Ghost of the Mountains: Meet the Elusive Snow Leopard

Plus, where to see it in the wild. | By NGT Staff  
Snow Leopard
A snow leopard’s tail, which it uses for balance and for wrapping around itself for warmth, grows to about 80-105cm, nearly as long as its body. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Snow leopards are masters of camouflage, padding like shadows through the desolate, craggy reaches of the Himalayas, hunting prey and looking for quiet, warm caves. Their stealth has earned the species the nickname “ghost of the mountains”. But for all their power and mystique, snow leopards cannot roar, as their vocal cords aren’t as well developed as most other big cats.

It’s one of many reasons that the big cat is so hard to spot. The other is because they generally roam the upper reaches of the mountain, on terrain that is near impossible to traverse for humans. Every winter, however, the snow leopard can be found at lower altitudes of Hemis National Park in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, when it stalks Himalayan tahr, ibex and blue sheep as they descend the sparsely vegetated heights to graze.

It’s still brutal weather, but the cat has evolved to master this terrain. It can leap up to nine metres—that’s six times their body length—ideal for its high-altitude, rocky habitat of gorges and steppes. Its paws have been called its snowshoes, as they provide furry insulation from the freezing cold. The thick padding also enables the big cat to silently navigate secluded mountaintops where not much is often heard beyond the roar of the wind.

Despite all this, the snow leopard has been marked endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Its biggest threats are the loss of habitat and wild prey, hunting for illegal trade, and retribution by humans for preying on livestock. An estimated 6,000 snow leopards inhabit the wild today.

See Them Here: The best chance of spotting a snow leopard is from December to February, at the Hemis National Park in Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, where sightings have recently increased. The park is 10km from Leh, which has the nearest airport, and 21km from Jammu Tavi, the closest railway station. Snow leopards can also be sighted in Himachal Pradesh: in Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary and Pin Valley National Park in Spiti, the Great Himalayan National Park in Kullu, and the Kugti Wildlife Sanctuary in Chambra.