A stunning mountainous terrain awaits visitors to the Ladakh region of India – but that’s not all. For many nature enthusiasts the allure of this singular destination lies in the chance to glimpse a rare snow leopard, and visitors are increasingly booking coveted places on expeditions to seek them out. Join us as we explore what makes a good trek, what you can do to maximize your chances of seeing one of these spotted creatures, and what other discoveries are to be made on an unforgettable journey to Ladakh.
With a global population of between four and seven thousand adults, snow leopards are on the IUCN red list of threatened species. Distinct for their thick white, yellow or gray coats, spotted with rings of black and brown, they are ideally built for the cold and dry terrains they inhabit. Their markings help to camouflage them from their prey, and their large furry paws act like snowshoes to keep them from sinking into the snow. They can mostly be found in alpine and subalpine zones, at elevations from 9,800 to 14,800 feet, tending to favor rocky outcrops and steep cliffs. Their habitat extends through southern Siberia, including the Kunlun, Altai, Sayan and Tannu-Ola Mountains. They can be found from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to eastern Afghanistan, in northern Pakistan, as well as in the high altitudes of the Himalayas in India, Nepal, and Bhutan.
While there are a lot of places to see snow leopards in India – including Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh – Ladakh is considered one of the best destinations for a likely sighting. Firstly, it’s accessible; Leh, the state’s largest town, is cut off from Delhi for six months of the year when the road is closed, but you can fly direct all year round. The national parks here boast the right conditions at the right altitude, and what’s more, the last few years has seen conservation groups emphasize the importance of the creatures and the value of their presence. Their efforts have changed local attitudes, and now inhabitants in the mountainous villages around Leh appreciate the advantages of snow leopard tourism. Thanks to the work of Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) and organizations like it, visitors on treks are encouraged to contribute towards funds created for issues in the villages; the locals receive compensation through these funds in return for not hunting and killing the snow leopards should they approach their land and livestock. As a result, many households no longer need to keep small livestock, and more land is left available for the blue sheep that are snow leopards’ natural prey. In turn, the leopards are more likely to venture near the villages, making sightings even more frequent. Sometimes they are seen just sitting and sunning themselves amid the rocks, or en route from one valley to the next, and in March their mating calls can be heard all around the valley.
For an expert’s insight into encountering these beautiful but elusive creatures, we turned to the Country Manager of Remote Lands India, Rahul Sharma. Rahul broke a successful snow leopard trek into three key components; comfortable accommodation, a knowledgeable guide, and a certain amount of good luck.
Six years ago, Rahul’s team started exploring Ulley, a quiet and uncrowded area at 13,000 feet and two hours’ drive from Leh, and they base their treks from their newly completed seven-room lodge in the valley. “It’s very basic,” says Rahul, “but it’s a spectacular area and there’s no need for camping. We have electricity, heating, beds and mattresses, and two restrooms – in winter we give our guests hot water in buckets as it freezes!” He adds that there’s a dining room for communal meals, prepared by the onsite cook and kitchen staff, because hot food and somewhere comfortable to stay are crucial.
The host of the lodge is also the head spotter, Norbu, whom Rahul describes as “the best eyes I’ve ever seen”. A villager and local to those parts, Norbu has been working with Rahul’s team for the last 15 years, and now he’s training up his son Stanzin. They receive daily word from spotters in the surrounding villages, and based on the news Norbu decides whether to drive or walk, and whether to go out for whole day with a picnic lunch or for half a day – returning for a meal at the lodge – before heading out again. On what makes a good guide, Rahul says it is nothing to do with training. “They develop an interest in the wildlife when they are herding. They have been out on that terrain since childhood, seeing it all [...], they know where and how to look; sometimes we are still gazing at a distant rock and they have already spotted a leopard. It’s because they’ve lived on that land.” He adds that Norbu and his colleagues also receive some technical training from SLC, and that experienced naturalist David Sonam, a trustee on the SLC board, often accompanies treks if there’s a need for an expert.
Since 2015, snow leopards sightings have increased in the area. Often visitors spot them in the distance, but sometimes they get lucky and see them up close – especially when the snow leopards are hunting. To make your own luck and maximize the chances of getting a good glimpse, it’s best to travel to Ladakh in high season – from January to April – but Rahul notes that trips are available in November and December, suggesting a minimum of stay of seven nights. Clothing suitable for the terrain is crucial – waterproof and neutral tones like browns, khakis and greens are ideal. “Being quiet is vital, especially if we think [a snow leopard] is close by,” adds Rahul, “you need a lot of patience, as we might stay for two to four hours in one place.” As for photographing the snow leopards when you see them, while sophisticated cameras with big lenses will render the best results, Rahul says that a modern camera with a good zoom will produce a decent picture. In fact, he recalls an occasion in a valley when the spotter pointed out a speck on a ledge a kilometer away. “A female snow leopard started to call – it was a mating call. Norbu started to call from our position, and over a period of three hours she came as close as 100 feet. Each time, she would call back, inquisitive, and move forward a little at a time. A guest using a 8000 mm lens could no longer use it and had to switch!”
While it may be the go-to destination for spotting snow leopards, the remoteness of Ladakh also makes for frequent sightings of other wildlife including wolves, urial, fox, blue sheep and golden eagles. Rahul notes, “Even without a [snow leopard] sighting, guests still come back happy after seeing all the other animals.” In addition, Ladakh boasts plenty of allure beyond its diverse wildlife, and discovering its cultural treasures requires no element of luck.
Many small villages in the area celebrate Losar, the 15-day Tibetan new year festival. Dating back to the time before Buddhism was introduced to the area, Losar originally fell during the winter solstice, but was later moved to coincide with Chinese New Year. Packed with rituals and deeply-ingrained local customs, the festival is a truly unique experience. Traditional food and drinks are shared; there is music and dancing and offerings, and recitations take place at the newly cleaned and decorated monasteries.
Ladakh is something of an island of Tibetan Buddhism in India, and as such is bestrewn with historic temples that lure devotees and visitors alike. Consecrated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself, Thikse monastery is a 15th-century marvel perched on a hillside, overlooking the Indus river and home to countless shrines and artifacts. Meanwhile, across the river to the south, lies vast and colorful Hemis monastery, site of the annual Hemis summer festival at which monks perform dances wearing colorful costumes and masks to celebrate the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava. Finally, the local market in Leh is a great place to pick up Tibetan handicrafts like prayer wheels, Buddhist masks and Thangka paintings as a reminder of your journey.
Adventurers in Ladakh then, will not only find ideal conditions for their pursuit of the elusive snow leopard, but plenty else besides.