HUNT FOR THE GREY GHOST

An extreme journey to find a rare beast

Sunrise over the Pamir Mountains

Sunrise over the Pamir Mountains

The snow leopard had been caught in the act. Cornered inside the loosely-secured livestock corral, it had already killed several sheep and goats. So Totisho Davlatnazarov Mubarakadamovich, a herder in the remote Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, did what he felt he had to.

He picked up the nearest available weapon, a shovel, and killed the wild cat. He hoped to recoup the devastating loss to his livelihood by selling its skin and bones. Illegally-procured leopard skins are sold as ostentatious wall hangings, and as body parts for traditional Asian medicines. This trade could have provided a lucrative opportunity had Mubarakadamovich sold his ill-gotten wares.

But news travels quickly in small communities. Local authorities got word of his actions and prepared to enact a hefty punishment. Eking out $40 a month as both teacher and herder, he now faced a crippling fine of $32,000.

A shovel was the nearest available weapon

A shovel was the nearest available weapon

The herder's plight reached the ears of Tanya Rosen, Director of Panthera's Snow Leopard Program in Tajikistan. She recognised his dilemma: retaliatory killing of snow leopards is widespread. "We were determined to turn this terrible accident into something positive," says Rosen.

She convinced Mubarakadamovich to turn the leopard carcass over to Tajikistan's Committee of Environmental Protection and Tajik Academy of Sciences, and to promise to never kill another predator, in exchange for an agreement to waive the fine.

Relieved of his financial burden, Mubarakadamovich was profoundly grateful. On his own initiative, he began assembling others in the village to establish a network of informants, to prevent future snow leopard kills. It was the beginning of what would later become a conflict-mitigation project funded by the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative.

A snow leopard pelt being sold by a Balti family in Askole, Pakistan

A snow leopard pelt being sold by a Balti family in Askole, Pakistan

Mubarakadamovich's story is not that unusual. The snow leopard's existence is shrouded in conflict. Almost everywhere they occur, their carnivorous nature clashes with human activities, transforming hunter into hunted. Snow leopards are a cat in crisis.

At the same time, they have a ghostly grandeur. To capture the mystique and majesty of snow leopards, a BBC Earth film unit set out for Ladakh, India. Their aim: to capture footage of this cryptic mountain-climbing cat for a follow-up landmark programme to 2006's Planet Earth.

Choosing a location was tricky. The film crew, headed by producer Justin Anderson, had to balance several concerns.

"Snow leopards were very much a big star of the Planet Earth 'Mountains' show," says Anderson. Ten years previously in Pakistan, they had captured a snow leopard hunt on film for the first time ever. "It was a big iconic sequence for the series," says Anderson.

It was his task to revisit snow leopards for the Planet Earth sequel. However, nobody knew the whereabouts of the "star" snow leopard that they had filmed before. Worse, the politics of Pakistan had changed radically since their previous visit. It was time to explore new horizons.

They decided to go to Hemis National Park in Ladakh, India. The Planet Earth crew had filmed there, but struggled to see the cats. Now the area is a hotspot for snow leopard sightings.

It may be that the Park's conservation strategies have been so successful that the cats, while still shy, have become more tolerant of people, and people more tolerant of the cats. India has created a national plan for snow leopard conservation, as have Mongolia, Pakistan, Nepal and Russia.

Such plans are urgently needed. The cat from the roof of the world is struggling to stay alive. Its range covers about 2 million sq km, spanning the Himalayas, Karakorams, Hindu Kush, Pamirs, Tien Shans, and Altai mountain ranges. It can be found in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and perhaps Myanmar (Burma).

Snow leopards live in punishing terrain. They clamber along cliffs, rugged grasslands, gullies, ridges, slopes, and rocky outcrops, in habitat subject to extremes in temperatures, high aridity, and powerful storms.

They are elusive, and their camouflage is impeccable. Individual cats also range over vast distances. In addition, a third of their range falls along sensitive international borders engaged in hostile disputes. All this means that snow leopards are difficult to study.

Globally, between 4,000 and 6,600 snow leopards remain, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Their numbers are thought to have declined as much as 20% between 1992 and 2008, due to loss of habitat, illegal trade, conflict with local people, and loss of their traditional prey.

Snow leopards prey mainly on blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) and Siberian ibex (Capra sibirica), both of which are threatened by overgrazing of livestock, poaching, and persecution. Radio-tracking studies suggest that snow leopards kill a sheep every 10 to 15 days, supplementing their diet with marmot (Marmota spp.), pika (Ochotona spp.), hares (Lepus spp.), rodents, and birds.

MONTANE FOOD CHAIN

Spotter K.C. Namgyal at work

Spotter K.C. Namgyal at work

Immediately before the BBC Earth team arrived, nine cats had been spotted in 12 days, so the signs were promising. Anderson had assembled a large team, reasoning that to get good footage he needed ample time in the field and a team big enough to cover all the angles. Before they left, the team trained in mountain rescue and avalanche safety in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho, US.

With three camera operators, two assistants, and 11 local guides, spotters, porters and support staff, the shoot in Ladakh took six weeks. Anderson was excited about filming snow leopards, but also nervous. "They are still incredibly rare, incredibly elusive, and it's a hard place to work with the altitude and weather," he says.

As a result, his first sighting was a memorable experience. He looked through the telescope and saw a snow leopard over a kilometre away. “It wasn't the best quality sighting that you can ever imagine, but it was just so exciting,” he says. "It was an amazing moment," says Anderson, "one that I'll always remember."

Hints of the grey ghost of the mountains through a scope

Hints of the grey ghost of the mountains through a scope

One of the lead camera operators was John Shier of 45 North Films, who has a reputation for capturing spectacular footage of large animals and difficult habitats. He had already worked on big cats, having filmed North American pumas, but the project was his first trip to India, first foray into the Himalayas, and first opportunity to sight a snow leopard.

"My first impression was that it was a very beautiful place, with a warm culture," says Shier. "The other thing I noticed right away was that ecotourism is gaining a strong foothold."

In North America, visitors to national parks are familiar with the phenomenon of a "bear jam". In Hemis, says Shier, there were snow leopard jams, with 20 to 30 tourists crowding around on the trail, trying to see the cats.

So the BBC crew trekked "to places the tourists don’t normally go to," says Shier. It paid off: the crew spotted five cats in their first five days.

Tourist season in Hemis National Park

Tourist season in Hemis National Park

For camera operator Mateo Willis, arriving in Ladakh stirred a flood of memories.

On previous family treks to the region he had constantly scanned for snow leopards, but only caught a couple of fleeting glimpses. "Literally a pinprick in binoculars," he says. Returning to the region was the realisation of a dream.

Doing so also came with risks, one of which was potentially fatal altitude sickness. The team landed at over 3500m in Leh, and their filming location in Rumbak was another 500m higher. At that altitude, it is not recommended to ascend more than 500m per day. They took four rest days upon arrival at base camp, "to really slowly work ourselves up into peak condition so we could be tracking the cats all over the mountains," says Anderson.

They took oxygen and a depressurisation chamber. Being so remote, they were unlikely to get rescued by helicopter if there was an emergency. Each day, the entire team did a questionnaire to watch for signs and symptoms of altitude sickness. "No matter how many times you've visited high-elevation locations," says Willis, "there is always an element of uncertainty."

Fortunately, there were no medical incidents, no bad storms, and very little snow. However lighting conditions were a challenge. Light bounced around a lot, reflecting from the pale rock. Heat and ultra violet radiation were also a problem. Sometimes, says Anderson, "we were desperate for shade."

The dry, cold peaks of Ladakh

The dry, cold peaks of Ladakh

At other times it was "bloody cold", says camera operator Susan Gibson, who helped to film the "making of" footage.

The camera crew had to be wary of cables becoming brittle in the cold. It was difficult to change lenses with extremely cold fingers. The weight of equipment was also a major challenge. Trekking large distances daily in high altitude with low oxygen, they could not carry around endless lenses.

The extreme conditions made for some embarrassing moments. When you are camping and it is -25 °C at night, "you don't really want to get out of your tent for a pee," says Gibson, "so you invariably end up using plastic bottles. But to illustrate how cold it is, when you pee in the bottle, it's obviously warm. But a few hours later when you wake up in the morning, it's frozen solid."

"They are so brilliantly camouflaged"

For the BBC Earth team, local expertise was the key to success. Spotters, guides, trackers, and rangers from Hemis National Park were instrumental in filming the camouflaged snow leopards. The local guides "knew every rock, every valley", says Willis.

Several times the spotters pointed at a supposed cat. "I'd be like, 'Where? I can't see it at all'," says Anderson. "They are so brilliantly camouflaged that you really need a trained eye to spot them." The cats are so perfectly evolved to move through steep terrain that it is easy for them to disappear. In parts of the snow leopard range, local people refer to the cats as "mountain ghosts".

To track down the cats, three spotters were linked on radios. There was a lot of hiking up hills, carrying of kit, waiting around, and false alarms, says Anderson. But they also had more encounters than they had dreamed of.

Morning at the BBC camp, Ladakh

Morning at the BBC camp, Ladakh

The team's Ladakhi members contributed not only deep knowledge but also a sense of humour to the project. Their six-week shoot included the first day of April, and early in the morning, Willis was woken by a guide shouting excitedly that there was a snow leopard in the camp. Willis burst out of the tent in his underpants, only to find he had been duped by an April Fool's prank.

"We were incredibly lucky to have the guides we had, and they all really became a part of the team. Pretty soon after we arrived we realised that the whole thing just wouldn't function without them," says Anderson.

Khenrab Phuntsog was one of the team's vital local experts. He has worked for the Department of Wildlife Protection for Hemis National Park for 14 years, and grew up in the region. He fondly recalls his excitement at the age of 12 when, on a slope a few hundred metres from his village, he saw a snow leopard pounce on and kill a blue sheep.

Khenrab co-ordinating the rescue of a trapped snow leopard

Khenrab co-ordinating the rescue of a trapped snow leopard

Over the years Phuntsog has rescued 17 snow leopards from various predicaments, including entrapment in livestock corrals. Only ten of them survived. Though they can kill livestock and large prey, Phuntsog says there are no known cases of a snow leopard harming a human.

In Hemis, with the aid of government camera traps, Phuntsog and his colleagues can recognise the region's individual leopards by unique patterns on their fur. They know the location of leopard scraping sites and spraying rocks overhanging their trails.

This scent marking is a way for snow leopards to communicate. Individuals walk the perimeter of their territory, often along ridgelines where they get a good view of the slopes on either side. Periodically they leave a urine spray, which scientists call pee-mail. The urine scent contains information for other leopards about their identity, age, and readiness to breed.

Khenrab releasing a rescued snow leopard

Khenrab releasing a rescued snow leopard

The snow leopard released into the wild

The snow leopard released into the wild

Cameraman Matteo Willis and spotter K.C Namgyal at work

Cameraman Matteo Willis and spotter K.C Namgyal at work

For the BBC Earth team, encounters with the cats started early. On their first night in camp, they heard a snow leopard calling at midnight from a nearby cliff. It was breeding season, so both males and females were making wild miaowing howls to find each other in their vast terrain.

Phuntsog was particularly thrilled by a series of events that began on 12 March 2014. The team spotted three snow leopards together: a cub, its mother, and a male suitor. As dusk approached, the crew was forced to return to camp, but the leopards' calls echoed across the valley throughout the night. The following morning at 8:30am, the pair began mating.

Then the calls of the mating female attracted the attention of a second male, who began to approach. Among big cats, males sometimes commit infanticide, especially if the cubs are male. When sunset loomed again the team retreated to camp, fearing for the cub's survival.

"There was a lot of sorrow in my heart as I returned to camp," says Phuntsog. He had known the nearly-grown cub since birth. "I didn't sleep well that night," he says. "For me it's like a child that I've seen grow up."

At first light they rushed back to the site to find, to their relief and delight, the mother and cub, with the male slightly at a distance, all resting peacefully together. The male's legs were bloodstained from fighting. The crew watched and waited all day.

In late afternoon the intruder male approached again. While the mother bounded protectively towards her cub, the two males engaged in a bitter fight. Phuntsog had witnessed snow leopard mating before, but not a love triangle, with males fighting over a fertile female. "I think for the whole world it will be very interesting behaviour to see from this very solitary animal," he says.

Thanks to the skills of Phuntsog and the other guides, the team got an unprecedented look into the lives of the snow leopard mother and cub. Observing them perhaps 15 times over six weeks, they filmed the cub chasing partridges, chasing its mother, and gearing up for independence by mock-hunting and -stalking. As the cub followed its mother, it copied her, spraying sites to mark their territory.

Some of the footage captured on the shoot

Some of the footage captured on the shoot

Finding a nearly independent cub is a good sign for the region's snow leopard population. Unlike the species as a whole, the signs are that snow leopard numbers in Hemis have slightly increased over the last decade. "In places where they are persecuted they don't breed well, and the cubs don't survive until maturity,” explains Tshewang Wangchuk, who is studying snow leopards in his native country of Bhutan.

Bhutan has a strong conservation ethic, reflecting its Buddhist culture and political leadership. "We have very little poaching in Bhutan, and protection is pretty good," says Wangchuk. The basic tenets of Buddhism are love, respect, and compassion for all living things. But he is not taking this cultural norm for granted. The most critical thing, says Wangchuk, is to work with the communities living next to snow leopards so that "people are on board and see their benefits".

There are between 4080 and 6590 snow leopards left

Prayer flags in the Rumbak

Prayer flags in the Rumbak

Wangchuk and the Bhutan Foundation are gearing up for the second year of the Jomolhari Mountain Festival, a celebration of snow leopards that brings tourism funds to the region. They are also pioneering citizen science by getting yak herders to help gather snow leopard data from camera traps. Recently, one yak herder was proud to report his camera trap findings: a family of snow leopards feasting on his yak.

Because snow leopards are so wide-ranging, the only way to protect them is if countries work together. That is tough. "At some level, there is a desire to cooperate," says Rosen. "But it's challenging, because the relationships among the different snow leopard range countries are not always very smooth."

It is essential to take action soon, because time is running out, says Dr. Rodney Jackson, head of The Snow Leopard Conservancy in Sonoma, California. Demand for wild cat parts is rising in east Asia, he says, and "the supply side can't possibly meet even a tenth of the demand." Pelts have traditionally been used for high-end fashionable clothing. That demand persists and is growing in areas where people are becoming wealthier.

However, the largest threat is conflict between humans and snow leopards, says Jackson. "You can understand the anger of a herder when a snow-leopard gets into a poorly-constructed livestock pen and kills most of the sheep or goats contained within it." Retributive killing is a big problem.

Snow leopards can cause serious losses to livestock if they enter a pen

Snow leopards can cause serious losses to livestock if they enter a pen

Jackson has long believed that the best way to protect the world's snow leopards in the long term will be to get local communities to do it, especially the herders. "Many of them express an awe or a fear of snow leopards, and a willingness to live with snow leopards if this depredation problem could be resolved."

One strategy is to predator-proof livestock corrals. But this would be a big job of work. "There are hundreds of thousands of these corrals in or near snow leopard areas and hotspots that are losing livestock," says Jackson. Other approaches include creating community loans and offering insurance to replace any lost income.

A corral before predator-proofing

A corral before predator-proofing

A predator-proof livestock corral

A predator-proof livestock corral

In the long term, local people have to believe that there is value for them in coexisting with snow leopards, says Jackson.

One such approach is "home-stay" tourism, in which tourists stay and eat with local families recruited and trained for the program. A key advantage is that local people can make "far more income from their home-stays and the tourist visitations than they ever got from their husbandry or farming," says Jackson. That means snow leopards are more valuable alive than dead.

In some places, these schemes have become so popular that they are in danger of becoming a victim of their own success, says Jackson. The trick now will be ensuring that the volume of tourists does not jeopardise the very habitats and species they are coming to see.

Handmade needle-felted snow leopard

Handmade needle-felted snow leopard

Back in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan, Totisho Davlatnazarov Mubarakadamovich has transformed himself from hunter to protector. His altered mindset offers a story of hope for these ethereal cats.

A year ago, he was a man resentful of snow leopards, feeling he had no choice but to retaliate against the predator that was eating away his livestock and livelihood. Now he has become "one of the biggest voices in the valley for snow leopard conservation," says Rosen.

If the future of the snow leopard is to be a bright one, that lone voice will need to become a choir.

Land of the grey ghost

Land of the grey ghost