In search of Snow Leopards
AT A GLANCE
Mammal-watching: mammals, birds, scenery and photography.
India: Leh, Ladakh – Hemis National Park – Leh – (optional extension)
Dry cold, cold nights, cool days. Note most of the time we will be between 12,000’-14,500’ above sea level. Outside temperatures at night can be down to -25. Daytime temperatures barely above freezing.
Hotel in Leh, camping in the mountains, guesthouse/lodge for the optional extensions. Porterage of your luggage is included but the tour requires walking in mountainous regions, full mobility is therefore required by all participants.
Snow Leopard, Bharal (Blue Sheep), Asiatic Ibex, Ladakh Urial (Red Sheep), Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass), Argali plus high chance of Lynx and Wolf and 50+ species of birds.
This trip offers an excellent chance of seeing the almost mythical Snow Leopard in its natural habitat, we are pleased to confirm that our success rate remains 100% to date!
Our first tour ran in February/March 2015 and we saw up to four Snow Leopards in one day. The extension in 2015 yielded another three stunning Snow Leopards, Asiatic Ibex and Wolf! In 2016 we watched Snow Leopards on five days on the main 14 night tour, narrowly missed one on the extension, and had a bonus one on the very last day after a flight cancellations caused delays. In 2016 we also saw Wolf on two different days, and a Eurasian Lynx. Our 2017 departure yielded Snow Leopards on six days of the main tour, plus two further sightings on Extension 1. Extension 2 (which ran for the first time in 2017) produced both Kiangs and Argalis, plus some excellent birds including Tibetan Sandgrouse and Hume’s Groundpecker. Wolves were seen on both the main tour and extension 1 (poorly) and although we didn’t see Lynx this year, they were seen at Hemis. Trip reports and species lists can be found on the trip report tab above.
Our 2019 Tour was led by Mark Andrews and came home with our best ever Snow Leopard sightings yet! Multiple prolonged views of various Grey Ghosts included an animal hunting Blue Sheep and Yak at close range for hours on end! The supporting cast included hunting a pair of hunting Lynx, Tibetan Wolf, Kiang, Asiatic Ibex, Tibetan Argali, Red & Blue Sheep. A great selection of the special birds were seen too. An illustrated report and species list can be found above. For some video footage Mark took on our recent tour, please click this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9M3ozgvZH0
Dick’s group enjoyed four different Snow Leopards in 2018 plus hunting Lynx and the largest group of Wolves even out local guides have ever seen! Frustratingly, the party missed a Palla’s Cat by only a few hundred feet, a species we shall make renewed effort for in 2020!
Our 2017 departure yielded Snow Leopards on six days of the main tour, plus two further sightings on Extension 1. Extension 2 (which ran for the first time in 2017) produced both Kiangs and Argalis, plus some excellent birds including Tibetan Sandgrouse and Hume’s Groundpecker. Wolves were seen on both the main tour and extension 1 (poorly) and although we didn’t see Lynx this year, they were seen at Hemis. Trip reports and species lists can be found on the trip report tab above
The remote and starkly beautiful mountain valleys of Ladakh in NW India, close to Tibet, north of the main Himalayas, are the venue. Here, bisected by the headwaters of the mighty Indus river, Ladakh’s vast, rocky, dry, seemingly barren landscapes are dotted with only occasional tiny hamlets, and with an average population density of less than two people per square kilometre, Ladakh is truly sparsely inhabited and little impacted by man. In the areas that we visit, the very few people that do live there are, in the vast majority, Buddhists of Tibetan descent, and are as warm and friendly as you’ll meet. Living in traditional mud and stone buildings, adorned with prayer flags, their flat roofs act as storage areas for fuel and cattle feed. Occasionally you see a few, small, terraced fields for wheat or at the highest altitude, barley. Domestic yaks, donkeys and goats graze the sparse vegetation by day, but every evening they must return to fenced enclosures to avoid nocturnal predation by the omni-present Snow Leopards and Wolves. Mostly however, this landscape is wild, rocky and untamed. It is here that we will camp in a remote mountain valley in the hope, even expectation, of seeing its most famous, most enigmatic, and most elusive inhabitant: The Snow Leopard. Hunting has never been part of the culture in this Buddhist region, so there are few, maybe no, better places to try.
Our trip starts in the capital, Leh, a small town in the Indus valley. Cut off by road from the rest of India for the five months of winter, life is sedate and far slower-paced than almost any other town anywhere on the sub-continent. It is not until the onset of summer, in May, that Leh gets busy. We will stay two nights to help us acclimatise to the altitude – at some 12,000 feet the lack of oxygen will be noticed both by day and by night. We will take gentle excursions, exploring for wildlife along the banks of the Indus in search of enigmatic birds such as Ibisbill, Solitary Snipe and Gouldenstadt’s (White-winged) Redstart. We will also visit the famous Thikse Gompa (monastery). Perched atop a hill giving it splendid views of the Indus valley, it is sometimes referred to as the mini-Potala, after the winter palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet. The shops in Leh will offer the last chance to purchase any items that you may have forgotten.As the main aim of this trip is to see Snow Leopard, we spend just one and a half days around Leh before heading to the mountains. Ten nights of camping are the core of the trip, in an area where Snow Leopards spend the winter. Our timing is carefully chosen to be optimal, towards the end of the mating season, and as the coldest temperatures of winter abate.
The winter snows, such as they are in this arid environment, are at their maximum extent, driving the Snow Leopards, and their prey, the Blue Sheep to lower, almost snow free elevations, thus offering us much easier access to look for them, and concentrating them in a smaller area.
As cats do, they often snooze for hours during the day, so if and when one is spotted, it can result in prolonged viewing opportunities. We will have local guides who know the area, and the habits of the Snow Leopards, well. By keeping in radio contact with the park rangers and other local guides we will increase our chances of seeing leopards even more.
There will likely be some chance for photographing Snow Leopard, but as any sightings will probably be at quite some range, digiscoping or a big lens and converters (plural) are the best options. However, viewing with spotting scopes will likely be very much more satisfying and rewarding. Your leader will have a high power field ‘scope but youare highly encouraged to bring your own ‘scope as well. The air is very clear, and heat haze is not a problem except on the warmest of afternoons. However, as the sun sinks, the viewing conditions return to optimal just as the Snow Leopards typically arise from their afternoon nap.
Daily Routine in camp
With around 12 hours of daylight, the increasing day length will be useful, yet we will have plenty of opportunity to get a good night’s rest. The calls of Himalayan Snowcocks and Chukars are most likely the first sound that you will hear each day, although it could have been the mating call of a Snow Leopard, the bark of a Red Fox, or the howling of Wolves during the night. The typical day will start with hot tea/coffee delivered to your tent, followed by a bowl of hot water for a refreshing wash. Our guides will be already on the lookout for Snow Leopards, either from camp, or from a vantage point close by. You can choose to join them on the lookout, or take your time and have a leisurely start. Breakfast will be in the dining tent, where the welcoming warmth of a gas fired heater will ensure breakfast is a more comfortable and enjoyable experience in the cool of the morning. Afterwards, if no Snow Leopard has yet been spotted, we will hike out of camp to carry on searching for them. If you wish to make your hiking significantly more comfortable you can hire a personal porter for the 11 days that we are camping, to carry your backpack, camera gear, tripod, scope etc. It is amazing how much it helps when you are walking uphill.
Our standard tents are ‘expedition-style’, very cosy and warm if not exactly roomy for two persons. For 2020 onwards, we can now offer ‘luxury’ tents which allow you to stand up, have ‘beds’, carpets and are spacious and even feature heating! Supplements shown on the price tab, please ‘upgrade’ at the time of booking if you wish?
The amount of hiking you choose to do is really up to you. You may, if you wish, choose to stay around camp all day, and just head out when a Snow Leopard is spotted. However, it is our aim to hike a few miles every day, with the uphill sections being at a slow pace due to the altitude. You will certainly notice the reduced amount of oxygen when walking uphill. Most of the hiking will be on gentle inclines, on primitive trails, but occasionally we may want to get into a better position for viewing which may involve much steeper walking for short distances.
Most days, when we are away from camp, our staff will bring us hot tea, coffee and a snack, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, whilst in the middle of the day, we’ll get a hot lunch delivered to wherever we are.
Extension 1: Following the main tour, after a night in Leh, we offer the opportunity for an excellent three night trip to look for the splendid Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass), as well as Argali, and several species of specialist birds, around a high altitude lake on the edge of the Tibetan Platau. The surrounding rolling landscape, with it’s nomadic herders of Tibetan descent, offers a very different perspective to Ladakh than that already encountered, and coupled with the extra mammals and birds, it offers a splendid conclusion to the trip. We will depart the hotel in Leh early morning and drive up the Indus Valley towards the Tibetan border. We will keep our eyes open for Snow Leopard of course, especially as on the 2016 recce, Dick missed one by only a few hours, very close to the road. Eventually we will leave the valley and pause as head over a high pass at about 4,900m (16,000ft) and look briefly for the limited range Tibetan Snowcock which is resident here (seen in 2017 & 2019). We will drive on, in a few miles dropping down onto the plain where the lake, which will still be mainly frozen, lies at around 4,600m 15,000ft. By now, after more than two weeks in Ladakh, we will be well adjusted to the altitude, so it makes sense to visit the highest point of the trip next. The list of mammals and birds is mouth-watering. Several groups of Kiang are usually around, close to the lake, whilst Argali are encountered here frequently too, and Wolves can be seen. Ladakhi Pikas are in the scree slopes, most readily found on a sunny day, whilst birds to be found include Tibetan Sandgrouse, Tibetan Snowfinch, the striking Blanford’s Snowfinch, Great Rosefinch, Hume’s Groundpecker and early migrant Ruddy Shelduck on any areas of open water. We will stay in a basic lodge (twin bedded rooms – no heating), where we will be the only guests, and will have brought our own cook and staff. Close-by are the “low” winter camps of nomadic tribespeople, and it is around these camps we can find many birds hard to find elsewhere. Hotsprings near to the pass are the staging area for early migrants and we will be on the lookout for any early Black-necked Cranes too.
Extension 2:The dramatic Asiatic Ibex and localised Ladakhi Urial (Red Sheep) are the main goals of our second, shorter extension. The Asiatic Ibex (seen on all three years) is a startling looking animal, the males have incredibly long, curved and ridged horns and a significant “chin-beard”, as well as, at this time of year, a striking pale saddle. The Ladakh Urial deserves its alternative name of “Red Sheep” mainly on account of its colour, for it looks far more like a deer or antelope. We have excellent chances of finding both species, even though they are quite rare. Add to that some wonderful, and different montane scenery, and that we stay in an comfortable “homestay” guesthouse, high in the hills, then this is a ‘must’ to add to the trip if you have the time. We shall drive out of Leh, taking our time and enjoying new scenery and wildlife. One night in a comfortable homestay, exploring the immediate area, and returning to Leh the next afternoon for a final night’s stay. We will follow the by-now-familiar routine of scanning for mammals with our binoculars and telescopes, whilst sipping hot tea, but now it will be from a homestead, not a campsite, and exploring by minibus. The scenery is quite different from narrow valleys where we camped, the landscape immediately around the homestead is more rolling, the vistas more expansive, and many of the hills not quite so steep. We have also seen Snow Leopards and Wolves in this area on previous tours! We would expect to see some high altitude birds such as Brown and Robin Accentors, Hill Pigeons, Himalayan Snowcock, Chukars, Choughs, Shore (Horned) Larks, Golden Eagles and Lammergeiers will provide additional interest, and maybe we’ll find Wallcreeper and Mongolian Finch again.
Day 1: Arrive Leh early morning, transfer to our hotel. After lunch we will take an optional short drive to look for birds. If you prefer you may rest at the hotel.
Day 2: All day around Leh. We will have two excursions – each one involving some gentle walking. We will visit some marshes along the Indus river valley in search of Solitary Snipe, redstarts and along the braided river itself, we’ll make a special effort to find the legendary Ibisbill. We’ll also visit the famous Thikse monastery at some point during our time in Leh, most likely at the end of the trip.
Day 3: After breakfast we will drive to the trailhead for our camp (90mins plus stops). All our bags will be transferred to be carried by pack animals, except anything we wish to carry ourselves, and we will walk upvalley to our camp which will have been set up in advance and where lunch awaits. Although only three miles or so, we will take a leisurely pace and it may take us around three hours or more with stops. We will already be keeping a keen eye out for Snow Leopards. The rest of the day will be spent in the vicinity of camp, looking for Snow Leopards, other mammals and birds. We may offer the option to hike a couple more miles in the afternoon, before returning for dinner.
Days 4-12: Nine full days of searching for Snow Leopards, Blue Sheep and other wildlife. With only 12 hours of daylight, we will be up early, and early to bed.
Day 13: After breakfast, and a last look for Snow Leopards, our bags will be loaded onto the pack animals and we will walk back to the transfer point. We will be met by our minibuses, drive back to Leh and check back in to our hotel. Lunch and dinner are at the hotel. We will have the opportunity for an afternoon excursion to look for any birds that we missed at the start of the trip, or, for those who prefer, some sightseeing around town.
Day 14: For those not taking the extension(s), you will be transferred to the airport (where your tour concludes) for your morning flight to Delhi.
Extension 1: After breakfast onDay 14, we will set off up the Indus Valley, towards the Tibetan border, over a 4,900m pass and down to an intermontane lake, a good site for Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass), Argali, and several resident birds including Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Sandgrouse, Tibetan Snowfinch, Blanford’s Snowfinch, Great Rosefinch, Hume’s Groundpecker and early migrant Ruddy Shelduck. Arrive late afternoon, where we will stay in a basic lodge (twin bedded rooms – no heating). The lake itself will still be mostly, or completely frozen. Closeby are the “low” winter camps of nomadic tribespeople, and around these camps we can find many birds hard to find elsewhere. Hotsprings near to the pass are the staging area for early migrants and we will be on the lookout for any early Black-necked Cranes.
Days 15-16: Two whole days to explore the remote area in the vicinity of our lodging. Overnight at the lodge.
Day 17: After breakfast we will start our drive back to Leh, pausing to search for wildlife and photographs en-route. We will arrive back at our hotel by late afternoon, and celebrate our trip with a farewell dinner for those leaving in the morning.
Day 18: After breakfast we will transfer to the airport where the first extension ends. Morning flight back to Delhi, for onward connections, or if you wish, an overnight stay.
Extension 2: Meanwhile, after breakfast on Day 18, those of us on this second extension will board the minibus and head off in search of Asiatic Ibex and a one night, comfortable homestay. En route we will pause occasionally to look for Ladakhi Urial (Red Sheep), photograph the magnificent and ever-changing landscape, and spot a few birds, including perhaps the spectacular Wallcreeper. We have seen Wolf & Snow Leopard in the area previously too!
Day 19: After breakfast we will start our drive back to Leh, pausing to search for wildlife and photographs en-route. We will arrive back at our hotel during the afternoon.
Day 20: For those not continuing on the second extension, you will be transferred to the airport where your trip ends. Morning flight back to Delhi, for onward connections, or if you wish, an overnight stay.
Please note: All itineraries are subject to weather, local conditions and final approval by the relevant authorities.
Dates 2021 – Main tour dates will be 22nd February – 7th March, you may advance register for £100pp (refundable)
Previous Trip reports available, see the tab above.
You will not need to carry anything from the trailhead up to camp at the beginning of our camp, nor back to the road at the end of the camp. However, on all days whilst we are searching for the Snow Leopards, anything that you want with you, such as your camera, tripod, telescope, small daypack with extra clothing layers, etc, you will have to carry. Most people find this difficult in the thin, high mountain air. However, you may, for an additional fee, £275 opt to hire your own personal porter for the duration of the main tour.
All of the following were seen in 2014 and/or 2015-19.
Eurasian Lynx (2016 & 2019)
Kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass) (2016 & 2019)
(Tibetan) Argali (2016 & 2019)
Blue Sheep (Bharal)
Asiatic (Siberian) Ibex
Ladakh Urial (Red Sheep)
Stolizcka’s Mountain Vole (2018)
Birds (a selection)
Tibetan Snowcock (2017 & 2019)
Tibetan Sandgrouse (2017 & 2019)
Yellow-billed (Alpine) Chough
Hume’s Groundpecker (2017)
Dark (Black) -throated Thrush
White-winged (Güldenstädt's) Redstart
Ground Tit (Extension 2, 2017)
White-browed (Stoliczka’s) Tit-Warbler
Horned (Tibetan) Lark