In 2006, in what has been called “The Holy Grail of wildlife film making”, BBC Planet Earth introduced us to a ghost.
Extreme weather and the challenge of negotiating the alpine terrain of the Himalayas meant little was known of the snow leopard before then, never mind captured on film.
When two shoots, lasting two months each, failed, the film makers moved on to Pakistan where they finally captured the clearest, most dramatic footage ever taken of this elusive creature as it hunted bharal (blue sheep) on the treacherous mountain cliffs. The footage captured the imaginations of wildlife lovers the world over. Most fortuitously, it renewed the conservation drive to protect this rare species.
Numbering between just 4,500 and 6,500 in the wild – mainly in the alpine regions of China, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan and India – the snow leopard is endangered due to habitat and prey loss as herders move higher up into the mountains. It also suffers from poaching and persecution: the leopard’s pelt is highly valued and, if it’s not being poached, it is killed by herders in retaliation for livestock losses.
Snow leopards’ annual prey requirements are estimated at between 20 to 30 bharal. These sure-footed sheep are hard to catch on the rocky Himalayan slopes, so a relatively docile domestic animal in a more accessible mountain valley proves an easier target for this predator. Consequently, herder families can lose a great deal of income to attacks.
To combat this, organisations like Panthera with its Snow Leopard Program and the International Snow Leopard Trust have focused on changing the attitudes of herders and villagers in close proximity to snow leopards. Key to this are vaccination programmes for livestock and education in grazing management and livestock husbandry to improve efficiency and yield. Healthier herds have bolstered the community’s economy and herders are becoming more tolerant of livestock losses to snow leopards.
In tandem with this, education in conservation imperatives is practised in local communities, as well as at governmental levels. As such, Afghanistan – one of the smaller range states – afforded the snow leopard legal protection in 2009, thereby banning all hunting and trading of snow leopards within Afghanistan.
Ecotourism in the form of snow leopard treks and photographic safaris also plays a part by enhancing financial incentives for communities to conserve snow leopards with employment for locals and the sale of cottage industry handicrafts. Nomadic Expeditions, one of the leaders in Mongolia’s ecotourism industry, works in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund to protect the predator and help travellers realise their ghostly dreams. In 2015 they went on to win the PURE Award for Transformational Travel.
Once a creature that roamed the most obscure parts of our imagination, the mystery of the snow leopard is being gradually dissolved – for the better. More awareness means more respect, yet it remains one of the most enigmatic and elusive of species. Few travellers can venture into its habitat due to the climate and terrain, and sightings cannot be guaranteed, so a mere glimpse of the ghost is an incomparable reward.
A different set of filmmakers captured this spirit in the Hollywood production The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. After tracking his adventuring photographer hero across the world, Mitty eventually finds Sean O’Connell on a slope of the Himalaya. He’s behind a camera, peering through a long lens, waiting for a snow leopard to appear.
“They call the snow leopard the ghost cat – never lets itself be seen. Beautiful things don’t ask for attention,” says O’Connell.
Suddenly he draws Mitty to the eyepiece. The ghost appears in the frame, moving cautiously through the wintry landscape. It stops and glares at the two men. O’Connell carefully takes over the viewfinder; but, to Mitty’s surprise, he lifts his head and absorbs this rare scene with his bare eyes.
“When are you going to take it?” Mitty asks.
“Sometimes I don’t,” O’Connell replies. “If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay, in it.”
And then, the ghost disappears.
Previously a freelance journalist and editor of Africa Geographic, Anton Crone is CEO of Safarious, an online travel portal to the world’s wild places. Anton not only focuses on wildlife, he also finds himself drawn to the people he meets on his travels. He looks at journalism as a way to connect people of differing creeds and cultures, and through his writing and photography he tries to uphold the importance of the communities that live side by side with wildlife.