It’s minus 20 degrees Celsius outside and I slip on my fleece lined North Face slippers and venture out. I am greeted by a Tolkienesque type scene outside our simple Ladakh homestay. A half-circle of mountains surrounds us and snow envelopes the hill sides like newly washed linen. I search for my binoculars and I am rewarded with a distant sighting of a huge male Ibex. However, we are here in Ladakh looking for the ‘Grey Ghost’ of the mountains and the excitement will go up to a whole new level, if we are lucky enough to see Snow Leopards on our expertly designed small group Snow Leopard tour. Believe me, this is like no other India wildlife holiday you will ever travel on.
Before I saw my first Snow Leopard in Ladakh in 2012 – infact, we were lucky enough to have 7 separate sightings – I read a lot about possible locations to see and photograph Snow Leopards and spoke to several tour leaders and wildlife photographers who had visited such diverse locations as Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Indeed, the first decent film of a Snow Leopard running down a mountainside, made by the BBC, was actually filmed in Pakistan - right on the border with Afghanistan - so, they needed special permission to be able to film in that location and get the amazing footage which thrilled the world of nature lovers.
Mongolia has been widely promoted as one of the best locations to see Snow Leopards at relatively low altitude ranges (between 2000-3000M). I have spoke quite recently to photographers who have visited and they did see them; but I would not say the photographs were on the same level as a good sighting in Ladakh.
When we first set up camp in Hemis National Park back in February 2012; the first people we met as we walked with our donkeys to the tented camp, was a small group of wildlife photographers who had just spent 5 days in the valley without seeing a Snow Leopard. It was not a good omen for our group, but as always at the start of a big cat safari, you try to remain optimistic for the week ahead. We knew that we were there at the best time of year; as winter time in Ladakh see the Snow Leopards favourite prey – blue sheep – coming down to the lower slopes in search of food. The Snow Leopards simply follow this annual migration and try to take advantage of groups of hungry blue sheep. It is also an advantage for the human led Snow Leopard tours; as they do not need to climb as high in the mountains to find the Snow Leopards and thus reduce the chances of altitude sickness.
There are two key seasons to consider when planning your Snow Leopard wildlife holiday and they are winter – for the reasons already explained – and the month of October; which is the blue sheep rutting season. When the male sheep rut they lose a huge amount of conditioning due to their constant battles with other territorial males and that leaves them in a more weakened state if pursued by a adult snow leopard. In addition, the blue sheep are sometimes distracted by the battles themselves and are not fully alert to the presence of the supreme predator of the Himalayas. As a potential visitor you may also consider that temperatures are likely to be less harsh in October, compared to January/February and this may make you consider planning a Snow Leopard tour at this time.
Firstly, don’t expect a ‘head shot’, or it walking slowly past your gas heated Ladakh homestay – although you just never know! During my first two Snow Leopard tours in 2012 and 2013, I lost count of the number of hours spent scanning seemingly empty mountain peaks – save for the odd blue sheep or Ptarmigan – hoping to catch a glimpse of the Snow Leopard and set myself up to take a photograph. More often than not it is your local guide who will see it first and then you have to decide from where you are going to photograph the Snow Leopard from. Often with a lone Snow Leopard who was lying down, you had plenty of time to walk and set up your cameras, as they would often not move until we started to lose the light at around 4-5pm. It was quite common to be at least 600-800M away from the subject and only when we found a Snow Leopard on a blue sheep kill, did we cut that distance to something more manageable for a 500-600mm lens.
Some of the great wild Snow Leopard photographs on the web have either involved very lucky photographers, or a known Snow Leopard kill being moved to enable a photography group to be able to get closer to their subject. I question the ethics of this, because at the end of the day you are interfering with the kill of an animal, which is so important for its survival during the harsh winter months. Also, there is something to be said for more ‘distant’ photographs of Snow Leopards, really placing the big cat in its true environment and showing the full beauty of this special region.
Of course we want you to get some ‘killer’ shots of the Snow Leopard during your India wildlife holiday in Ladakh, but we also want you to be comfortable and happy. So, in the last 7 years we have worked with our local agents and expert Snow Leopard guides to create a bespoke safari which provides a much higher level of comfort that in the ‘old days’. We now base ourselves in gas heated homestays in Ladakh, with proper beds and mattresses and western toilets. No rough stony pitch sites for your tent, or having to warm your hands with those gel packets! If it is your lifetime dream to see Snow Leopards in the wild, then check out our 'comfort' small group Snow Leopard tour.