SNOW LEOPARDS & BIRDS OF LADAKH, INDIA: DETAILED ITINERARY
Snow Leopard Special: Day 1 Our Snow Leopard and birds tour of Ladakh, India starts early this morning at Leh airport (flights from Delhi, the capital city of India, generally arrive in the morning). We will be transferred to our hotel in Leh for an overnight stay.
The flight over the Western Himalayas from India proper to Ladakh is usually spectacular, with views of ice- and snow-encrusted peaks stretching away towards the horizon. As Leh is situated at an altitude of about 3,300m or 10,800ft, we will take it easy today and start to get adjusted to the thin air of Ladakh. Ladakh is one of the few remaining abodes of Buddhism and the Leh area is home to a number of impressive religious buildings, including the Shey, Thikse, Spituk and Stok monasteries. These show unique prayer wheels, chortens (stupas), statues of Buddha, thangkas (Tibetan silk paintings) and prayer flags. This afternoon we will pay a visit to Thikse monastery.
We will also explore a couple of interesting areas for birding near Leh. The town is situated in the Indus valley, not far from where the Zanskar river joins its turbulent waters, and a ribbon of vegetation lines the river in this otherwise barren landscape. Human settlements, however, are more richly vegetated due to irrigation and are surrounded by fertile fields and trees. Natural vegetation commonly seen along watercourses includes Tibetan Buckthorn, willows, wild roses, Tamarisk and caraway, while natural vegetation in the unirrigated desert around Leh includes capers, rhubarb and several species of aromatic Artemisia (wormwood).
A few pairs of the strange but beautiful Ibisbill inhabit the shingle banks of the Indus river. Small marshes and pools hold Mallard and other wildfowl, Common Moorhen and Common Coot. We will also search for the little known Solitary Snipe at the edge of stony streams. Among the willow groves and fallow fields, birding forays should produce Oriental Turtle Dove, Black-eared Kite, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Common Kestrel, Eurasian Magpie, Red-billed Chough and Cinereous Tit.
Snow Leopard Special: Day 2 After breakfast we will transfer to the roadhead in Hemis National Park, situated at an altitude of about 3,600m or 11,800ft.
From the roadhead it is only a little over an hour’s walk, gently uphill alongside a river, to our campsite situated at about 3,700m or 12,100ft. Our luggage will be carried by donkeys and ponies and on our walk we will get acquainted with the more common birds and mammals of these magnificent mountains. After settling into our camp, where we will spend 8 nights, we will have our first opportunity to look for Snow Leopards from a nearby viewpoint.
Snow Leopard Special: Days 3-9 Seven full days to look for Snow Leopard, Blue Sheep (their main prey species), other mammals and birds, and enjoy the spectacular scenery of Hemis. Hemis National Park is a high altitude area in the eastern Ladakh region of India’s state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is India’s only protected area inside the Palearctic ecozone and with its 4,400 square kilometres, it is presently the largest national park in South Asia. The park is bounded on the north by the Indus River and includes the catchments of the Markha, Sumdah and Rumbak rivers, and parts of the Zanskar Range. The park houses numerous Tibetan gompas and holy chortens within its boundaries. These include the famous 400-year old Hemis Monastery. Hemis was a destination and transit point on the silk routes across the Tibetan Plateau. The highest mountain in the park is Stok Kangri (6,123m or 20,090ft), which dominates the area and offers simply magnificent views.
Hemis National Park is probably the best place in the world to try to see the fabled Snow Leopard. The park is home to a viable breeding population of about 200 of these big cats. This magnificent mammal occupies alpine and subalpine areas, generally between 3,350 and 6,700m (11,000 and 22,000ft) in Ladakh, and is currently restricted to the mountain ranges of Central Asia in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Its geographic distribution runs from the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan and the Syr Darya through the Pamir Mountains, the Tian Shan, the Karakoram, Kashmir, the Kunlun, and the Himalayas to southern Siberia, where the range covers the Russian Altai mountains, the Sayan, the Tannu-Ola mountains and the mountains to the west of Lake Baikal. In Mongolia, it is found in the Mongolian and Gobi Altai and the Khangai Mountains. In Tibet, it is found up to the Altyn-Tagh in the north. The total estimated population is 4,080-6,590. However, the effective global Snow Leopard population (those likely to reproduce) is suspected to be fewer than 2,500. The Snow Leopard features on the endangered species list as it is still widely poached and persecuted for its coat and as a recent substitute for the high-priced tiger bones used for Chinese medicine. Other individuals are killed by herders because of raids on domestic stock.
Hemis National Park is an especially good habitat for this predator as it has abundant prey populations. The prey base for this apex predator is primarily supported by Bharal (Blue Sheep, Argali (Great Tibetan Sheep), Ladakh Urial (Shapu) and livestock. Smaller prey consists of marmots, Woolly Hares, pikas, various rodents, and birds such as Himalayan Snowcock and Chukar. Considerable predation of domestic livestock occurs, which brings it into direct conflict with humans. Herders will kill Snow Leopards to prevent them from taking their animals. Loss of natural prey animals due to over-grazing by domestic livestock, poaching and defence of livestock are the major cause for the decreasing population of Panthera uncia. Snow Leopards have not been reported to attack humans, and appear to be among the least aggressive of all the big cats. As a result, they are easily driven away from livestock; they readily abandon their kills when threatened and may not even defend themselves when attacked.
Snow leopards are smaller than the other big cats and stand about 60cm (24 inches) at the shoulder. They have long thick fur, and their base colour varies from smoky grey to yellowish tan, with whitish underparts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their body with small spots of the same colour on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tail. Unusually among cats, their eyes are pale green or gray in colour. Snow leopards show several adaptations for living in a cold mountainous environment. Their bodies are stocky, their fur is thick, and their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimize heat loss. Their paws are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase their grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimize heat loss. Snow Leopards’ tails are long, very thick and flexible, helping them to maintain their balance, which is very important in the rocky terrain they inhabit. Their tails are very thick due to storage of fats and are very thickly covered with fur, which allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep, as well as serving as a counterweight when they are moving or climbing rapidly. The Snow Leopard cannot roar and its vocalizations include hisses, chuffing, mews, growls and wails.
Snow Leopards usually live above the tree line in mountainous meadows and in rocky regions. They prefer broken terrain and can travel without difficulty in snow up to 85cm (33 inches) deep, although they prefer to use existing trails made by other animals. Like other cats, Snow Leopards use scent marks to indicate their territory and common travel routes. These are most commonly produced by scraping the ground with the hind feet before depositing urine or scat, but they also spray urine onto sheltered patches of rock and mark protruding rocks with their cheek glands. They are crepuscular, being most active at dawn and dusk. They are known for being extremely secretive and well camouflaged.
We will spend the best part of every day scanning the nearby and more distant mountain slopes in the hope of finding and photographing this most wanted creature. We will be amidst some of the most impressive mountain scenery the world has on offer. Our man on the spot has an uncanny rapport with the cat and knows the best areas to find this elusive creature. He will point out the pug marks, show us the scrapes and scat and encourage us to smell the scent marks under overhanging rocks. We stand a very high chance of getting to grips with one of the most mythical animals on earth, perhaps several times, but we will have to keep our eyes open as this beautiful animal can be extremely difficult to spot due to its secretive and elusive nature and perfect camouflage. Once detected it has the ability to vanish in front of the eyes of the observer and the name ‘the grey ghost’ given to it by local people refers to this remarkable characteristic.
As well as ‘The Cat’, we should encounter a nice selection of other mammals in these forbidding mountains. The Bharal or Blue Sheep is the most abundant mountain ungulate in Ladakh. This gregarious animal displays characteristics of both sheep and goat and lives on high altitude pastures, steep rocky slopes and open hillsides. The Ladakh Urial or Shapu is another unique mountain sheep that inhabits these mountains. The population is declining, however, and presently there are not more 3000 individuals left in Ladakh. The Urial is endemic to Ladakh, where it is distributed only along two major river valleys, the Indus and Shayok. The squat Himalayan Marmot is abundant on open, grassy stone-strewn slopes, but all or most will be hibernating at this season. Other interesting mammals here include Woolly Hare, Royle’s Pika, Red Fox and the extremely agile Mountain Weasel.
The birdlife of these barren mountains is limited and is distinctly Palearctic (temperate Eurasian) in character. We will surely hear the characteristic whistles of Himalayan Snowcocks emanating from high meadows and spot this large gamebird while it searches the alpine meadows for bulbs and tubers, or calls from a prominent point. Chukars abound and favour the vicinity of fields and villages. Rock and Hill Pigeons, and sometimes Snow Pigeons, can be found on precipitous cliffs. The raptor guild is well represented and we should find Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier, Himalayan Griffon Vulture, Upland Buzzard, Golden Eagle and Saker. Torrents are inhabited by both White-throated and Brown Dippers, while birding the small damp areas can turn up Solitary Snipe. Common Ravens patrol the skies and vocal parties of Red-billed and Alpine or Yellow-billed Choughs forage on the slopes. Birding in the scrubby areas should reveal Robin Accentors and Streaked Rosefinches. Other species we should find here on our birding excursions include Tibetan Snowfinch, Brown Accentor, Fire-fronted Serin, Twite, Plain Mountain Finch, Blyth’s Rosefinch (split from Red-mantled) and Rock Bunting.
Snow Leopard Special: Day 10 After a last early morning watch for Snow Leopard at Hemis we will retrace our steps to Leh and continue by road to the remote Ladakhi village of Ullay (or Ulley) for a three nights stay at very simple village guesthouses.
Snow Leopard Special: Days 11-12 We will explore the surroundings of Ullay, which is situated at about 4,000m (13,000 ft), staying with a charming local family for three nights. Here we will have further chances for Snow Leopard sightings and in particular, we will be looking for Grey Wolf and Siberian Ibex, both of which are regularly seen in this area. This is also a great area for finding Urial, yet another wild goat species characteristic of Ladakh.
Snow Leopard Special: Day 13 This morning we will return to Leh for a well deserved overnight stay at our very comfortable hotel. There will be an opportunity to explore the town this afternoon.
Snow Leopard Special: Day 14 Our Snow Leopard and birds tour to Ladakh, India ends this morning at Leh airport.
TIBETAN PLATEAU EXTENSION
Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh: Day 1 The tour starts this morning at Leh, from where we will drive to Tso Kar, a remote saline lake situated on the Tibetan Plateau in eastern Ladakh, where we will stay for three nights.
Our journey will take us along the course of the awesome Indus Gorge and as we continue eastwards in the direction of its source, near Mount Kailash in Tibet, the sacred river narrows and becomes a rushing Himalayan torrent, sometimes flowing under sheets of ice. One cannot underestimate the importance of the river to the subcontinent. For neighbouring Pakistan, the Indus provides much of the irrigation of its main agricultural region, the Punjab. Even the name India is derived from the Indus. Our route will take us along one of the world’s most spectacular roads as we pass through some very impressive mountain scenery in the deep gorge.
We will make a couple of birding stops along the way where side valleys join the Indus. Here we should find Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier), Solitary Snipe, the extraordinary Wallcreeper, White-throated Dipper and Black-throated and Robin Accentors. We should see our first Kiangs (or Tibetan Wild Ass) before we ascend the Polongkongka La pass. Needless to say there will also be stops to admire the awesome scenery.
Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh: Days 2-3 During our time at Tso Kar we can expect to have great encounters with the attractively patterned Kiang (or Tibetan Wild Ass). Tibetan Argali (or Nyan) should also be encountered. This is the largest wild sheep in the world, standing 3.5 to 4 feet (1 to 1.2m) at the shoulder, the rams sporting an impressive set of horns, some measuring as much as 190 cm (6.2 ft) in length and weighing up to 23 kg (51 lb)! Grey Wolves are also frequently seen in this area and still pose a threat to the livestock of animal herders here. Guinea-pig like Ladakh Pikas haunt rocky areas or even stone walls, emerging on warmer, sunny days.
Birding is also great here, featuring such interesting birds as Tibetan Snowcock, Tibetan Partridge, the impressive Tibetan Sandgrouse, the strange Groundpecker and Blanford’s (or Plain-backed) and Black-winged (or Tibetan) Snowfinches. All of these are regularly recorded. Black-necked Cranes have sometimes returned to the area by the third week in March (and are often very approachable), as have Ruddy Shelducks.
Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh: Day 4 After some final birding and mammal watching around Tso Kar, we will return to Leh for a welcome night at a comfortable hotel.
Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh: Day 5 The tour ends this morning at Leh airport.