They say the worst place in the world for altitude sickness is Ladakh, and I can well believe it. Head pounding, I scrabble up a rocky slope in the Ulley Valley, trying to keep pace with Tsewang, my agile guide. Here on India’s Himalayan border with China, our pursuit of the local ‘grey ghost’ is proving a serious test of stamina.
“I’ve only seen a snow leopard twice in my life,” says Tsewang, rolling a cigarette as we take a welcome break between two giant boulders. “Ladakhi people call it the ‘grey ghost’ because it comes and goes and nobody knows that it’s there. It can walk right past a village and still be invisible.”
From the Himalayas in the south to the Altai mountains of Russia in the north, the snow leopard inhabits some of the harshest, most remote environments on Earth. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this is the least well-known of the world’s big cats. Home to around 500 leopards, the starkly beautiful region of Ladakh is one of the best places to catch a glimpse of this majestic animal, although today I’m not holding out much hope.
“There may be as many as eight or 10 leopards in this valley,” says Tsewang. “But now in December is not a good time to see them. In February, when the heavy snows arrive, they’ll be more active at lower altitudes.”
We push on higher, the sound of human cries and yak bells faint on the biting wind. Way down on the valley floor below a pair of herdsmen drive their livestock into a stone corral. A dark grey eiderdown of cloud sweeps ominously across the jagged horizon.
Scanning the landscape one last time with a pair of battered binoculars, Tsewang decides to end today’s ghostly pursuit.
“In the shadow of the Himalaya, Ladakh is a huge cold desert,” he says. “In such a place we can’t take risks with the unpredictable weather.”
Later that evening, safely back in Ulley, I meet local farmer and village headman Tsewang Norboo. Norboo, who has lived in Ulley all his life, has been herding yak since he was 17.
“I used to hate snow leopards,” he tells me over a cup of yak butter tea. “Sometimes they kill our animals. In the past, my family and I didn’t have much choice but to hunt them back. It was them or us.”
Today, thanks largely to the work of the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC), Norboo’s hunting days are over. Founded in 2003, this Indian NGO works to reduce human-snow leopard conflict, helping Ladakhi villagers to make their corrals and pens leopard-proof and starting an insurance program for livestock predation.
The SLC’s well-established homestay program sees more and more tourists on snow leopard quests overnighting in villages like Ulley.
“A live snow leopard is now worth more to us than a dead one,” says Norboo. “We still lose some livestock, but now we let the animal finish its meal without disturbing it. It’s only trying to survive, just like us.”
The following morning, as we walk out of Ulley, Tsewang suddenly stops to inspect the ground.
“Fresh snow leopard tracks,” he says, pointing out a line of clear, four-toed pugmarks, crossing over prints of humans and yak. “A ghost cat paid us a visit while we were snoring.”