Ladakh summons travellers with varied inclinations. Some like our contributing wildlife photographer and conservationist explore the cold, rugged, high-altitude desert for a sight of the elusive snow leopard. Text and photographs by Latika Nath
Snow leopards are naturally adapted to tread the steep, rugged mountains of Central Asia with grace. In India, they inhabit some of the highest, most inhospitable places in the Himalayas. These big cats are elusive and difficult to spot as they effortlessly blend into their surroundings—a trick that’s mighty useful in hunting prey. It has also given them the eerie moniker ‘Ghost of the Mountains’.
Despite such amazing adaptations, the species is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN-World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species. There are fewer than 8,000 snow leopards estimated to be left in the world. Less than 10 per cent of the Protected Areas are large enough to host a viable population, so it’s essential to combat climate change and development-induced habitat loss. I had long yearned to see a snow leopard, so I made my way to the Union Territory of Ladakh.
Laden with camera bags, I stepped out of the Leh airport into a clear, cold day. I needed to reach Ulley, which was three hours away by road. En route, I stopped to photograph breathtaking landscapes, bird species found at high altitudes, and ibex. The village of Ulley is a testament to the power of involving the community in wildlife conservation. Many houses have been transformed into homestays, and the locals have realised that the economic benefits of photo- tourism—driven by the snow leopard—far outweigh the occasional loss of livestock to the predator. Many of the villagers are now skilled guides and trackers, while their families look after visitors in the homestays.
Over the next few weeks, we trekked to many of the surrounding mountains, observing snow leopards, wolves, ibex, blue sheep, Tibetan foxes, and other species in their natural habitat. Time seemed to fly past as I took countless photographs of the mesmerising landscapes and wildlife, including five different snow leopards. Eventually, when I headed back to the plains, I carried with myself newfound respect for those who survive on these lands. Both humans and animals.
Editor’s Note: Keeping the current situation of the pandemic in mind, T+L India recommends every reader to stay safe, and take all government-regulated precautions in case travel at this time is absolutely necessary. Please follow our stories on COVID-19 for all the latest travel guidelines.