There are only 3.000 to 6.000 snow leopards estimated to be alive today – they are an endangered species. By some conservative estimates, you would be 10 times more likely to be struck by a lightning than have the absolute luck of seeing the majestic snow leopard. Serken (which is the traditional name of the snow leopard) is considered to be a symbol of God. With these thoughts in mind, five layers of warm clothing and strong, sturdy shoes I set out on a journey to experience the Himalayas. A lot of effort was put into everything I would need for my trek into one rucksack. The aim was to keep it as light as possible. I was going to climb steep rocky mountains in -10 Celsius (it was late October), explore the frozen valleys and live with the locals of the Spiti-Lahaul district in Himachal Pradesh, India.

The chances of spotting a snow leopard are the same as seeing an angel falling from the sky. And yet a trip to the Himalayas might be your best bet!

photo by Eric Kilby via flickr

 

When I arrived at Chandigarh in the morning hours, three other free spirits and one rental car welcomed me at the airport. We hopped in and hit up the highway to Manali. A night spent well and an energy-packed breakfast filled me with the thrill and enthusiasm to drive further. Under the towering snow peaks and past huge boulders we steered towards our next destination: Chatru. Unlike the roads so far, the roads here were made of gravel. For the first time in my life, I witnessed a landslide right beside me. Mother Earth pulled down everything from big boulders to fine sand particles and threw them at us puny humans. Everything was grey, hidden under the vast dust cloud that rose in the sky. Gravity showed its aggression to us. Earth – like an angry goddess; trying to tell man that she is far more powerful than any human being could ever aspire to be!

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A big speed bump and an uneven bridge brought me back to the present and I saw that we had by now passed the landslide. The grey had disappeared and we had reached Chatru, just before dusk. The stars shimmered and glittered as they can only under the grand Himalayan sky. There were only two huts where we could ask for food. The temperature fell rapidly but the small hut, the family we met, the fried eggs and noodles they cooked for us brought much needed warmth and love. After setting up our camp I watched the stars glide over the night sky for about two hours and discussed how enriched and privileged our life was to be experiencing this spectacle first hand. We also discussed struggles of life while talking to the local family we had met. They had no permanent address – they lived six months in Chatru and the other six in a village at a lower elevation. They were filled with joy to meet us, to share their dinner with us and allow us to spend a night on their land. It wasn’t often that they had visitors this late into the year. They told me people like us, make their life beautiful. I strongly believe the struggles you choose determine the level of carefree and happy life you lead.

The next morning I woke up to numb feet, ice in my hair and chirping birds in my ears. There were a pair of singing River Chats flying around outside. The tributary of Spiti river flowed freely by the side. After waving goodbye to the family who provided us with hospitality we moved ahead to Dhankar Village. On the way we spent yet another night at a pristine lake down a narrow, winding road: Chandra Tal Lake – the Lake of the Moon. It is one of the highest lakes in the world. We spent the night under the starry galaxy and woke up to clear blue water which literally turned the Himalayas upside down in its reflection.

 

The chances of spotting a snow leopard are the same as seeing an angel falling from the sky. And yet a trip to the Himalayas might be your best bet!

The next evening we would finally reach Dhankar Village. The night fell again as we were about to reach Dhankar Monastery. To my surprise, the stars were not the only shining light, as the light flowed out of the monastery windows. I shouted with joy “Yay, we found a home.” Faint with hunger, we decided to distract ourselves by turning our attention to our daily “wildlife talks” and discussed how we were 4.000 meters above sea level. My friends curiously asked me about the wildlife found here. I told them about the Short-toed Larks that we had seen flying in flocks at the lake, the majestic Himalayan Griffon that perched on the rock, the Ibex which we couldn’t see and then we discussed the mighty and elusive snow leopard.

“The snow leopard (Panthera uncia), lives in high altitudes about 3.000-4.500 meters above sea level. It can walk on the rocky steep slopes of the Himalayas and is usually seen only above the tree line. Sources say that there are only 6.000 of these individuals left in the wild. They have been facing major threats like climate change and habitat destruction owing to the greed of humans. They can hunt prey three times their size. They are about 125 cm long – not counting their tail length. They have an extremely useful tail which can sometimes be used to protect them from the harsh snow,” I explained. “Can we come across a snow leopard here?” asked a friend who was currently concentrating on driving towards the lights. “Yes,” I said, “If only fate is on our side! It is an extremely rare and elusive animal, and finding one is like finding an angel falling from the sky.” My friends laughed as we continued making our way.

The chances of spotting a snow leopard are the same as seeing an angel falling from the sky. And yet a trip to the Himalayas might be your best bet!

After about thirty minutes, while we were still driving and I was lost in the stars that followed us, my friend who had never seen even a snow leopard photograph, shouted out – “snow leopard!” – and brought the car to a grinding halt. Wait, what, that isn’t possible – I thought. “No, it can’t be,” I said still lost in the stars. “It is, there is no other creature this size with that long a tail. Her eyes are shining in the car’s headlights, at least take a look!” He exclaimed. I got up from my recumbent position and to my surprise an adult solitary “Serken” as the locals would call it was sitting comfortably on the cold, very steep mountain beside me. I hurriedly got my torch and focused straight on the animal, keeping a safe distance. “Yes, a female snow leopard!”

We stopped the car to get a better look. I tried photographing it but it was too dark. It stared at us as we stared back. I tried to climb up to get a better picture, careful not to make any sudden movements and scare it away. The result was this shot that I managed to capture after 30 minutes of slowly and painfully inching forward. By then I had closely monitored her behavior towards me – she looked calm and peaceful, she just wanted to relax on the mountains. We stayed like this for another 30 minutes, staring at each other before my friends dragged me away and I went to the car reluctantly. That night we holed up at the monastery, where the monks told us that yes indeed a snow leopard had been dragging away their livestock over the last few weeks. They mentioned that spotting a snow leopard is very rare and that we were one of the luckiest travelers that year! I slept fitfully, dreaming of the leopard, chasing it through the mountain crags.

The chances of spotting a snow leopard are the same as seeing an angel falling from the sky. And yet a trip to the Himalayas might be your best bet!

On the next day, at the break of dawn, I jumped out of my bed and drove towards the place where we had spotted the Serken. Alas, it was gone! I jumped into the narrow gap between the mountains and started pulling myself up. Although the Serken was gone, I was fortunate enough to collect her hair and a few droppings. I secured these valuable samples up in air- tight zip-lock bag to get them tested at a lab once we returned to civilisation. The Serken was a majestic sight, one that crowned our entire trip. It was more than the icing on the cake, for me personally, the Serken was the cake itself!


This is a guest post by Madhushri Mudke.

author-headshot-minMadhushri quit her career in physiotherapy at the age of 25. Nothing excites her more than frogs, birds and travelling. She feels safer in the wild than in the cities, so she spends most of her time exploring the jungles of India. Travelling is great for a variety of reasons – but she thinks the BEST way to travel is to practice ethical ecotourism – more about that on her blog Girl Gone Birdzz. You can also follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.