Sunday, 27 August 2017

Hide and seek with the Mountain Ghost: Snow leopard

Following Mountain Ghost's Trail

An expedition to collect non-invasive samples of wild yaks (Bos mutus) and domestic yaks (Bos grunniens) for genetics study took us to the remote trans-Himalayas of upper Mustang. Yaks are high-altitude bovids specialized on vegetation growing only at high elevation meadows in the Tibetan Plateau. To meet our research motives, we ventured through challenging terrains, reaching to about 5,200 meters above sea level. The barren rocky cliffs, deep river valleys, steep and rolling terrains and alpine steppes in the trans-Himalayas were our home for 16 days.

We travelled through treacherous paths (I often found no paths at all). But the breath-taking and pristine landscapes made us forget all the hardships. No doubt, the ghosts of the mountains prowl in wake of dusk and dawn amidst the narrow gorges and the rocky terrains. As mythical as the Yeti, the snow leopards (Panthera uncia) are very difficult to see in their natural habitat as they are perfectly camouflaged in the mountain landscape, hence their nickname "The Mountain Ghost". Yet the presence of these magnificent cats could be felt through the signatures they left behind in form of scats, scrapes, and pugmarks. Reaching close to these signs in the intriguing terrains pose unavoidable challenges and difficulties. My regular experiences of tracking leopard (Panthera pardus) signs in the hills of Kathmandu have always been interesting. The diverse information on the “God's Pet” brought to my notice, by Naresh Kusi (my friend, brother & colleague), during our shared times always added to my fascination. Snow leopards are not much different from leopards, their mid-hill cousin. But the terrains they roam are stunning. I was seeing the hard and rocky surfaces, steep slopes, creepy and rough vegetation for the first time ever in my life and I was filled with joy and marvel to find myself amidst such a heart-warming landscape.

We walked up and down the cliffs but also had some relaxing moments in the flat Plateaus of the alpine steppes. But the 'Queen of the Himalayas' usually prefers to roam through the challenging precipices. Having come up all the way to such a pristine land, we could not let go the chances of revealing some tracks of the 'Phantom'. We endured the mountain spirit and ventured through the ghost's highway. Believe me; it was extremely adrenaline-rushing. I felt like giving up so many times.

Most of the signs we came across (scats in general) were old. We did find a couple of scrapes which gave us pleasant feeling to realize that the 'Ghost' was silently watching us from somewhere nearby. As days passed, we started descending towards a river valley traversing through gigantic cliffs and awe-inspiring gorges.

The second last camp set on the bank of Chodzong khola (river) in Chodzong valley had something in store for me. The moist soil (clay/sand) by the river bank presented a perfect place to look for pugmarks. Here Naresh dai and I chose different areas to explore; he climbed through an almost 75° slope to reach a table like depression among the mighty cliffs while I, having given up the seemingly dangerous attempt midway, roamed along the river banks. Like a stalking cat, I scanned through every crevice along the numerous cliff bases. Bingo! At the end of the soft sandy river bank my treasure hunt met its desired fate. A long reaching track of the snow leopard struck my eyes. I almost burst with tears of happiness to have finally located perfect pugmarks of the charismatic mountain cat. The fact that the animal might have had recently walked through the site, elevated my joy. This exciting moment of standing 'victorious' by the tracks of the mountain ghost carved an ecstatic imprint in my memory, which I will cherish for a long time ahead.


Pugmarks of snow leopard by a river bank:

Scat deposits of snow leopard:

Scrape markings of snow leopard on its territory:

Remains of kills:

Domestic goat (Capra aegagrus hircus) with bite mark on throat

Skull of a blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) (Nepali: Naur)

Habitat of snow leopard:

Our Horse Team members:
From left: Shakpa, Dhoma & Mhourro


This expedition was led by Naresh Kusi, Researcher at Resources Himalaya Foundation (RHF) and Principal Investigator of Wild Yak Research project, funded by his individual Research Grant provided by The Rufford Foundation, UK. I joined him as project's Co-investigator and genetics/bioinformatics expert  from Center for Molecular Dynamics Nepal (CMDN). We were accompanied by Aakash Nath Upraity, Student researcher at University of Oregon. Additionally, our team was supplemented by Ramu dai (cook), Lakpa baje (horse man), and three horses.
Time: July/August 2017.

Special mentions (words of thanks):
Naresh Kusi, Researcher at RHF;
Dibesh Karmacharya, Executive Director at CMDN;
Sulochana Manandhar, Lab Manager at CMDN;
Ajay Narayan Sharma, Senior Research Associate at CMDN;
Jyoti Joshi, Wildlife Program Manager at CMDN;
Bishwo Parakarma Shrestha, Field Manager at CMDN;
And all my colleagues at CMDN.



  1. wow great to know few momento of ur expedition. Thanks for sharing informative write up. Cheers !