Snow leopards are rare and elegant creatures, combining the distinctive charm and allure of the cat family with the raw power and embodied violence of an apex predator. An untamed beast in an untameable region. They are remarkably elusive animals such that, without a skilled and experienced guide, the chances of a sighting are vanishingly small. With great stealth they prowl the Himalayas and dispatch their prey, typically Himalayan blue sheep (or Bharal) and mountain Ibex, with ferocity.

Snow Leopard

Snow leopards are well adapted to the harsh climate of the Himalayas – their long tails help them balance and are used as blankets to cover sensitive body parts against the severe mountain chills. Snow leopards are kept warm by thick hair and their wide, fur-covered feet act as natural snowshoes. Their power is such that they can kill animals three times their weight and, perhaps most strikingly, they can jump as far as 50 feet in a single leap. For thousands of years these advantages have made them perfectly at home in the Himalayan region, vulnerable till no other predators. Yet, tragically, poaching and the destruction of their habitats by humans has resulted in dramatic declines in the number of leopards.

Done right, one can trek into the mountains to see these Grey Ghosts while co-existing with the local environment, causing no harm and even benefiting the snow leopards. Through mindful, sustainable expeditions led by local experts one can travel this austerely beautiful region, interact with the people and experience local life, and witness the unique wildlife.

Ibex in the Himalayas

For this strange, alien landscape is home to a surprising diversity of animals. In fact, a visit Ladakh, sometimes called the ‘hidden Himalaya’, is one of the best wildlife tours in the Himalayas. As well as the leopards, it is also home to the Ibex, Urial and Bharal – strikingly, each one of these species has its own, distinct, curved horns. One can also find Mountain Hares, Pikas, Marmots Red Foxes, and the Tibetan Wolf, as well as a plethora of butterflies and birds – including Bearded and Himalayan griffon vultures and golden eagles.

Local guides, local knowledge

Naturally, to see these fantastic beasts one’s Himalayan expedition needs to be led by skilled trackers and spotters, who are able to draw on local, indigenous knowledge. There are trackers with a lifetime of expertise who are attuned to the regions and intuitively understand the movements of the leopards. On one such tour through the Ulley Valley (in Ladakh) the local spotters rise just before daybreak to scout for signs of leopards in the landscape, then based on this reconnaissance they decide the ideal strategy for the day and share their findings with guests over breakfast. Drawing on this knowledge the day’s tracking proceeds in the ideal way to spot the snow leopard.

Immerse yourself in the way of the locals at a lodge in Ladakh

On the same tour, guests live in quite unconventional, but very comfortable, homestay accommodation. The Snow Leopard Lodge sits in the centre of village Ulley in West Ladakh, north of the Indus River, overlooking the Ulley Chhu valley at an altitude of about 13,000 feet. It is around a 2-3 to hour drive from Leh, the joint capital of Ladakh (and a wonderful city with a distinctive Buddhist culture which the tours starts it, so that travellers can acclimatize and absorb some of the life and customs of the region). The village of Ulley is small, with only seven houses, but full of life – yaks are farmed, children play in the snow, prayer flags adorn the roods. The area is home to the high summer pastures of Yak and Dzo, as well as many magnificently horned Ibex – who pose strikingly on top of cliffs and ledges.

Travellers resting at a Buddhist temple in Ladakh

Support the conservation of snow leopards

The Snow Leopard Lodge began as a homestay for one of Ladakh’s top trackers – Tchewang Norbu (Norbu, a local legend and genius for tracking, still leads expeditions) – under the auspices of the not-for-profit Snow Leopard Conservancy India. The principle behind the lodge is that the revenue provided by tourism is used to conserve the ecosystem and strengthen the home of the leopards. Snow Leopard Conservancy also works with local communities, whose livestock can be threatened by the leopards, to become stewards of the leopards and their habitat, rather than standing in conflict with them. Trekking on the trail of snow leopards in Ladakh is one of the most unique and eco-conscious ways to see the Himalayas. For other ways to experience the Himalayas without damaging the region, see our post on luxury trekking in the Himalayas.

The lodge itself is warm and well-equipped. It is shared with a Ladakhi family which offers a totally unique insight into the Ladakhi way of life. This experience may, for some, facilitate an opening into the spiritual life of this deeply Buddhist region. Indeed, among the elusive leopards, many travellers to these high planes have found inspiration in the impossible vastness of the mountains.