Sir, Sir, Snow Leopard!! It was the most excited voice of my tour guide KC, on the morning of 18th February just before 8am when I was about to wear my snow boots inside my camping tent to get ready for the breakfast. I was in the Rumbak valley of the Hemis High Altitude National Park in the district of Ladakh in India. I was so thrilled with the news that I got out of the tent hurriedly without proper body warmers, even though the outside temperature was less than minus 15 degrees C.
My driver Thilan, who accompanied me during this ten day Snow Leopard photographic tour to India, was ready with the camera equipment fixed to a tripod near to my tent. His face was beaming since it was the first time we had a sighting of the Majestic Cat of the snow mountain, after camping for five nights from the time we arrived at the Hemis National Park. The sighting was far, but clearly visible through the spotting scopes used by KC as well as his assistant Nawang, who had actually spotted the predator that morning. I used a Canon 800mm telephoto lens together with a 2X extender to get at least a visible image of this magnificent cat on my camera. This was my second visit to Hemis National Park while my first visit was in 2013 when I saw a mating pair, but on that occasion, it was too far to even register an image of the Snow Leopard on my camera.
The Snow Leopard was once classified as an Endangered Species, but today it is listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species with the global estimated population numbers in the range of 4,500 to 8,000. Unlike other cats, access to Snow Leopards is very limited because their habitats are not easily reachable for humans, and chances of seeing a cat at close distance are very rare.
Our camp was located on the Rumbak Sumdo (known as the Three Valley point) with a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains where there is a possibility of sighting snow leopards. It was on the 11th February that we landed in Leh airport which is at an altitude of 4,000 meters, in the Ladakh district where we spent two nights for climatization before proceeding to Hemis National Park. We had to walk for at least two hours to reach the camp site from the closest road access point at the National Park.
The Snow Leopard we sighted was on the top of a rocky mountain. Later it moved half way down the slope, slowly. We changed our position to a higher ground level to get a closer and a better view of the cat, but it was still far. Later in the morning we lost sight of the leopard. Since the skin color of the cat and the rocky mountain are similar, spotting the cat even with a scope was not an easy task.
In the afternoon, this beautiful cat appeared again at a higher point of the same mountain, and it moved slowly to the peak of the mountain and vanished to the other side at sunset. I was quite happy with the still pictures and a few video clips I took during the day. The following morning, we searched for the Snow Leopard in the Rumbak Valley before leaving to get back to Leh city for a night to refresh ourselves.
Thereafter, we continued our tour to Ullay Valley, in a different direction to Hemis National Park, in search of the Snow Leopard for a further two nights, but spent the nights at a homestay accommodation. This was very comfortable compared to staying in a camp site where the temperatures are extremely low. But, there were no sightings. On the day, we left the Ullay, fresh pug marks of a leopard were spotted on the road close to the Ullay homestay accommodations. That was as close as we came to spotting the Snow Leopard at Ullay Valley.
I returned to Sri Lanka on the 24th while Thilan came home a day prior.