The hunt for the snow leopard: the grey ghost of the Himalayas

Last week, Richard Branson asked if you could spot the cat, in a fleeting snapshot from his friend Simon. This captured moment was the result of a nine day trek in the Himalayas. Adam Riley, one of the team members, tells us the story behind the photographs.

It was our third day in high elevation Hemis National Park, we had awakened before dawn and chugged down a mug of life-giving coffee before ascending a few hundred yards to a knoll - just above our tented camp in the Rhumbak Valley.

It was at this very spot, on our first afternoon in the park, we began our search for the snow leopard; the grey ghost of the Himalayas.

It wasn't going to be easy. Seeing a wild snow leopard is every wildlife enthusiast’s dream, probably the ultimate and most elusive wildlife experience on the planet. This Holy Grail of sightings was until quite recently, virtually impossible, requiring months of extreme endurance for even the slimmest glimmer of hope.

​This Holy Grail of sightings was until quite recently, virtually impossible, requiring months of extreme endurance for even the slimmest glimmer of hope. Peter Matthiessen’s famous book "Snow Leopard" describes such an attempt that proved ultimately unsuccessful in his primary goal of glimpsing a snow leopard. It was in the first half hour of this day that we got ours. 

“Shan!!” – our expert local spotter exclaimed; the Ladakhi name for snow leopard.

After a few tense moments and some mild panic, we had all trained our telescopes on a snow leopard stalking across a far mountain slope.

The distance was extreme, estimated at 2.5-3km, even the cat’s spots were hard to discern, yet we spent an enthralling hour and a half watching it sunning itself on a rock, then rolling like a tabby cat in loose gravel before setting off, at a remarkably rapid pace, across the mountain slope until it disappeared above a cliff face.

Image from Simon Bellingham

Moments later - it returned, barreling down the cliff in a chase, scattering a herd of Blue Sheep in all directions, however it didn’t seem to reach striking distance of any of them; and disappeared with a seemingly disgusted look on it's face, as only a cat can have.

Elated, we dissolved into a cloud of high fives. Nine days in the mountains and by the first had already actually clapped eyes on what we had so longed to seek; the Grey Ghost of the Himalayas. But now we had spotted him once, we needed a closer view.

It was on the upper slopes of this valley where our distant snow leopard had been observed. By the end of the day our eyes were stinging with from incessantly scanning the slopes for another glimpse of the cryptic feline. I hadn't expected there to be so many hiding places where he could be hiding; literally millions, in fact.

By sunset we felt that we were faced with a near impossible task and were grateful for the glimmer we got. However, our spotting of 10 herds of blue sheep (locally known as Bharal) on the slopes around this lower valley spurred us on. They are the preferred diet choice of the snow leopard after all...

Image from Simon Bellingham

In a tight spot 

Day three had dawned bright and sunny once again. In fact these days in late October were just stunning, and despite being at 3,900m in elevation, I gallantly opted for a t-shirt.

However as soon as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, a remarkable phenomenon occurred; the
mercury literally plummeted more than 20 degrees centigrade to below zero over a short time. We opted for a pre-breakfast scan at the knoll above camp from where we had lucked into our first sighting. And sure enough... This time it was our assistant spotter who uttered the magical word, and after a scramble we were again all watching a much closer spotted friend in the Tarbung Valley.

The cat appeared almost golden in the early morning light and this time we could admire its magnificent thick, blotched pelt and extremely long tail. Snow leopards are the subject of recent taxonomic debate, sometimes being placed in their own genus Uncia. In fact genetic evidence indicates that the snow leopard’s closest living relative is the tiger.

This leopard  sat, quite cheetah-like, before stalking off and started innocently rolling in the gravel, apparently an indication of the desire to mask its scent before a hunt.

Half an hour later we were on the slope opposite to where we had seen our leopard and with directions from our spotter we managed to relocate the cat. It was barely visible at the top of an outcrop about 300m away, cautiously peering over the rocks at us. We settled down and trained our telescopes soon, slowly but surely, our leopard popped up his head to finally say hello. After an hour, a pleasant surprise awaited us when our camp staff arrived with hot breakfast and coffee in tow and served us a delicious meal in situ as we marveled at the Snow Leopard! Hard to believe this was real! As the sun rose and the day heated up, our cat dozed off, all we could see was a paw and the top of its head!

The chase of the blue sheep

Soon, however, it was dinner time for our friend too. 

As the shadows grew narrow, a herd of ten blue sheep made an appearance on the scene. Closer and closer they approached and our adrenalin levels began to rise, knowing ourselves that they were unwittingly strolling towards danger, who was currently snoozing away peacefully! 

 

Suddenly the leopard detected the presence of its prey and sat up on its haunches. A moment later, and a flash of paws, the cat was hurtling through the outcrop. 

Before long, the leopard bounds across the rocks in great leaps towards its prey. As you may imagine, the sheep decided against exchanging small-talk, and took to flight, creating dust trails in their wake.

We could not believe our fortune; not only had we found the beautiful rarity of the snow leopard - but now we were witnessing a moment of nature in action: a hunt beyond our wildest dreams!

Image from Simon Bellingham

Dinner is served 

Well, perhaps one of our most gruesome dreams. After a dramatic chase, the leopard finally got its just deserts - and extending a paw, and immediately latched onto one of the unsuspecting sheep's throat.

Only when it was certain the sheep was dead did our predator finally release its fatal grip and rest alongside its upcoming meal for several minutes catching its breath after such a dramatic chase.

Finally the great hunter leaves us, dragging his dinner over the rocky outcrop, out of our view once again.
 

By this time the light was fading fast and we arrived back in camp half an hour later in the pitch dark, still not quite believing what had unfolded before our eyes! This was truly an incredible encounter we had been so, so fortunate to witness; a full snow leopard hunt from beginning to end including the take and kill. Here's the map of our journey.

Image from Simon Bellingham

Our spotter had been working in Hemis for 16 years and he had never seen this happen in his life; with film crews and professional photographers taking up to months to find the snow leopards; sometimes even years. As far as we are aware, no successful hunt has ever been captured! I am exhilarated therefore to be able to share my images and story of this hunt with you.

Adam Riley

And there it was... we had captured the great leopard in a streak of flying spots. Here's that moment one more time in lights. 

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