In the eye of the telescope, the silent assassin basked during a rocky crevice in blazing sunshine. One side of his face was streaked with blood, but it had been three days old. As dusk approached, he needed to eat. Rising reluctantly and crouching low, he moved up the ridge to assess his prospects. Here within the Hemis park outside Leh, the historic capital of Ladakh, his main target is that the Himalayan blue sheep. Technically speaking, the caprid bharal are neither blue nor sheep, but they’re tasty and abundant. Also sure-footed and powerful.
They too stake out the ridges, on aware of a bolt at the slightest movement. The ounce must stalk undetected until he’s close enough to pounce, but as a cat weighing around 30kg-45kg attacking an animal that averages over 50kg, the probabilities are against him. Getting it right means putting enough meat within the larder for each week or more. Getting it wrong means hurtling down the mountain, missing the prey and risking grave injury on the rocks below. Then finding the energy to line up again. With an execute pace of 10 percent, it takes ability and fortitude to endure. My ounce – we wildlife tourists are very possessive about our prey – bobbed up and down on the skyline, then slipped into subsequent valley. I found myself wishing him luck.
It was my great luck to determine the mythical “grey ghost” in its natural, extremely hostile habitat on my first day of searching. As we’d negotiated the hairpins on the barren route to Hemis, my host, Behzad Larry, had been uncharacteristically nervous. “There are not any non-sightings since I acknowledged Voygr Expeditions in 2013, but I’m always just one trip away from failure,” he said. That’s not something the 33-year-old American – dedicated to sourcing the only Speyside malts for his guests – is conversant in . He was mentioned as an only child with four dachshunds in Madhya Pradesh by a Parsi father and a Muslim mother. When he was 15, he and his mother moved to NY City. In his new urban environment, Behzad retained his love of animals, augmented by a growing passion for creating a career out of photographing them within the wild. An intrepid traveller, he already organises tiger expeditions in Ranthambore park in Rajasthan and plans to feature the Siberian tigers and Amur leopards within the north of Vladivostok to his cat repertory next year.
Rugged peaks loom over Ladakh’s Tso Moriri lake
Rugged peaks loom over Ladakh’s Tso Moriri lake | Image: Behzad J Larry
I’d been nervous too. At worst, no snow leopard; at the simplest , a spotter remarking a lean grey beast with black rosettes designed for camouflage on a far off peak – “There, just there, under the rock to the right , you will see it move” – except I wouldn’t because it’d be both perfectly disguised and far away. My lengthy initial sighting was a game-changer: now we could all relax and luxuriate within the ride. In my case, literally – I mounted my sturdy 13-hand pony and headed up Capitol Hill .
With the Himalayan passes closed until Ladakh’s May‑to-September high season , winter expeditions start with a morning flight from Delhi to Leh (the only airport shuts down within the afternoons because of the wind blowing in dust from the high-altitude desert). Unlike most of its competitive set, which cater for the Buddhist temple summer circuit, the top Ladakh hotel welcomes intrepid hunters year-round. Owned by brothers Ghulam Mohiuddin and Ghulam Mustafa, the ornately decorated building could also be an immediate legacy of the first hippie tourists to arrive in Ladakh in 1974. “They came during a bus from Srinagar,” Mohiuddin recalled. “Sixty pink and yellow people with long hair. because the word spread, my friend said we should always always bunk off school to follow them. They were probably trying to seek out a toilet, but we never allow them to out of our sight.”
Back reception, his parents took note, bought beds and turned their house into the Dragon Guesthouse in time for the 1975 arrivals. When the 82-room head opened in 2007, it heralded a marketplace for richer visitors after years of backpacker domination. Today the siblings send their own sons to Les Roches Hospitality Management Schools in Crans-Montana and Marbella, and sleep in splendour within the “OP” opposite the top portico – “Observation post,” said Mohiuddin, smiling broadly. Mustafa is that the artistic brother – his intricate drawings of Ladakhi characters are showcased within the lobby – but Mohiuddin, like all the only hoteliers, keeps his eye on his guests.
The very beginning of any Voygr campaign is spent resting to adjust to a quick ascent to 3 ,500m. No liquor, and oxygen chambers as required. The subsequent day takes into consideration a light walk around town in anticipation of the central business ensuing morning. Top of the different shopping records could likewise be a pashmina, Ladakh’s subsequent world-class extravagance product (after snow panthers). The hairstyle from the throat and underbelly of the Changthangi goat makes wraps that run uninhibitedly through the slimmest of rings.
Currently, there are an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 snow leopards in 12 central Asian countries between Uzbekistan and China. Hemis park is believed to possess the densest population, making it the go-to destination when Planet Earth and Hostile Planet need headline footage. Founded by the Indian government in 1981, it expanded gradually along the south of the Indus to 4,400sq km. Now the foremost important park in south Asia, it incorporates 19 agricultural villages and a couple of of the harshest high-altitude desert terrain within the planet. In summer, the wildlife moves upwards to 6,000m, but come November, snow drives predator and quarry alike off the mountaintops and thus the winter sighting season begins.
“The ounce is that the foremost mysterious of massive cats,” says Khenrab Phuntsog, our head spotter, wildlife conservationist and BBC aide in Hemis for happening 20 years. “Look it within the attention and you see deep into its soul. I actually just like the romance of the search. It’s like going to the casino – never a certainty, but an intense expectation.” That first evening in camp, we sipped hot cider spiced with rum within the Voyager mess tent slightly below Field of Dreams, a plateau named by a British naturalist for its high headcount. With four crumbling stupas for karma, snow leopards share the planet with Tibetan wolves and lynx, prime rivals for prey. Their joint menu includes Ladakhi urial (wild horned sheep) and Asiatic ibex also as bharal. An ounce can also take down a wild yak, but it needs all its agility to subdue the massive beast before it rolls and crushes it.
January temperatures can go as low as -40˚C, so Behzad applies a strong eye for detail to every aspect of his guests’ comfort. The thick canvas tents are lined with felt, large enough to confront in and given beds, tables and rugs. The double-layer full-down sleeping bags are army surplus, designed for outdoor midwinter use by the massed troops guarding sensitive borders with Pakistan and China. Propane heaters and hot-water bottles guarantee a toasty night. Hemis issues a maximum of fifty permits every day for this area, so there could even be less fortunate campers sleeping on rock bottom nearby; the canvas-averse take advantage of homestays in Rumbak, an eight-house town 20 minutes up the valley.
In the main tent, prayer flags flutter and lampshades provide subtle shadows. Ladakhi dishes – delicately spiced soups and curries – are impeccably prepared and there is an open bar. If the American billionaires had said beforehand that they wanted Cheval Blanc instead of Indian Sula red, Behzad would have put it in place, regardless of any disappointment the damage to the palate a jolting pony trek at 4,000m might cause. After dinner, a hand of cribbage, a game of Scrabble, one malt and a not-so-early night.
The spotters rise at dawn to hunt out tracks while guests enjoy French-press coffee and pomegranate juice before a troublesome day on Capitol Hill. Behzad features a couple of set departure dates, but most of his groups are private, predominantly from the US, the UK and Australia. the greater part are committed climbers, yet trophy untamed life pictures are the essential motivation. English birders include another measurement, marking out the universe of Dreams to detect the white-browed tit-songbird and subsequently the partridge-style Tibetan snowcock. brilliant hawk and lammergeier dip imperiously overhead, prepared to pick any accessible bodies clean.
In the interests of conservation, the Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife Protection Department, which runs Hemis, has launched a project to observe snow leopards around the clock. additionally to 650 hidden cameras, they acknowledged snares during a catchment area around Rumbak in early 2019. By placing the disguised traps near rocks where the animals rub themselves and urinate to work out territorial rights, they planned to capture four males and two breeding females.
By April, they were receiving invaluable lifestyle data from three males they’d trapped, sedated, fitted with high-tech collars and released. In each case, the animal had tightened the snare by pulling back, then waited passively for the wardens to suit the collar and set it free. the only female to trigger the trap paused, saw the way to loosen the snare and trotted off. Experimentally baffling, yet snow panthers are singular, so a female must slaughter for her fledgelings for a long time. With such huge amounts of duty, a badly considered response isn’t a choice.
Even before I finished my first coffee, the phone buzzed with essential intel: the fourth male was within the bag. I quickly mounted up, and my pony which I picked our way eagerly through rocks and streams in time to determine Khenrab, standing tall, long-barrelled gun in hand. With a sigh, the dart found its target and thus the captive slumped to rock bottom. Unlike other big cats, snow leopards don’t have the vocal cords to roar. Instead, this second leopard chuffed softly, a guttural feline purr that it uses in mating games, as I reached cautiously for its hindquarters. Its coat was long and dense, its paws disproportionately large to affect snow, the workmanlike fur on the pads designed to increase traction on rocks. The sinewy rope of tail, as long as its body, lay thunked down on rock bottom. In action, it provides critical ballast for balance; in rest, a protective cocoon of warmth.
In no time, the neckline was on. At the point when the venture closes, all collars are getting the chance to be discharged remotely. In the mean time, Khenrab managed the counteractant and in this way the panther came to. People aren’t an area of its normal wonder – yet that doesn’t mean it prefers them. In a split second alarm, it sprang on to the stones, streamed magnificently up the mountain and vanished over the peak. Would there be a stout impulsive bharal on the opposite side? On the proof of my panther karma, that should be guaranteed.