a journey that would soon become legendary. While Schaller was there to study the mating habits of the bharal, or Himalayan blue sheep, Matthieseen was on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. That is, a quest coupled with the hope of glimpsing one of the region’s most elusive animals: the snow leopard.
This strenuous two-month expedition resulted in one of Matthiessen’s best-known and award-winning books, The Snow Leopard—a work that still enlightens and inspires readers today.
It’s no secret that big cats stir imaginations, from the majestic lions of Kenya’s Maasai Mara to the jaguar, a large and spotted feline that holds court over South America’s Amazon jungle. And snow leopards are no exception. For a long time, so little was known about these shy and solitary creatures that inhabit Earth’s uppermost reaches that they took on an almost mythical status. Local residents call them the “gray ghost” or the “ghost of the mountains” because they’re so rarely seen.
In fact, when Matthiessen embarked on his expedition, only two Westerners had reported seeing a snow leopard over the previous 25 years. One of those Westerners was Schaller, who was also the first to capture a snow leopard on film. In 1971, his photos appeared in the pages of National Geographic, giving the world its first opportunity to view this fabled being in its natural habitat.
The Elusive Snow Leopard
Getting a photo of a wild snow leopard is no easy task, although it’s been made much easier in recent years. Spotters and master trackers know both exactly where to look and what to look for, such as fresh scat, snow-embedded tracks and even marking patterns.
Since Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard was first published in 1978, a lot has been learned about these shy and solitary creatures. They can reach up to seven feet in length and weigh anywhere from 60 to 120 pounds. They roam mostly at dawn in the pre-morning hours, then again in the afternoons and evenings.
Due to a difference in their anatomical structure, snow leopards can’t actually roar, though they do chuff, purr and growl. They move about quietly, preferring steep, snow-covered mountainsides high above the treelines, in places where the air is thin and the weather often relentless. Their thick fur—colored whitish to gray with black spots and rosettes along the neck, head, and back—easily camouflages them within the landscape, making them extremely difficult for the average eye to see.
Where to See Snow Leopards in the Wild
According to the Snow Leopard Trust, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the snow leopard, there are believed to be between 3,900 and 6,400 wild snow leopards left around the world, though the actual number remains unknown. They inhabit a large swath of alpine and subalpine terrain that traverses 12 countries in northern and central Asia, including Mongolia, Afghanistan and Bhutan.
Schaller captured his now-famous photos in Pakistan’s Chitral Valley—another place snow leopards are known to frequent—and dozens of them roam freely in Russia’s Altai Mountains, at the convergence of China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. However, one of the best places for spotting them is in India’s Ladakh territory, part of the larger Himalayan mountain range, where approximately 200 or so reside.
India’s Ladakh Region Awaits
For the perfect opportunity to both to explore this storied region and capture images of the rare snow leopard, embark on Nat Hab’s 12-day Snow Leopard Quest: A Photo Pro Expedition. Tucked away in the remote Himalayas of northern India, Ladakh itself is framed by dramatic peaks and dotted with Buddha-filled monasteries, meditation caves and secluded villages. It’s a region heavily influenced by Tibetan culture and home to India’s largest national park, Hemis National Park, where you’ll find one of the highest population densities of snow leopards in a protected area on the planet.
Nat Hab’s small group size of seven and a flexible daily schedule offers participants the best chance of catching a snow leopard undisturbed. Perhaps we’ll see one who has descended to a lower altitude to feed on bharal, ibex and smaller marmots and hares that inhabit the sides of steep rock walls and graze along valley streams. Or we may spy a cat perched inconspicuously along a high ridge line. Be sure and keep your camera at the ready!
Getting a Good Photograph
The odds of capturing snow leopard pics increase once you immerse yourself in the territory of these magnificent creatures. Nat Hab’s adept spotting scouts and master trackers work tirelessly to follow the cats’ every move. The terrain may be rugged and difficult, but the rewards of seeing a snow leopard in the wild are indescribable. If you’re especially lucky, you might even spot a snow leopard cub (or two!).
Ladakh’s additional wildlife is as equally as incredible. Look for long-legged wild sheep known as urial, golden eagles and bearded vultures soaring overhead. And stay alert for a sighting of the Himalayan wolf, known for its wooly fur and ability to adapt to cold and high altitudes.
There are also the natural and cultural beauties of Ladakh itself, such as narrow valleys and colorful roadside prayer flags, winding rivers and unoccupied palaces, all which are ripe for discovery…and for photographing.
While Matthiessen never did spot a snow leopard during his 1973 expedition, seeing one wasn’t his sole purpose. As a 2018 New Yorker article points out, “If Matthiessen had merely wanted to set eyes on a snow leopard, he could have driven from his home on Long Island to the Bronx Zoo, where snow leopards have been bred in captivity since 1966.”
Matthiessen knew that the possibility of glimpsing a snow leopard in its natural habitat, rather than in a zoo or menagerie, would be something else entirely. However, even not seeing one would be a tremendous feat, especially when you’ve scoured the world’s tallest peaks and loftiest landscapes in your quest. That’s because it’s in the ‘seeking,’ Matthiessen realized, that the real magic occurs.