The Snow Leopards of Ladakh with Dale Morris
The snow leopard, or ‘Ghost Cat’ as it’s sometimes known, is arguably the most beautiful predator in the world. Fluffy, spotted, with piercing eyes and a thick woolly tail, this mountain specialist is the holy grail for wildlife photographers due to its highly elusive nature.
“You may get lucky Dale,” said my friend, a biologist and wildlife photographer, “You might even get a glimpse of one in the distance. But you mustn’t go with the expectation of actually getting a decent photograph”
He himself had been to Ladakh in India on numerous occasions, with the dream of snapping the magnificent ghost cat in its natural habitat, but like most who have previously journeyed to these icy realms, he had come back disappointed.
As I flew over India’s Himalayan mountains on my way to Ladakh to lead a private Oryx tour, I peered out at the jagged landscape of snow-clad peaks and wondered how many leopards there might be below me, hidden and invisible among the cliffs and pinnacles of this magnificent range.
Would I get to see one? Would I get to photograph one?
I tempered my expectations and told myself I would be happy simply to enjoy being in this region of ice and glaciers. After all, the Himalayas are without a doubt the most glorious mountains on earth, and the culture in this part of India is also fascinating.
The frigid town of Leh was my starting point, a place of Buddhist temples and ancient palaces, where people eke out a difficult living from the frost-hardened earth.
They wear thick clothing and furry hats. They ride hairy horses, and they raise big shaggy cattle, known locally as Dzo.
I spent the first few days with my guest visiting temples, chatting with Buddhist monks, and enjoying the native foods and teas. Yak cheese is a local specialty, and I really enjoyed its strong and pungent flavor.
Leh sits at an altitude of 3500 meters above sea level, which was high enough to give me headaches, but to get a chance of seeing a leopard, we would have to go even higher up into the mountains.
Fortunately, after a few days of acclimatizing in Leh, the headaches abated and we were able to head up to altitudes of well over 4000 meters.
Snow leopards have dappled coats that help them blend seamlessly with the environment, making them almost impossible to see. Alone, I would have pretty much zero chance of spotting one.
But I wasn’t alone. Oryx uses the services of local expert trackers who have been researching and protecting snow leopards In Ladakh for years.
On our many treks through the Hemis national park and the Himalayan surroundings, we witnessed stupendous scenery and saw lots of wildlife such as mountain goats, eagles, and foxes.
I also met plenty of local folks who invited us into their houses and let us see and photograph their lives.
But much to my surprise, we also witnessed no less than five different leopards and did not spend a single day without an encounter with these magnificent cats.
The lodge owners and tracking team explained to me why leopards don’t seem to be as elusive as once they were.
They’re likely being habituated by the presence of photographers and their teams, as well as the fact that locals are not chasing them away as much as they used to. There are now numerous conservation projects that have been established to reduce livestock mortality from snow leopard attacks, as well as compensation schemes for when incidents occur.
Communities living in the snow leopard territory now see these beautiful predators as an asset that attracts international tourists and funding, rather than being an enemy.
Although we had had numerous amazing encounters with these cats throughout the duration of the tour, none of it had prepared me for the final treat.
My team took us to a secluded valley surrounded by steep cliffs, where a dead animal lay still upon the mountain path – a donkey that had been predated on the previous night.
“We’ll wait here,” our tracker told us.
We sat down behind a pile of boulders; drank some ginger tea, and then, as if by magic, a snow leopard appeared and commenced to feasting on its kill.
I was able to watch and photograph this powerful predator from a distance of no more than 80 meters away. She watched us, snarling from time to time, but her annoyance was not directed at us, but rather at the foxes and magpies who had assembled to try their luck at a free meal.
It was one of the most profound and amazing wildlife encounters I have ever had the privilege to experience.
When I returned home, I met up with my friend and showed him my photos. He looked a little jealous.
“I think it’s time I went back to Ladakh,” he said.
“I think you should” I smiled “I’m going again there soon. Care to join me?”