Tracking elusive snow leopards: Part I

By Dr. Rinjan Shrestha, WWF-US Eastern Himalayas Conservation Scientist
Five months ago, I embarked on a journey to the remote Himalayas of Bhutan with a faint hope of capturing snow leopards in my camera lens.
Snow leopards – perhaps the most elusive of all animals in the Himalayas – are found in a narrow band of land between the treeline and snowline in the Himalayas. There, they live in scattered habitats where there’s ample food.
I was thrilled with the opportunity to work in the newest park in Bhutan – the Wangchuck Centennial Park (WCP) – which we have little information on. And my team consisted of: park ranger, Tenzing Wandga; forester Leki Dorje (an expert high-altitude botanist); forester Nawang Tashi; and intern Gempo Wangdi. We were also accompanied by Chhokpa, the headman of the Nasphelle village, and Tenzing, a horseman with 12 horses, who is always ready to fix tents, bags and boots with his magic needles and yak hair threads.

My field crew,  from left: Gempo Wangdi, Tenzing Wangdi, Rinjan Shrestha, Leki Dorje, Nawang Tashi and Tenzing.

Equipped with supplies for about 45 days and teamed with fabulous mates, I set off by foot on a 35-day expedition into the desolate mountains that snow leopards call home. The first day of our journey saw a heavy downpour, which brought me happiness because it often means snow up in the snow leopard country. And fresh snow is what I needed to track these secretive animals. I got a shock as Chhokpa started to chant prayers to stop the rainfall. Trails can be treacherous up in the mountains during the rain, especially for horses.
Considering the caravan of horses – and paying due respect to the local culture – I did not dare to explain the significance of precipitation to our mission. Thankfully, the rain continued.

Tenzing with his horses. Photo credit: Rinjan Shrestha

Our study area is located in the north central part of the 4,914 sq km park (WCP).  Bhutan’s highest mountain peak, Gangkhar Puensum (7,570 metres above sea level) marks the northern boundary of our study area.

SIGN OF LIFE: It was not until the eighth day of our expedition, and the ascent of nearly 4,500 metres, that we found the first sign of a snow leopard.
It was a scrape marking that the cat made right at the cliff base along a trail. There were three scrapes clumped together – indicating that the site had been repeatedly used by the cat. Our happiness knew no bounds and high-fives were exchanged, followed by a short but wonderful dance by Chhokpa. Then we began to set up the camera trap.
We placed the camera a little further away from the trail, so we got a wider field of view, which would eventually allow us to document communication techniques adopted by these solitary cats, such as scent spray, cheek rubbing and scrape marking. The access to the trap site was marked by a narrow passage, which let me estimate the height of passing snow leopards – an unique opportunity offered by this site. Height can be used as a clue to discern the sex and age of the snow leopards.
Finally, I was happy that this site was located right at the treeline. Because the treeline formed a border between alpine grassland and forests, I expected that we could get animals from both habitat types in the camera trap.
This blog is Part 1 of a 2-part series about Dr. Shrestha’s journey to the remote Himalaya’s of Butan. Check back tomorrow for Part 2.