Snow leopards occupy a range that spans the high mountains of 12 countries across Asia, where the hostile weather and rugged terrain conspire to snuff out any sign of life. Few animals and fewer humans can survive in this liminal space. Yet, for millennia, this big cat species has managed to eke out a living in some of the harshest conditions on Earth.
The snow leopard’s long tail enables the balance and agility to scale steep slopes, its powerful hind legs allow the snow leopard to leap six times the length of its body and its thick silver coat, marbled by black rosettes, provides the ideal camouflage to disappear into the mist.
These adaptations make the snow leopard a formidable predator but also make this species a challenge to collect data on. Snow leopards reign over a territory that is inhospitable and often inaccessible to researchers. As a result, more than 70% of their habitat remains unexplored.
A Haunted History
The snow leopard’s elusive nature has given rise to an air of mystique, which only grows thicker as the altitude climbs. Communities in these outer regions have come to know the snow leopard by its moniker, the “gray ghost” and the “ghost of the mountains.”
In Ladakh, a sparsely populated region in the Indian Himalayas where Tibetan Buddhist culture predominates, locals tell of a popular legend about a man and a god. It goes like this: “Once a yogi was meditating in a cave for several years. At the end of his meditation, the deity he was praying to manifested itself in the form of a snow leopard. He fed the animal as an act of kindness, not knowing that he was, in fact, offering food to the deity. The next day, the snow leopard rewarded his kindness by leaving a freshly killed ungulate at the entrance of his cave.”
While this mythic beast inspires awe in some cultures, it conjures fear in others. A recent paper by Dr. Saloni Bhatia and her colleagues at the Snow Leopard Trust examines animal folklore in the Himalayas to better understand the dynamics of human-carnivore interactions.
Her findings revealed that, much like wolves, positive associations with snow leopards are overshadowed by negative sentiments because of their tendency to prey on livestock. Dr. Bhatia found that the predominant values ascribed to the snow leopard were utilitarian. Most stories were about the use or trade of its body parts, followed by stories about trophy hunting and their use in traditional medicine and rituals.
Sentinels of Snow
In 2021, World Wildlife Fund released 100 Years of Snow Leopard Research, a report covering the current conservation efforts across the cat’s 12 home countries. Samundra Subba, a research officer with WWF-Nepal, shared his experiences in a story for our travel blog, Good Nature Travel. “I looked around myself, staring into the familiar dry, arid, and treeless Trans-Himalayan terrain, wondering how fast the treelines were shifting and wondered about the future. The climate crisis will inevitably shrink snow leopard habitats,” wrote Subba about one of his satellite telemetry expeditions.
“Would the species be able to adapt to the warmer temperatures? Would it be chased out of its own habitat, unable to compete with other big cats, such as the common leopard, which would also move higher into the mountains as temperatures warm? Would there be a future where this enigmatic species survived?” Subba agonized.
WWF scientists estimate that the effects of climate change could result in a loss of up to 30% of the snow leopard habitat in the Himalayas alone. Snow leopards not only play a key role in managing prey species populations, but they are also sentinels of snow — melting snow. They are important indicators of the impacts climate change and anthropogenic encroachment have on the overall health of high-altitude environs. If snow leopards thrive, so will countless other species, including the largest freshwater reservoirs on the planet.
“For most of my team, the telemetry expedition means never-ending logistics, but for a biologist, it also means hope,” Subba declared. “It means that humans acknowledge the role this predator plays in safeguarding the mountain ecosystem and that studies and research are being conducted to help it survive, perhaps even thrive.”
WWF reduces human-wildlife conflict in the Eastern Himalayas by empowering communities to coexist with snow leopards. Initiatives include installing predator-proof corrals for livestock, creating livelihood enterprises and developing local insurance plans to compensate for any losses incurred. WWF also pilots various community awareness and education programs to reduce the retaliatory killing of snow leopards. Together with TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, WWF works to eliminate the illegal trade of snow leopard fur, bones and other body parts.
Snow Leopard Numbers on the Rise!
In a recent press release, WWF celebrated a “milestone achievement.” Bhutan announced a 39.5% increase in snow leopard numbers! After analyzing over 10,000 camera trap images, the National Snow Leopard Survey 2022-2023, supported by the Bhutan For Life project and WWF-Bhutan, confirmed the presence of 134 snow leopards.
This represents an impressive leap from the country’s first survey in 2016 when only 96 individuals were recorded. The finding serves as “continued inspiration for protection of this elusive species,” says Dechen Dorji, Senior Director, Asia Wildlife, WWF-US.
See It To Believe It
Your chance to witness this elegant apex predator is growing as their numbers increase, and our snow leopard expedition in far-north India gives you excellent odds to see them in the wild.
The Land of the Snow Leopard trip unfolds in Ladakh, where we’ll follow the Indus River through remote high valleys to reach our private Snow Leopard Lodge. From this cozy base, we set out each day in search of the “gray ghost.”
We partner with the best snow leopard trackers in the region, and our spotters’ ability to detect these masterfully camouflaged cats is second to none. The surrounding cliffs and alpine meadows provide habitat for the snow leopard’s prey — ibex, bharial and urial — as well as fox, hare, pika and Tibetan wolves.
The Ladakh community recognizes that protecting snow leopards from illegal hunting and poaching is beneficial as the cats are integral to maintaining ecological balance. As a traveler, your presence becomes a powerful incentive for locals to protect their natural resources, making wildlife worth more alive than dead and wild lands worth more intact than degraded. And you’ll return home not just moved by your experiences but as an informed and enlightened ambassador for conservation.
Catch a glimpse of your next adventure via this footage and watch our Daily Dose of Nature webinars “Journey to the Land of the Snow Leopard: Part 1” and “Part 2,” presented by Nat Hab Expedition Leader Conan Dumenil, to learn more!