Episode 1: Searching for the Himalaya’s Ghost Cats

We travel to the Himalaya to join a National Geographic explorer and photographer in his pursuit of snow leopards, one of the planet’s most elusive animals in one of its most forbidding landscapes.

A camera trap catches the old male snow leopard on a mountain overlook-ing the Spiti Valley. Photographer Prasenjeet Yadav observed this cat for two years before its death in March, when it chased an ibex off a cliff.
Photograph by Prasenjeet Yadav

National Geographic’s editor at large Peter Gwin travels to the Himalaya to join photographer and National Geographic explorer Prasenjeet Yadav on his search for snow leopards, one of the planet’s most elusive animals in one of its most forbidding landscapes. Himalayan communities have long regarded the snow leopards as threats to their livelihoods, but conservation efforts and tourism are changing the way people see them.

TRANSCRIPT

[Footsteps in the snow]

PETER GWIN (HOST): Whacha got?

PRASENJEET YADAV (PHOTOGRAPHER) : Do you see this? This is what we have been looking for.

GWIN: Oh wow, man. Look at that.

YADAV: It's quite a fresh track of a snow leopard.

GWIN: How can you tell?

YADAV: Oh, you see toes and the paw? You see the contours here? They haven't melted yet.

GWIN: It’s February 2020, and I’m hiking along a snowy ridgeline overlooking a deep gorge with National Geographic explorer Prasenjeet Yadav.

(To Prasenjeet) I found another little cave up here.

We’re in the remote Spiti Valley of northern India. It’s sunny but below freezing and we’re trudging through the calf-deep snow, surrounded by pristine, white Himalayan peaks.

Usually on an assignment my only equipment is a pen and notebook. But now I’m gathering sound for the podcast. And I’m trying to keep my microphone cord stuffed in my jacket to prevent it from freezing and breaking.

I’m going to see if I can get up closer to these blue sheep. I’m not a snow leopard, so maybe they won’t mind.

Meanwhile, Prasenjeet is on a mission, and he’s laser-focused on the ground.

YADAV: You have a bright sun right here and still it hasn’t melted. So my speculation that this is either last night or this morning.

GWIN: Prasenjeet is used to navigating difficult environments as a wildlife photographer. He’s worked in monsoons, jungles, deserts, and uninhabited islands. But this terrain is by far the most extreme. First, Spiti is almost three miles above sea level. And unless you’re born here, the thin air takes serious getting used to. In the winter, there’s also heavy snowfall, howling winds, and there’s always the threat of frostbite.

Did you find anything down there?

But if you’re really serious about catching a glimpse of a snow leopard. You have to get up to their favorite haunts. And that means climbing icy cliffs.

YADAV: We have climbed up like 300 meters now. And this is where the snow leopards move quite often.

GWIN: We actually don’t know that much about snow leopards. They’re so difficult to track. Scientists can only guess how many there are. Maybe as few as 3,500 or as many as 7,000.

Part of the reason we know so little is due to the cat’s range, which spans roughly 800,000 square miles across 12 countries. And these are highly remote areas filled with rugged terrain, like the Spiti Valley.

YADAV: So I have a thought that probably this snow leopard went up and probably it must be looking for its prey.

GWIN: Oh wow. So if we keep going up, is there a chance that we see a snow leopard feeding on a kill? Can you promise me that?

GWIN: Even though it’s winter, we’re surrounded by areas that offer just enough grasses poking through the snow for the ibex and blue sheep to graze on.

The snow leopards here mainly hunt ibex and blue sheep. So that makes this prime snow leopard territory. But Prasenjeet still isn’t making any promises.

YADAV: This is a bright day. And this time of the day, I have a feeling that snow leopards would be sitting somewhere in the deep crevasses in this ridge and must be just resting. They hate this kind of heat.

GWIN: You mean we climbed all the way up here for nothing? Just some tracks?

YADAV: It's not just any track. It's snow leopard track. Like think about it. We are walking on the same path where less than 24 hours ago, a snow leopard walked.

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic magazine. And this is Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, we travel to some of the world’s most rugged mountains in search of one of the planet’s most elusive creatures, and learn how after centuries of conflict with snow leopards, locals are now taking innovative steps to conserve them and bring tourists to see them.

More after the break.

GWIN: I was in college when I first read Peter Matthiessen’s classic book, The Snow Leopard.

And ever since, I’ve been obsessed with seeing one of these enigmatic cats in the wild.

Peter Matthiessen (as read by Jacob Pinter): By firelight, we talk about the snow leopard. Not only is it rare, but it is wary and elusive to a magical degree, and so well camouflaged in the places it chooses to lie that one can stare straight at it from yards away and fail to see it.

GWIN: Matthiessen recounts his journey in 1973 with legendary wildlife biologist George Schaller to explore remote Himalayan valleys. At the time, snow leopards were like mountain ghosts. In fact, Schaller was believed to be one of only two Westerners known to even have seen a snow leopard in the wild. And for the better part of 25 years, a single photo he had managed to snap was the only image of a wild snow leopard known to exist.

Peter Matthiessen (as read by Jacob Pinter): “And then there was the small matter of the snow leopard, whose terrible beauty is the very stuff of human longing. Its uncompromising yellow eyes, wired into the depths of its unfathomable spirit, gaze out from the cover of innumerable editions.”

GWIN: As the men trekked deeper into the mountains, they found signs of snow leopards all around them—including several fresh prints in the snow, just like the one Prasenjeet showed me.

Peter Matthiessen (as read by Jacob Pinter): “Have you seen the snow leopard? No! Isn’t that wonderful?”

GWIN: On that trip Matthiessen never actually got to see a snow leopard. But he felt certain they were watching him. The cat’s presence haunted the landscape. And it’s haunted my imagination ever since.

GWIN: Can you describe this road that we're driving up here? This giant, scary road?

GWIN: OK. Fast forward a bunch of years. My buddy Prasenjeet starts working on a new project and basically disappears. Months go by. I send emails, WhatsApps—nada. And then suddenly, my phone lights up. And it’s filled with pictures of a small mountain village in northern India called Kibber. Prasenjeet says, ‘You want to see a snow leopard, you gotta come here. But there’s a catch...How do you feel about heights?’

YADAV: There’s this movie called Tokyo Drift and there’s a song—

GWIN: No, don’t talk about Tokyo Drift.

YADAV: On one side of this cliff from where there are shooting stones. There are these stones which completely come loose when the snow melts and they literally fall down onto the road. And these stones could be small, or it could be it could be really big boulders which can literally crash your car.

GWIN: Looks like some weather’s moving in.

YADAV: Yeah.

GWIN: The good news, he said, was that there was a new road that went all the way to Kibber. The bad news is it’s a single track, hacked out of the side of a near-vertical cliff. It’s barely wide enough for his jeep. And it's covered with snow and ice, and occasionally I feel the jeep start to slide a little.

YADAV: And to your left there's this big gorge which ends up into this river. And if your vehicle, it tumbles down there—then then you're gone.

GWIN: Hey, seriously, Prasenjeet.

YADAV: I’m good.

GWIN: But here’s the thing: you have to travel this road in winter. Because that’s when snow leopards follow their favorite prey, the blue sheep and the ibex, down from the higher elevations. So that means braving the harsh winter cold of the Himalaya. And then hiking up into rocky cliffs covered in ice and snow…

YADAV: You see them only when they are walking as a black dot in a white snow.

GWIN: Their fur is a perfect blend of the colors of the landscape—white, tawny brown, and smoky gray, with swirls of charcoal. That combination perfectly camouflages the cats and lets them disappear into any area not completely covered by snow.

YADAV: But you remove snow out of the equation. And the snow leopard is just another rock in this vast, rocky landscape. And that makes them so much more difficult to spot.

GWIN: It’s thrilling to catch sight of a wild snow leopard just walking in the snow. But these creatures are like superheroes in the animal kingdom. As climbers, they make Alex Honnold look like an amateur. They can leap up to 50 feet, balance on the thinnest ledges, and sprint in bursts as fast as a racehorse. All of this makes them one of the deadliest hunters on the roof of the world. And If you’re super lucky—you might just see a snow leopard hunt. About a year before I came here, I saw a jaw-dropping video taken in 2018 of a snow leopard sprint after a blue sheep and then go hurtling off a cliff.

YADAV: And then you see this snow leopard literally falling off from a cliff, maybe 250, 300 feet down, and then you see it falling, then rolling another 100 meters down. I am sure that no human being can survive any such fall.

GWIN: And then it sat up and started eating the sheep like nothing happened.

YADAV: I think that’s one of the craziest natural history videos that exist on the internet today.

GWIN: Here’s the catch: A snow leopard requires a massive territory. A male in Kibber might need 40 square miles, or more—an area roughly twice the size of Manhattan—to find enough prey to sustain itself. But Prasenjeet is used to solving complicated problems—he was working on a Ph.D. in molecular ecology before deciding to become a wildlife photographer. Still, this is almost a mission impossible situation—the terrain is so rugged and the temperatures are so extreme that finding a snow leopard is like finding a needle in a haystack...while trying not to lose a toe to frostbite. Prasenjeet comes from the plains of India—where it's sea level and super hot. The first challenge he faced when he got here was just getting used to the altitude and the brutal cold.

YADAV: My father has a farm which is literally in the middle of the jungle, and that's where I grew up. And when I say literally in the middle of jungle, I mean it like we have tigers coming in our lawn, even now.

GWIN: So he knows big cats. As a kid, he came to recognize their pungent smell and could pick out their shadows moving in the forest. His family didn’t bother to name their dogs

because every six months or so they’d lose them to the leopards that lurked around his family’s farm, which wasn’t that far from the area that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

YADAV: Many friends still call me Mowgli. And it just irks me out, but it is what it is.

(sound of Prasenjeet installing a camera trap)

GWIN: When he came to Kibber, Prasenjeet knew he had to learn to think like a snow leopard to get close-up photos and videos. So he set up camera traps in areas where they’re most likely to come through.

YADAV: Do you want to smell it?

GWIN: Sure.

YADAV: Come closer. Put your nose in there.

GWIN: We’re in a cave high up on a cliff. He shows me a rock where a snow leopard has urinated and rubbed its face, leaving bits of its hair as a mark of its territory.

GWIN (INSIDE THE CAVE): Oh my gosh. Wow. That's very pungent. It kind of smells like my cat, when I was a kid. There’s a feline thing going on here.

YADAV: Yeah, this is also a cat. It’s just that it’s, like, much bigger.

GWIN: This cave is connected to a series of ledges he calls the “snow leopard highway”
because the cats pass through here frequently as they follow the ibex and blue sheep.
But getting an image is still tricky.

YADAV: And I get like one decent picture every two months.

GWIN: There’s a real art to getting a snow leopard to basically take a selfie.

YADAV: I might have hundreds of photos where there are snow leopards inside the camera trap. And if it comes in, most of the time, it loves to show its bottom to the camera, you know?

GWIN: There is one old male snow leopard that’s been the star of these camera trap shoots. His territory appears to surround Kibber.

YADAV: And I could identify him because he had his left ear chipped—it was cut— and I started calling him cut ear, or ear cut. In our language, we used to call him Kunkadar. I think he loved taking taking his selfies.

GWIN: Prasenjeet has become obsessed with this old male. He’s pretty sure that he is the father of two cubs born to a female in 2019. It was probably Kunkadar that tumbled off the cliff in the viral video I saw, which was shot just outside of Kibber. And it’s easy to get carried away by these creatures—their spectacular physical prowess, their beauty, and their mystery. But the people who live in these mountains, they see snow leopards differently.

More after this.

(Sound of monks chanting at a Buddhist temple)

The village of Kibber is nestled in mountains, at more than 14,000 feet above sea level.

It was part of an ancient Tibetan kingdom. And features a Buddhist temple, where for centuries monks have chanted in the middle of each day. It’s home to around four hundred people. And pretty much forever, they’ve tended yaks, goats, sheep, and other livestock. Every now and then a snow leopard would kill one. And that was a major blow, because those animals are key to the families’ survival. So when snow leopards killed livestock, people responded by hunting them.

Prasenjeet and I paid a visit to Tanzin Thinley, a 43-year-old resident of the village. Thinley remembers when he was a kid, a snow leopard once attacked 20 sheep at a neighbor’s house. Prasenjeet translated his story for me.

THINLEY/YADAV (translating): And they locked him inside, and the entire village got agitated and came with spears and knives and everything. And they killed it.

GWIN: So for a long time, residents of Kibber regarded the snow leopard as a threat to their livelihoods. But that was until a young scientist arrived in 1996.

CHARU MISHRA (SCIENTIST): My name is Charu Mishra, and I am the executive director of the International Snow Leopard Trust. I've been basically a scientist, a researcher, and a conservationist all my life.

GWIN: Years before Charu got involved with the Snow Leopard Trust and doing conservation for the species, he was a 25-year-old graduate student interested in studying wildlife biology in the Himalaya. As Charu studied the area’s wildlife, he couldn’t help but notice the stigma around snow leopards.

MISHRA: So these predators were such an important part of people's lives. I mean, you almost never saw them. They almost never saw them. And yet there was this constant presence of these predators.

GWIN: But Charu had an idea: what about creating insurance for livestock? A resident could pay a premium each year. And if a snow leopard killed one of their animals, they would be compensated for their loss. There was a lot of resistance to this idea, especially among the older people. But Charu presented the idea to a group of young men.

They started with yak calves, the most valuable animals. Charu helped them calculate what the premiums would be and he also chipped in some money for the program. And then it was up to the 25 young men to run it themselves. After a year, they held a public event where the participants presented their claims. The men agreed that each person had to swear on a photo of the Dalai Lama that it was, in fact, a snow leopard that killed his animals.

THINLEY/YADAV: And then they started giving money, and the rest of the village is watching, and the people who are getting compensation are getting super happy. And now their entire village is like, “Oh, what's happening?” And these 25 people went to the village elders and then they were like, “Oh, we have done this. What he said makes sense.”

GWIN: Since then, the insurance program has continued to be successful in Kibber.

MISHRA: You have to be immersing yourself in the community. You have to be living with them. You know, sort of participating in their way of life, to the extent that you are welcome, but really participating and really trying to understand what the community is about, and how they live, and the hardships they face in living with these predators, etcetera.

GWIN: As people stopped killing snow leopards, they began to see the cats around Kibber. Charu finally saw one after living there for 10 years. And then in 2015, the road that leads to Kibber opened for the first time in winter. And slowly word got out that Kibber was a good place to see snow leopards.

GWIN: We spent several days hiking into the mountains to check the cameras. But the snow leopard always seemed to elude Prasenjeet’s traps. We were getting pretty frustrated, and then, like a lightning strike, word came that Kunkadar had made a spectacular kill. Prasenjeet and I hurried to a spot on a cliff overlooking the Spiti River where dozens of tourists had their cameras pointed down into the gorge.

We found a tour guide named Jayanth Sharma, who told us he’d seen a snow leopard chasing a large ibex. The two animals fell onto a ledge and then rolled, and then fell some more, nearly a thousand feet into the bottom of the gorge and into the freezing river.

SHARMA (TOUR GUIDE): He was rolling down with the ibex.

GWIN: Oh my goodness.

SHARMA: So the ibex—we couldn't see the snow leopard—we saw the ibex rolling down. But the snow leopard is probably one-third the size of ibex.

GWIN: The ibex was struggling to get out of the frigid water, but Kunkadar wasn’t giving up this meal. He pulled the ibex down and held its head under the water until it died.

But the snow leopard left the kill early in the morning and no one had seen him since. Some of the guides were speculating he may have been injured making the kill. We spend the rest of the day scanning the gorge with high-powered binoculars and telephoto lenses, looking for signs of Kunkadar. And then finally just before dusk, the snow leopard emerges from the shadows and returns to his kill.

YADAV: Man, that ibex is so huge. It's like a big stone in the middle of the river. And the snow leopard literally jumped on it. It's standing on the ibex and eating the ibex. So by standing on the ibex, it’s avoiding the water from the stream. And then it's pulling and it's ripping it apart.

GWIN: I steady my binoculars and focus on the cat. It looks tiny standing on this massive ibex. At one point the snow leopard looks up and I feel like he’s staring at me.

GWIN: I mean, what would make an old male snow leopard be willing to take on, I mean, you know, something almost three times its size?

YADAV: Hunger. And the other thing is this ibex itself was really old. So we knew like—it's been a chatter in the last two weeks in the entire village that this guy is soon going to get killed by a snow leopard, because it would just not run away, walk on the road...

GWIN: Let me ask you this question. So why what is it about a snow leopard that brings us all the way up here, to this remote part of the Himalayas, and puts us right out on the edge of a 600-meter sheer cliff to get a glimpse of this thing eating an ibex in the middle of the river? What is it about that, that drives human beings to do that?

YADAV: Imagine a big cat that lives high up in the Himalayas in minus 40 degrees Celsius, climbs these steep cliffs, and run from them, and then catches a goat and then feeds on it. And animals, which has been so elusive—like the word “elusive” is probably made for the species. And that is the reason what brought me up here, that is the reason what brought you up here, and all these people as well.

GWIN: In 2020, that excitement for these animals brought more than 200 tourists to Kibber. And they spent about $100,000 there, which represents a huge source of new revenue for the village. But tourism in Kibber is increasing at a rate that’s been overwhelming for the village. There aren’t any formal hotels—visitors rent rooms from the locals. No one has running water, so water has to be carried to each home. And tourists also bring in lots of trash that has to be burned or taken down.

MISHRA: Tourism, as we know, while on the one hand it brings benefits to people, on the other hand, there's so many ecological, negative ecological, cultural, and other impacts that it can have.

GWIN: According to Charu, there are conversations happening in the Spiti Valley about how to manage tourism sustainably. He’s optimistic people can see the snow leopards without exhausting natural resources at the same time. But he emphasizes, like with the insurance program, it’s up to the locals to figure out what works best for them.

About a week after I left Kibber, I got a sad call from Prasenjeet. The old snow leopard, Kunkadar, had died.

YADAV: I have a feeling that probably he got a little bit injured when it tried to meet the scale of this ibex, and eventually when it tried to make another attempt, it didn't go really well. It made a dash with this blue sheep, and they both fell down way too deep into the gorge. And the snow leopard died on the spot.

GWIN: The forestry department recovered the body. And the village held a cremation ceremony for it.

YADAV: I mean, ‘til that point, I think my story was about snow leopards. And then suddenly I realize that the story is about this individual.

GWIN: And a new generation of snow leopards is already prowling the cliffs around the Spiti River. Prasenjeet heard from friends in Kibber that one of his camera traps had gotten some new footage.

YADAV: I've just heard that we have got this video of a female and two of her cubs coming and literally playing with the camera trap—jumping, hanging on the stone, playing amongst themselves, and there's a point when all three of them are looking at the camera trap.

GWIN: Prasenjeet had to leave Kibber not long after I did because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And the village closed its doors to visitors. But he’s looking forward to going back. And when Kibber reopens, visitors will return. And if they’re patient—and lucky—they just might get to see a snow leopard.

YADAV (off-mic): And we should get there before it gets dark because the trek is not very good to do at nighttime.

More after this.

GWIN: Hey, if you want to see the snow leopards Prasenjeet captured with his camera traps,

and, I’m telling you, you totally do—you can check them out on his Instagram page @prasen.yadav.

And National Geographic subscribers can check out the piece I wrote for the magazine: “The Himalaya’s ghost leopards.”

So for any super fans who’ve already read the piece in National Geographic, we have an update on the cubs situation. Prasenjeet had spotted three cubs with a female that were believed to be Kunkadar’s offspring. Months later, after the magazine story had published, he finally got to see the camera trap video of the cubs and only two were visible. No one is sure if the other cub survived. That’s all in the show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.

Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, and Laura Sim. Our senior editor is Eli Chen, who also produced this episode. Thanks, Eli. Executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who edited this episode. Our fact-checkers are Michelle Harris and Robin Palmer. Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak. Ted Woods engineered this episode. And Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director. And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.

SHOW NOTES

For more information on this episode, visit nationalgeographic.com/overheard.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Prasenjeet Yadav.

Want more?

For Peter Gwin’s reporting on snow leopards in Kibber, National Geographic magazine subscribers can read his piece, “Himalaya Snow Leopards Are Finally Coming Into View.

And if you want to see photos that National Geographic explorer Prasenjeet Yadav has captured of snow leopards, head to his instagram page: @prasen.yadav.

Also explore:

For basic information on snow leopards, here’s National Geographic’s reference page on the species.

Subscribers can also see beautiful illustrations that show how the snow leopard’s anatomy has adapted to the harsh Himalaya environment and read about how poaching is threatening the species in Asia.