Endangered, threatened and elusive…
Panthera uncial is the snow leopard
of the regal and imposing Himalayas
Hailed as the ‘Ghost of the Himalayas,’ this majestic creature has evolved to survive in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Donned in whitish-grey coats and marked with black spots, these large cats live in the high altitudes of 6,000 metres above sea level, on the steep and jagged mountain regions of Central and South Asia.
King of the snowy mountains, and sporadically distributed across 12 countries in Central Asia, the snow leopard rules the misty mountains of China, running through the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, the snow-capped mountains of Tian Shan bordering Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and the vast mountain ranges in Mongolia, Russia and Siberia.
Blending perfectly with its surroundings, the snow leopard’s thick fur keeps it insulated, while its wide, padded feet double up as snowshoes. And thanks to its powerful legs, the snow leopard is a skilled jumper, with an extraordinary ability to jump as far as 15 metres. Its long tail is used for balance, and as a blanket to protect sensitive body parts against the frigid weather.
A snow leopard’s staple diet consists of the blue sheep that graze on the mountains of Tibet and the Himalayas. Mountain ibex, marmots, hares and game birds are also part of its diet plan. These alluring animals are largely solitary, hunting at dawn and dusk – and they are effective predators, with the ability to prey on animals that are three times their own weight.
As this mysterious animal is extremely rare, it appears on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The snow leopard is also the National Heritage Animal of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Inhabiting the alpine and subalpine regions, its global population was estimated at between 4,080 and 6,590 adults, back in 2003. More recent data released by the Global Snow Leopard and Eco-System Protection Program (GSLEP) suggests that between 3,920 and 6,390 individuals roam in the wild, today.
With their numbers gradually declining over the years, hunting and loss of habitat have led to the loss of a fifth of the snow leopard population over the past 20 years. Being killed by herders (to protect their flocks) and hunted by poachers, for their pelts and body parts (they’re used in traditional Chinese medicine) have also contributed to their dwindling numbers.
The Cinnamon Experience
With Vimukthi Weeratunga
A recent excursion took Wildlife Biologist Vimukthi Weeratunga into the freezing-cold climes of the Hemis National Park, which is believed to be home to the highest density of snow leopards in any protected area in the world. Situated in the eastern region of Ladakh, in Jammu and Kashmir, the park is home to a healthy breeding population of around 200 snow leopards.
Harsh terrains and icy temperatures make this one of the harshest environments to explore. Arriving at the Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport, in Leh, the largest town in Ladakh, a day and a half is needed for acclimatisation. During this time, tour parties are briefed and offered medical advice.
Not for the faint-hearted, this exploration calls for absolute dedication and a burning desire to experience the thrills of wildlife. Roaming around the jagged mountains in low-oxygen and extremely cold conditions make it one of the harshest wildlife experiences in the world. Temperatures can drop to as low as -40°C, on some nights.
This 12-day excursion, consisting of a group of eight explorers, is a quest that will leave you with memories and experiences that last a lifetime.
Whilst it is said to have the highest number of sightings, not being able to spot these elusive creatures for a number of days is still the norm. The best season to sight these creatures is during the peak of winter, between the months of September and June. And even if you’re unable to spot this mystic beast, the surrounding scenery and wildlife in general makes this tour a worthy sacrifice.
Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts’ nature arm – Nature Trails – hopes to be the first company to organise curated excursions to the land of the world’s most endangered cat.
At Cinnamon Holidays, we strive to create nature-based experiences that are exciting and test your limits of endurance. Snow leopards will surely be at the top of this list…
Head of Cinnamon Holidays