RECAP : Our 2020 Snow Leopard Tours in India
The start of 2020 was packed with fantastic snow leopard tours and some really incredible sightings. We pitched our expedition camps in the heart of snow leopard country in Hemis National Park, Ladakh. It took 165 horse loads to bring the camp from the road-head to our base and took 4 days with a crew of 7 to pitch the camp for our snow leopard tours. Little did we know that in a few short months COVID-19 would wreak havoc across the world!
In 2021, we’re moving our camps to a new location in Hemis National Park. We’ll be alone in our own valley, with no other expedition camps or tourists for miles. Our snow leopard tours in 2021 and beyond will all have road access, which eliminates the 2.5 hour walk into camp we had in our old camp. However, we are still in the heart of snow leopard country with spectacular sightings for snow leopard tours.
Just like in real-estate, snow leopard tours are all about location, location, location!
A few weeks before our guests arrive, our field team heads into the national park to pitch our luxury remote camps for our snow leopard tours. It’s harder to operate within a national park system because it means that everything we bring in has to be removable and non-permanent. However, we choose to operate within the National Park because the snow leopard sightings are unparalleled. No major roads, no lodges, and no crowds means the snow leopard’s movements are less restricted and all that results in a much better experience for our guests.
Sightings on our snow leopard tours
The very first snow leopard tour of the season was led by Brad Josephs. The group arrived in camp by late afternoon after a morning spent sightseeing. As the group relaxed with cups of tea and coffee in the dining tent, we heard Dorjay, Ladakh’s top snow leopard spotter yell out “shan, shan, shan!” Rashid, our expedition chief, burst into the dining tent translating Dorjay’s yells to “snow leopard, snow leopard snow leopard!”
As the guests tumbled out of the door clutching their cameras, they were in for a shock. It wasn’t just a snow leopard. There were three! High on the ridge directly opposite us a mother and her two cubs observed the commotion they caused in our remote camp. Though on a distant ridge on the sky-line, they were clearly visible with the naked eye. Silhouetted against the sky, the snow leopards observed us. Just 30 minutes after arriving in camp, our guests had seen three snow leopards – a mother and cubs no less.
This was just the beginning. The first expedition had a total of 13 snow leopard sightings on their snow leopard tour!
Distant snow leopards from camp
The next four snow leopard tours all had similar luck. Every single guests saw multiple snow leopards. A total of 30 snow leopards were sighted in 33 days of snow leopard tours. While there’s no way to get numbers – we’re pretty sure this may be a record. This track record of success on snow leopard tours is a testament to the hard work put in by the entire crew.
The closest sighting on our snow leopard tours in 2020 was around 150 feet. The best sighting was a 4 hour sighting of another mother and her two cubs. The cubs spent a lot of the time running around and playing and occasionally stopped by their resting mom to pester her.
Watch the two cubs play and annoy their mother along with some fun commentary from our guests as they view them!
Cubs play by mom!
Learn : How we track the ‘ghost of the mountains’ on snow leopards tours
While camp crews deal with morning breakfast, french presses, and made to order eggs, our snow leopard specialists get to work on tracking. On snow leopard tours Voygr’s tracking specialists spend almost 10 hours each day searching ridge-lines through our powerful Swarvoski Optik BTX-95 scopes, and exploring valleys on foot. Our top trackers have over twenty years of experience each working with snow leopards.
As they spread out through different valleys, they stay in touch over the radio, trading intelligence such as new tracks they’ve found, cracking jokes, or asking the base to send over tea and snacks. When a snow leopard is spotted, camp radios erupt with activity. All the major ridges are named and information quickly begins to come in about which ridge the snow leopard is on, whether its moving up or down (or just taking a cat nap) and next steps are discussed.
When on the move, snow leopards often stick near the top of a ridge-line so that they can observe for prey movement on both sides of a mountain. This means they frequently move in and out of view as they walk a ridge. It’s not just important to have experienced trackers in order to find snow leopards – it’s just as important to understand what the snow leopard will do next. Once a snow leopard goes behind a ridge and visual contact is lost – the specialists use their years of tracking experience to determine where the snow leopard will reappear. Expedition leaders then make a call on which direction to move guests to regain a visual on the snow leopard.
Learn: The dynamics of a sighting on snow leopard tours
If a snow leopard is sighted in the morning, there is a good chance the snow leopard will hang out near that area all day. However, this doesn’t always mean it’ll be visible all day. Due to the mountainous terrain a snow leopard could lay down to nap and be completely hidden from view by rocks, undulating landscape, or the angle of a slope.
Once a snow leopard is hidden from view, our guests have a chance at a break, especially if they have been viewing the snow leopard excitedly for an hour or more. On many mornings during snow leopard tours, spotters will radio camp very soon after departing from it that they have found a snow leopard. Often this happens while guests are still waking up or having their first cup of coffee. Nothing wakes someone up faster than the yell of “snow leopard!”
When this happens everyone dons their layers and rushes to the nearest vantage point where the trackers are. As guests settle in to a morning viewing, the kitchen crew cranks out thermoses of hot water, roasts coffee beans, preps breakfast and dispatches the hard working meal crew to where ever the trackers and guests are viewing snow leopards from. Nothing beats a piping hot coffee while watching a snow leopard!
Eventually the snow leopard will settle down or disappear from view. As things return to normal and guests have somewhat satiated their snow leopard urge, things like breakfast, brushing teeth, and other morning tasks return to mind. Slowly guests return to camp to get ready for the rest of the day. Trackers remain at their posts observing the snow leopard, or the area it was last seen in, for signs of activity. If anything interesting happens, they radio camp. The majority of sightings in the morning are close to camp so sometimes guests will enjoy eggs to order and breakfast while they observe a snow leopard through a scope.
If an actively tracked snow leopard decides to head into one of the adjacent valleys, a tracker or two will attempt to maintain visual contact as they track the snow leopard. Due to their vast experience of snow leopard behavior in these valleys, trackers will often predict which valley guests should head to in order to continue viewing the cat.
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