Friday, March 6, 2020

Tracking the Snow Leopard in Spiti Valley

Following the elusive Grey Ghost of the mountains

(Picture above: The elusive big cat is found in the remotest nooks of the Kibber Wild Life Sanctuary.) 

Stealth and grace marked his every step; his long furry tail swished like a bridal train, the snow leopard paused, preened and then presented a proud profile, unaware of the adoring paparazzi gazing at him from a distance. 

It was my third day in the icy vastness of Spiti valley, 450 kilometers north east of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh at an altitude of 14,500 feet above sea level, the valley is said to have around 10-12 big cats that live alongside Himalayan ibex, red fox, Tibetan wolves, snowcocks and vultures. As we gazed at him through the binoculars from the top of the cliff, he yawned, baring his fangs. A bloody kill lay nearby; we learnt he had devoured it over couple of days. 

For a few moments, we forgot it was -25 °C, that the bitter cold cut to the bone; that freshly fallen snow lay at our feet and the wind whooshed and whipped around us. All I could see was the big furry cat sitting at bottom of the cliff near its kill, I couldn’t believe my eyes that the snow leopard was real, and not a dream.

 I was lucky to travel to Spiti in the winter of 2019 (after having travelled couple times earlier in the summers). As more and more Indians take to travel, it is getting increasingly difficult to find the soul of a place in the ‘best season’ to visit. 

I was also keen to see how people lived in the extreme cold. Winter in Spiti is extremely harsh and temperatures sometimes fall to -40 degrees Celsius, it was a test to my body and mental strength. Every day, I learned a little more about this remote piece of our country where people and nature are bound together by instinct and folklore.

(The above picture is me trying to spot a snow leopard in the vast trans-himalayan wilderness.) 

Spiti is steeped in Spirituality. It is everywhere, in the prayer flags furiously and in the wrinkles of old monks chanting as they go about their day. The locals have a quiet sense of pride for Spiti’s natural heritage and are deeply connected with their land. It was a winter I would remember for many years, most of my drive back to Shimla and then my flight back to Bangalore was spent replaying montages of Spiti in my head, the insights I’ve gained about the hardships of the local life and wildlife of the Trans-Himalayan region was very educative and a humbling experience. 

Story by Deepak, who travelled with Ecosphere on the Snow leopard trip in December 2019.

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