Surely the most ultimate big cat safari in the world is to search for the Snow Leopard and if you travel with the right professional company and with a local expert guide on the ground, you have a great chance to see the ‘Grey Ghost’ of the Himalayas. This is a cat that researchers used to walk to mountains passes in Ladakh for months and never see them in the flesh. Wildlife Trails organises Snow Leopard tours in Ladakh and the beautiful Spiti Valley and our clients have always seen this stunning big cat of the high mountains.
The snow leopard, also known as ‘Shan’, in Ladakh, is a large cat with a huge tail, native to the mountain ranges of Central and South Asia. They are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because the global population is estimated to be less than 10,000 mature individuals. They are amongst the most perfectly adapted big cats to their harsh mountain environment. He largest males can reach 1.5 metres in length from head to tail and weigh up to 75 kilos. Their fur keeps them well insulated in the extreme weather above 2000M – it can be 5cm long on their back and sides and almost 12cm long on their belly. Snow leopards’ tails are nearly a metre long, they’re thought to aid balance and they also wrap them around themselves for added warmth. Unlike other big cats, snow leopards can’t roar. Snow leopards have a ‘main’ call described as a ‘piercing yowl’ that’s so loud it can be heard over the roar of a river
Due to the relatively low prey densities in the mountains, there territories can be several hundred square kilometres in size and their main prey are Argali, Ibex and Blue Sheep. They would also take livestock from herders in the mountains and revenge killings were a major problem across their range – they are found in 12 different countries, with China having 60% of the world population. Mating season for wild snow leopards is between January and mid-March. During this time, a male and a female will travel together for a few days and copulate. The female is typically pregnant for 93-110 days before finding a sheltered den site and giving birth to 1 to 2 cubs in June or July. The diligent mother raises her offspring alone, providing food and shelter for her cubs until they reach independence at around 18 months old.
In the last few years, the mountainous Spiti Valley in the state of Himachel Pradesh has become a hotspot for sighting Snow Leopards. Although a winter trip to this valley, presents serious logistical challenges and is not for the faint-hearted; the rewards are considerable – when it comes to photography of this beautiful feline. I have seen many amazing photos of Snow Leopard taken by our Indian guide in Spiti and am very confident that this trip will produce some exceptional sightings. However, it is not uncommon for there to be delays reaching the valley due to weather conditions and road closures due to landslides, so people joining this Snow Leopard safari, need to have a flexible, open mind and a real sense of adventure. Once we reach the valley, we will have a very comfortable, heated local homestay; which we will use as our base to explore the mountains. Expect a lot of long walks and the need for patience, as we try to track down the grey ghost of the mountains.