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Spotting snow leopard in the Himalayas

Journey in search of the 'great white cat'

The snow leopard is one of the most beautiful - yet elusive - creatures on the planet. Stealing through the highest reaches of the mountains like a shadow, they are notoriously hard to track, and their camouflage is such that they often slip by unseen, sometimes only metres away.

But in the high-altitude deserts of Ladakh, an extension of the Tibetan Plateau, there are still significant numbers of wild snow leopard. Cut off for much of the year by snow and ice, neither poachers nor tourists venture here. In recent years however, conservationists have realised the importance of Ladakh’s wildlife. It’s a place to spot not only snow leopard, but also ibex, wolf, Tibetan antelope, blue sheep, Himalayan fox, marmot, and shape (wild Kashmiri sheep). There’s rich birdlife too, with snow partridge, golden eagle, horned lark, and snow cock all seen regularly against breath-taking mountain vistas.

The best time to spot snow leopard in Ladakh is during the winter months, from January to March, when it is truly a winter wonderland and the cats are found hunting on the lower slopes. Flights from Delhi land at Leh, the largest town in Ladakh, and after a night or two of acclimatisation, you must then drive along narrow mountain roads alongside the mighty Indus River, passing numerous Buddhist monasteries and stupas along the way.

Your ultimate destination is the aptly named Snow Leopard Lodge in the Ulley Valley. There are just four guest bedrooms and you will be living with your hosts — a Ladakhi family — so you’ll have a unique view into Ladakhi culture and hospitality.

Your guide is a local authority on snow leopards and knows the valley’s terrain like the back of his hand. This knowledge is essential as it is a battle of wits: the guide must keep a step ahead of the snow leopard if you are to spot him in his remote habitat, but the effort is a large part of the attraction. This is an expedition, not a tour packed with creature comforts. For many hours, there will be just you, your guide, and the natural wonders of the great outdoors.
 
You will explore the Ulley Valley by 4x4 and also on foot. There are many parts of the valley that are impossible to reach by vehicle, and if the snow leopard wander there, you will need to follow your guide along the tracks. Eagle eyes are essential, and so too is a good pair of binoculars.

Though spotting snow leopard is undoubtedly the raison d’être of this expedition, it’s by no means the only attraction. Ladakh’s other wildlife is no less interesting, and often easier to spot. The mountains are wildly beautiful, and the Indo-Tibetan people living amongst them an inspiration. Their ancient culture, entwined by Buddhism, is clear to see, and on your way to and from Ulley, you will certainly want to stop at a few of their ornately painted monasteries. There are also royal palaces, giant statues of the Buddha, Tibetan markets, and ancient petroglyphs.

Ladakh is one of the most remote parts of India, and geographically, culturally, and ethnically distinct from other areas of the country. Though there are snow leopard populations in other parts of the world, notably in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, it is here in the Indian Himalayas that you are most likely to see them. Wrap up warm for the mountains, prepare to hike arduous routes, and trust in the local knowledge of your guide to show you one of the world’s most extraordinary endangered creatures.