Himalaya ‘ghost cats’ are finally coming into view

Tourists are getting unprecedented glimpses of snow leopards in India as attitudes toward the predators change.

A male snow leopard marks his territory in India’s Ladakh region. The cats spray urine, leave scratch marks, and rub facial glands on rocks to signal their presence. Unlike tigers, their closest relatives, snow leopards aren’t able to roar. Instead, they puff, meow, growl, and hiss.
Photograph by Sandesh Kadur

The old snow leopard was well-known in Kibber. It was unclear when he’d claimed the gorges and cliffs around this ancient Himalayan village, but over the past few years, the people here had come to recognize this large male, with a notched left ear, and kept track of him to the extent anyone could. Like all snow leopards, he was part phantom and would shape-shift, dissolving into these mountains like smoke from the village chimneys, dispersing into the cold, thin air.

The old ones are the ones you must watch. When snow leopards are too old to hunt the ibex and blue sheep that live among the limestone crags, they seek easier prey, the village’s goats and sheep, young horses, and yak calves.

On a bitterly cold afternoon in February, I crouched on the ice-encrusted rim of a gaping chasm, watching the old snow leopard through binoculars. He drowsed on a ledge on the opposite cliff, its sheer walls plunging nearly a thousand feet to the Spiti River. A veil of snowflakes as fine as eyelashes drifted into the gorge, and occasionally, when I jiggled the binoculars, the cat’s smoky fur with charcoal rosettes would be lost among the creases and shadows. “Crap, I lost him again,” I’d whisper. Prasenjeet would look up from his camera and point, and I’d follow his finger back to where the animal lay.

More from the magazine

A water crisis looms for 270 million people as South Asia’s glaciers shrink

One way to fight climate change: Make your own glaciers.

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet