Snow Leopards of Ladakh

The Female with a cub
It was in 2010 that I met Richard Seibel – he is a stocky gent from California area, in his eighties and full of life. He traveled with me on a tiger tour and went back to US seeing and photographing a few tigers in Bandhavgarh and Kanha.
I was in Ladakh in 2012 and I managed to see a male Snow Leopard for the first time in my life. I did some research and realized that it is possible to see them - with some homework. 
I was visiting Michigan in 2013 where Journeys International – a family run small tour operator is based and I met up with Richard again at a travel get-together. In the meanwhile ‘Dick’ had wished to photograph a Snow Leopard in the wild and then backed out of the plan as he was worried about his health and age. A short meeting between us convinced him to come for the hunt in 2014. So on 16th Feb 2014, Dick landed in Delhi – geared and ready for the ultimate test of luck and patience for one of the most elusive creatures on this earth. I was sure he will see one but his real ambition was to photograph one – now that is not easy.

We left for Ladakh on 19th Feb 2014 and after a short flight (which allows clear views of the peaks of the north-western Himalayas) we landed at the Leh air-strip. The air-hostess announced the temperature outside – 100C/140F. It was 10 in the morning and apparently this was warm compared to last few years – phew! We quickly met our team – Yaphel from the local office met me and put me in the car. We had a cheerful driver Jigmet who drove us to the luxurious Grand Dragon – hot water and clean comfortable heated water made our spirits soar.
The peaks from the flight

Eurasian Sparrow-hawk
The next three days were spent watching television, lazing and planning with one short outing on the 2nd day to the Shey marshes & the Sakti area – we picked up a nicely perched Eurasian Sparrow Hawk, a few White-winged or Guldenstadt’s Redstarts, Bluethroat. At Sakti we had fabulous views of a pair of Golden Eagle, a Red Fox and some Chukars.

Golden Eagle at Sakti
Guldenstadt's Redstart

On the 3rd day of the acclimatization we went to Chilling – a small village hidden in the folds of the Zanskar River – though we could not see any mammals we did see Snow Leopard tracks on the frozen river. On our return we found that the road-workers had blasted a part of the rock wall and the entire road was full with rock debris – some the size of a soccer ball and some the size of a small one room apartment. Well – without a choice of backtracking and waiting – we had one option – walk past the debris and call for a new car leaving the car we were in at a safe place. The plan worked out well – Dick at 84 was the fittest octogenarian I have ever met and with a little help from me he made to the other side with some photo-stops in the middle. 

Fit at 84 - he crossed those stones
The Yeti was finally found
The Golden Eagle and Red Fox at Sakti

On the 22nd we finally left for Ullay. We were actually planned to Rumbak but the visit of the Indian conservationist M K Ranjithsingh resulted in a closure of Rumbak for six days. We were not bothered by this as we had ample time – but such visits must cause some amount of discomfort for people on a short leash and tight budgets. We reached Ullay stopping a few times looking for anything – we did not see any mammals but some Fire Fronted Serins, a few European Goldfinches and Red Breasted Accentors kept us entertained. The scenic of course were grand and layer after layer of snow-covered peaks opened before us.

Ullay - our first base - 

A House in Ullay
Camping at Skanda la - Ullay

Domesticated Yak - Ullay

Ullay is a small village located at 13500 feet with about 15 homes – out of which 5 serve as homestays. We stayed in one of them and was surprised by the level of cleanliness. Immediately on arriving at Ullay the crew set up the kitchen, tea & coffee appeared with chocolates. I met our guide Dorje. The two scopes that we were carrying – a brand new Swarovski and a well used Kowa were out in a flash and the first mammal in Ullay – the Siberian Ibex showed up. A small party of 14 Ibex were grazing at the base of the peak opposite the home-stay and we enjoyed good scope views – though they were miles away from us. A short snow-fall happened in the afternoon and that meant that the temperature dipped immediately – Dick had a thermometer with him and in the early evening it showed -160C/30F. The little furnace – locally called ‘bukhari’ – kept us warm through the early hours of the night but it was cold after that. We got up early and after some hot breakfast (cereals, fruits, hot milk, fried eggs, chocolate shakes, tea/coffee), we left for a hike up the hill. At 14000 feet in Ladakh in winter the air is so dry and short of oxygen that going up even a few steps in the wild is a task. However the slope was not too bad and we managed to cover the distance in good time. We were rewarded with good views of the same party of Ibex. We stayed there for a few hours and then descended to the base. Over the next four days we explore Ullay and its nearby areas both in the morning and the afternoon. We could see the elusive Snow Leopard here though we found ample marks of its presence. We did have excellent views of the Bearded Vulture – Lammergeier, saw the Himalayan Snowcock, got a distant view of a Tibetan Wolf and saw Red Fox. We also got a Wallcreeper and a White-browed Tit Warbler.
Tibetan Wolf
Lammergeier at Ullay

Dick - watching Ibex
We moved back to Leh on the 27th January and after a night halt there (enjoying the relief of having a hot shower) headed to Zingchen to camp inside the Hemis National Park. 

Rumbak - our second base - 

Blue Sheep
The Camping Ground at Rumbak

We camped right at the entrance of the park. Within hours of our arrival we saw the first Snow Leopard – on the ridge over a kill. It was a male and it stayed there the whole day. On day two there was news of a female and a cub at Kharlung. After breakfast, Dick headed to the spot with the crew – I had to stay back due to an injury caused while I was in Ullay. The whole day the two leopards just rested and yawned – then at 1630 they moved and in the next 15 minutes some of the most amazing interactions between the two leopards allowed all the people who gathered at the spot, some cool photographs of Snow Leopards in the wild. We celebrated the sighting with a beer and a cake. It was fun! We stayed in Rumbak till the 6th March and we managed good views of the following wild mammals – Snow Leopard, Blue Sheep, Large-eared Pika, Tibetan Stone Marten, Mountain Weasel Red Fox & Woolly Hare. We saw a no of domesticated Yak the feral cattle. Though Dick was a non birder – I managed to see a few birds – Golden Eagle, Lammergeier, Himalayan Snowcock, Chukar, White Browed Tit Warbler, Rufous Breasted Accentor, Fire-Fronted Serin one un-identified raptor that could have been a Himalayan Buzzard and Hill Pigeon. No reptiles were sighted or expected in this cold weather. Temperature at Rumbak ranged between 00C to -180C.

Photographing the Stone Marten – Martes foina kozlovi

Tibetan Stone Marten - Martes foina kozlovi is a nocturnal mammal that in India is found from Kashmir to Sikkim at an altitude between 6000-14000 feet. Since it is a nocturnal mammal - hence it is difficult to photograph and I have not seen an image taken by any Indian photographer in India. I was delighted to hear that they have been seen in our campsite and decided to try for an image. This meant braving the cold and sitting out in the night temperature well below sub-zero. I decided I will do that. I had five nights in my hand and the first two were useless as each time I saw the mammal it just disappeared from sight in seconds. On the third a noisy drunk camper from Bengaluru scare the marten and it did not show up for two nights. One night to go - I sat out at 2100. At 2300 hours the cold was numbing my fingers and I was about to give up - I noticed a shadow between the rocks and I knew it was there. The moon had long set - so I had to use the flashlight with me to focus - so I had a Canon 5D Mark III with flash and a 300 f4 in one hand and torch in one hand a very skittish subject to shoot. I just fired a few shots and the marten just went back into its hole. Initial scan showed that most were out of focus - I was cursing and praying at the same time - at 0100 hours when I was half dead it came back and this time I managed two - three sharp images. Voila! I was very happy that finally I have seen this rare and endangered mammal and have something on plate to prove that.

 We returned to Ullay – with brief stop at Leh and checked in to the homestay of Nurboo –
a local guide with eagle eyes. As we were driving in to Ullay we saw the Tibetan Wolf on the road – it stayed for a very short while and then went up – we did manage a record shot. We were a bit tired from the long camping and took the afternoon easy.
Next three days we scanned the ridges and went out in the near and surrounds to try for a better view of the Snow leopard. We could not find one but at least once came very close to seeing one. Nurboo had located a fresh kill of Ibex and he wanted us to hike up to the kill. He mentioned it was a bit of a hike. We drove upto 14500 feet and walked and hiked up to 17000 feet. It was a tough hike and right at the top we found remains of the kill – the snow leopard had dragged the baby ibex up and finished it before we arrived. We tried to get a glimpse of any sign of Snow Leopard but failed and returned. We did see Tibetan Wolf, Red Fox, Siberian Ibex, Ladakh Urial in Ullay and surrounding areas. We also saw more Golden Eagles, Lammergeier, Chukar, Himalayan Snowcock in Ullay. The Ibex finally came down and allowed us a few shots that were decent.
On the 10th we finally returned to Leh, while Dick relaxed in the hotel I went out and saw the Ibisbill at a small stream near Spituk. 

The Ibisbill near Spituk
We enjoyed our final dinner in the kingdom of snow – and then on 11th flew back to Delhi. It was a dream come true to see the Tibetan Stone Marten and in particular a very happy end to a memorable tour for Dick – who wanted not just to see a Snow Leopard but photograph one.
Mammals seen –
1              Snow Leopard Uncia uncia – 2 males, 2 females
Snow Leopard - Female with cub
The same pair

2              Tibetan Wolf – Canis lupus chanco - 1
3              Red Fox – Vulpes vulpes - 4
4              Tibetan Stone Marten – Martes foina kozlovi - 2
5              Mountain Weasel – Mustela altaica-  1
6              Woolly Hare – Lepus oiostolus - 1
7              Blue Sheep – Psuedois nayaur - 100+
8              Siberian Ibex – 30+

9              Ladakh Urial – Ovis vignei vignei - 10+

10            Large Eared Pika – Ochotona macrotis - 5
11            Royle's Pika - Ochotona roylei - 1
Large Eared Pika

Royle's Pika

Birds seen –
1             Chukar – Alectoris chukar
2             Himalayan Snowcock – Tetraogallus himalayansis
3             Golden Eagle – Aquila chrysaetos
4             Lammergeier – Gypaetus barbatus
5             Eurasian Sparrowhawk – Accipiter nisus
6             Wallcreeper – Tichodroma muraria
7             Guldenstadt's Redstart - Phoenicurus erythrogastus
8             White-browed Tit Warbler – Leptopoliae sophiae
9             Ibisbill - Ibidorhyncha struthesi
10           Common Rosefinch - Carpodacus erythrinus
11           Tibetan Plain Snow-finch - Montifringilla adamsi
12           Fire-fronted Serin - Serinus pusillus
13           Horned Lark - Eremophila alpestris
14           Robin Accentor - Prunella rubeculoides
15           Brown Accentor - Prunella fulvescens
16           Dark Throated Thrush - Turdus artogularis
17           Red Billed Chough - Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax 
Black Billed Magpie
18           Black Billed Magpie - Pica hudsonia 
19           Winter Wren - Troglodytes hiemalis

Winter Wren

Dorje and his team

We Will Be Back