For centuries, the people of Ladakh—who breathe the dry, thin air in the rain-shadow of the Himalayas—have hunkered down with their backs to the long, brutal winters. With the coming of summer each year, the frozen rivers flowed again, animals were taken to high pastures, fields were tended to, visitors arrived from near and far, pilgrims made their way to monasteries and the pulse of trade quickened. In 1974, Ladakh was opened to tourism, and travellers began to arrive. They came to walk in the beautiful vistas, to explore the rich local culture and to get some respite from the heat of the plains. Things came alive, restaurants and hotels were abuzz, and then, when it turned cold—other than the constant presence of the Indian army—things went quiet again.
Now there is a growing number of people who await the Ladakhi winter; those who come to trek the Zanskar River when it’s a sheet of ice in what’s known as the Chadar Trek, and those, like me, who have a great desire to view the most magnificent and illusory of wild cats, the snow leopard, and the accompanying cast of creatures that survive at the edge of existence. They don’t make it easy for us as they only descend to the lower slopes from November to March when temperatures drop down to -20°C or lower.
Global warming as a trend is particularly obvious at the poles, as it is here, in The Third Pole. This winter of 2021 was particularly warm and flurry-free. For better or for worse, long winters of isolation might soon be a thing of the past for the Ladakhis.
In his epic book The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen writes about the creature ‘whose terrible beauty is the very stuff of human longing’.
After a long trek through Nepal, his longing to see one gave way to philosophical consolation from their very existence. That was in the 1970s. Incredibly, since then, things have been nudged in the right direction: the big cat that has evolved to thrive in the highest altitude and harshest climate on the planet has been studied and filmed enthusiastically, and more pressingly, there has been an epic turnaround in the attitudes of many villagers that share its landscape, who have gone from reviling to revering their arch-nemesis.
To understand this shift first hand, I visited Dr Tsewang Namgail, Director and Senior Scientist at the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust (SLC) in Leh. He walked me through the long process of getting rid of the negative emotions of the pastoralists around the snow leopard. Traditionally, a herder whose livelihood and life savings were wiped out overnight as a shan (snow leopard) leapt into the corral and killed an entire herd of around 25 goats (its predator instinct being repeatedly triggered), he’d round up the neighbours and they’d stone the creature to death, or poison a half-eaten yak carcass found on a nearby trail. The SLC has helped strengthen corrals with mesh roofs to keep livestock safe. They’ve given villages solar lamps that have kept predators—including bears and wolves—at bay. An insurance scheme, where people pay a small amount and are compensated for loss of livestock has lent assurance and benefited them enormously.
The SLC is educating villagers, students and monks of nature’s delicate balance, and the ecological benefits of snow leopards. If they’re wiped out, the population of wild ungulates will spiral out of control, the meagre plants will dwindle, and the loss of their grip on the moisture and soil will cause desertification and mudslides.
In addition, the SLC has been helping the villagers to turn their homes into homestays by adding a room or two for visitors, generating income in the bleak winter months. They’ve trained people in the art of spotting. Similar work is being done in other parts of the Himalayas as well as 11 other nations where snow leopards are found, and their numbers have increased. The IUCN has moved them from the ‘threatened’ to the ‘vulnerable’ category. There’s much work still to be done, said Namgyal, and at least in Ladakh an explosion of feral dogs is the greatest menace facing conservation. Yet, people are arriving from halfway around the world to view and learn about the amazing creatures within these panoramas, and now shan the tormentor has taken on the Hindi meaning, shan, or glory.
Having acclimatised in Leh at 11,000 feet for two days, we headed into the wilderness. About an hour’s drive from Leh, we crossed the Indus River and arrived at Hemis High Altitude National Park. The car was left by Zinchin village, and for a handful of days, we were decanted into a bygone era where there were no phone signals or electric pylons. Our belongings were strapped on to tiny donkeys with voluminous complaints, and we began a three-hour ascent along a frozen river through a narrow, rocky gorge. Slowly, the echoing desolation of the shards seeped into my labouring heart. There wasn’t a creature in the surrounds, nothing stirred, save the prayer flags that fluttered besides a frozen waterfall.
We reached Rumbak, a kaftan-pocket sized village of nine white houses and a monastery at 13,000 feet set amidst willows and poplars whose bare branches glowed maroon and yellow in the sunshine.
The village and the surrounding valley were ringed by soaring mountains on all sides. Some slopes were coppery green, others burgundy. Some were made up of soft soil, while others were rocky with scree slopes. Further out were higher massifs with pinnacles of snow. A path led to Stok-la, a pass in the Stok Kangri mountain. ‘La’ is pass, and La-dakh means ‘land of passes.’ Each one of the houses is a homestay, allocated by rotation.
We settled into Dhung House, owned by the tireless Padma, who hosted us. While the three-story house of mud-brick walls was simple and pleasant, (with two drop-pit loos and nowhere really to wash oneself) two spaces had been lavished with colour and ornament; the small prayer room and the large kitchen set with low mats and tables along two sides. Behind a clay cooking stove was a fabulous display of brass and copper pots, kettles, bowls and drinking vessels. This became the place we would decamp to, after spending hours looking for wildlife in the brutally-cold outdoors. I came to love this room with its patterned maroon carpets, the temperamental bukhari (stove) fed with yak dung and willow branches, and the thousand points of light that emanated from the glistening utensils. Behind a curtain was a small functioning kitchen, and somewhere in there must be a rivulet of hot tea, for it never stopped flowing.
Early each morning, the spotters who were part of our team spread themselves across the landscape in twos and threes at various viewing points. They scoured the skyline for movement, and scanned the rocky outcrops, staring for hours through the scopes, often sitting cross-legged on their feet. The sightings are often at great distances, making spotters and scopes vital links to viewing wildlife.
Soon we’d join them, having layered-up in inners and outers, the hand and foot warmers keeping us toasty for a while. Breakfast was brought out to us. We’d return for lunch, and set out again. If a spotter had a sighting a distance away, they’d radio us and we’d walk over on narrow yak trails and hills of scree.
At first, it seemed no life could exist here, for the lack of vegetation. This was a place of stark minimalism, with no curtain of leaf or tree, just naked earth and rocks. And snow, up high. Through my binoculars, I began to notice pouffes of dry grass and maroon lichens.
A spotter pointed to a herd of six blue sheep. And then another herd of ten on a different hill, and another one, fifty-strong, by a snow field. A thrill went through me, to see a pulse of life. They had beautiful black markings on their tawny coats, were short limbed, but fat as butterballs, making me realise there was nourishment enough on these stark hills. And there was plenty of moisture on hand as well, for the sheep nibbled away at the snow. Just like reindeer, they scraped the snow with their hoofs to get to the vegetation below.
One morning, we went to a level viewing point just above the village. Symbols of Buddhism and ancient animistic beliefs were imprinted everywhere; in the stupas, prayer flags and piles of maroon painted horns. Evil spirits were warded off with sazgo namgos (sheep skulls wound in webs of wood and wool) hung on outer walls of homes and lhato clumps that held a protective wooden arrow within willow branches the rooftops. An air of harmony and protectiveness towards each other pervades the gentle folk that live here. Yet, modern life has extracted its tol—schools as well as office and army jobs have lured the young away. Good income from homestays and a sermon from the Rinpoche (religious head) has made the villagers pivot away from keeping herds of goats and sheep. They’ve even opted to leave some land aside for blue sheep to graze on, which has helped bolster their numbers. Smanla Tsering, a wildlife guard and conservationist, told me that now there are 9-10 snow leopards in the Rumbak area alone. Here, he accompanied George Schaller, one of the world’s leading biologists, who said the coexistence of the people with the wildlife in Hemis National Park is an example to the world. It wouldn’t be here without them. The sea-change in the attitude of the people of Rumbak has spread across Ladakh in villages such as Shang, Ulley, Mangyu and far, far beyond…
The sun was out, the air clear, and the universe seemed to be contained within the bowl we were in. Lammergeiers and Golden eagles floated high in the skies. Down to the right, were camping grounds for wildlife viewers and trekkers. With the epidemic raging, the organisers were holding back this season, and there was no one there. Tibetan partridges pecked and clucked in the stubble of the barley field below us. They had exquisite maroon, black and white markings on their beige coats. A squadron of chakor partridges flew past us and settled on the same field, fluffed against the cold. Woolly hares chased each other in joyous play, glissading over the frozen Rumbak River. I could see Padma filling her containers at the water pump. People from the other homes, all of whom had said ‘Juley!’ in welcome and had us over for tea or chang (the local tipple), went about releasing their yaks, cows and dzos (a blend) to go off and forage. A donkey suddenly went apoplectic with rage, its ear-shattering bray amplified by the vertical mounds around us. “That’ll shatter the hills and start a mudslide,” someone joked. Where were the mating calls of the snow leopards? Were frosty eyes watching us right now?
The next morning, we spotted a wolf. Its jet-black silhouette made it stand out perfectly against the snow. We watched it feed on something, then clamber up to the skyline. In a beautiful, fleeting moment, it turned around and looked at us. Before long, a pair of grey wolves were spotted on another hill, nuzzling together, one paw delicately placed over the other. The spotters enacted the movements of Eurasian lynxes and red foxes. They made the hibernating marmots and the pikas down by gorges come alive. Their lively anecdotes kept me going when my frozen fingers and toes stopped communicating with me.
The next morning, there was a kerfuffle at 6.30 am. In my little room, I could hear noises and people moving about. “Snow leopard call!” shouted David Sonam, who had masterfully cobbled my trip together against the odds. Within minutes, I was on the narrow mud road that leads out of the village, and Nawang Tsering, a talented local spotter who had scouted the snow leopard, gave way for me to peer inside his scope. I saw the shan standing on a large rock, staring at a herd of blue sheep. An instant elation rent through me. In those short seconds, he conveyed irrefutable majesty. He was the beating heart of the mountains, the fulcrum of an ancient continuum. There were spontaneous yelps and high-fives all around.
Back in scope, the snow leopard’s body language relayed its intention. He was stalking. The blue sheep looked at him, made a calculation, then gradually moved away. He’d been spotted, and they could count on their winged hoofs. Advantage blue sheep.
He turned and began weaving deftly and purposefully through the jutting rocks. He stopped and did a complete roll on his back with his legs in the air. Then, light as a dandelion, he padded upwards through the snow and scaled the vertical face of the mountain, all the way up to the ridge at around 16,000 feet. The sun was on him, lighting the thick fur on his creamy underbelly. The unsociable predator of the glaciers seemed at one with his solitude.
He was clad in luxuriant, pale-grey fur with black rosettes, quite different from the taught skin and sharp daubs of what the Ladakhis call “the ordinary leopard’. His tail, like the extraordinary train of the peacock, was a defining flourish, acting as a balancing rudder as well as a blanket to curl into.
Upon reaching the rampart, he went across to the other side, vanishing from the scene. The herds of blue sheep relaxed. The males locked horns and the young ones began skipping about.
We waited. Just as we thought he was gone, he was back. Clinging to the ground, he poured himself down the rocky outcrops with liquid limbs, flowing directly towards the blue sheep. He moved purposefully towards a large herd on a vast slope, approaching stealthily, shielded in a rocky crevasse, melding his body with the curves of the stones. He laid low, in hiding, raising just his head to spy on them. The sheep moved closer. Here comes the charge. Our muscles tensed along with his as we strained at our scope. The slightest movement meant losing sight of him. The sheep moved even closer. Yet he waited. And waited. My neck and shoulders stiffened painfully, but I couldn’t lose him in the blur of monochromatic grains as epic drama unfolded in the distance.
Eventually, darkness set in, and I longed to sink into the cushion beside the crackling bukhari in Padma’s kitchen with a cup of hot tea to thaw the icicles in my core. We headed back, tired, hurting and deeply happy. Soon, the twinkling vault of stars would appear above us. Our feline had set himself up beautifully. His matchless night vision would now come into play. Advantage snow leopard.
Geetika Jain can be followed on Instagram @geetikaforest