Monday, 1 May 2017

In search of Snow Leopards

The Snow Leopard; for many wildlife lovers and well-travelled naturalists, just glimpsing this charismatic big cat in its breath-taking mountain habitat, would be the equivalent of the Holy Grail. Below is a summary of my trip in search of the grey ghost in February this year which was very successful, producing sightings of 5 different snow leopards, including a remarkable sighting of two cubs with mother and father together. (All pictures are Copyright Ian Loyd - Reef and Rainforest Tours)

For most of us that attended this exciting group, I suspect that we never really let ourselves believe that we would actually see a snow leopard. Given how rare, secretive and perfectly camouflaged these big cats are even being in the right place at the right time of year with some of the best trackers does not guarantee success. Until fairly recently very few foreigners had ever seen one in the wild, and film crews had spent months trying and often failing to capture any footage of the almost mythical cats. Finding a rare and perfectly camouflaged grey cat often against a backdrop of fifty shades of grey in a vast mountain landscape can seem like an impossible task.

As we awoke on our first full day in the Ulley Valley, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery, with the only sound in the thin mountain air being the cry of the local red-billed choughs, there was definitely a sense of anticipation and excitement. The fresh snowfall overnight had created the ideal tracking conditions for the day ahead and the experienced tracking team was already out looking. It was then towards the end of our breakfast, inside the warm and cosy homestay, that the news broke; a mother snow leopard and her two cubs had been found! I think we all expected to finish our breakfasts immediately and get up and go. Instead we were told we could relax and enjoy another cup of tea, as the cats were not far away and currently asleep under a rock, so there was no great hurry! When we arrived at the site, the mountainside in question was criss crossed with numerous tracks, so it was not clear which of the many rocks in the vicinity, the snow leopards were actually hidden under. Luckily different snow patterns on the rocks made them possible to differentiate and various prominent rocks were given names such as “Smiley Rock”, based on their appearance which both aided locating the cats and made for some interesting and descriptive conversations, while we waited. However we didn’t have to wait too long for the action, as the mother snow leopard soon emerged and walked out into the open to give everyone a superb, though distant view. She was then followed by both her cubs.

Minutes later, all of our jaws dropped simultaneously as a male then appeared on the scene, and 4 snow leopards were visible at once. This was an exceptionally rare sight. The consensus was that the normally solitary male, was only joining his family, because of another male that had moved in nearby and he was protecting his cubs. Seeing snow leopards at a distance like this, is a fairly typical sighting, but great detail could still be made out through the telescope and watching them move through their mountain landscape like this was very special.

This sighting was made even more memorable by the howling of a pack of Tibetan wolf in the distance and the huge lammergiers and golden eagles that soared past while we enjoyed the scene.
The Ulley Valley and its other interlocking valleys are thought to support a density of around 8 – 10 snow leopards, and due to the access road, much of the sightings can be made from the road or from short walks. However due to the vastness of the landscape here and lower number of trackers, sightings are generally less frequent than in Rumbak, our next destination.

The Rumbak valley, sits close to the entrance to the vast 4,400 square kilometre Hemis National Park, which is thought to be home to around 200 snow leopards. There is a particularly high concentration of prey here for them, especially during the winter months when herds of blue sheep (bharal) descend into the lower valleys, followed by the leopards, making them easier to find.

The previous days of the trip had already been fantastic, but better was still to come, as we heard that a snow leopard had been seen close to the Rumbak Village, very near to where we were staying. When we arrived at the site, it became clear why the leopard was staying in this area. It had made a blue sheep (bharal) kill and was resting nearby to digest and guard the kill.

This was very fortunate as it then stayed in the area for days to come, feeding from the kill from time to time and protecting it from packs of wolves, which enabled us to watch it over the course of several days.

On a few occasions it would leave the kill to chase away magpies that came too close.

On our last day with this snow leopard we thought we might even be treated to the ultimate sight of a hunt, as a group of blue sheep made their way below the sleeping leopard pictured in the top corner of the photograph below. However she clearly still had a very full belly and was not interested in another meal just yet.

Although the snow leopard sightings were of course the absolute highlight of this trip, they were not the only exciting experience, as the sensational Himalayan scenery and fascinating cultural insights were also highly memorable. By staying in the comfortable homestays (rather than camping) with heated rooms and home cooked food we also had the opportunity to interact with our friendly Ladakhi hosts.

Through this we learnt of their hardships in surviving in this hostile environment year round, but also how this brings all the villagers together to work as a community and share jobs and resources. There were also other wildlife delights too; with abundant blue sheep, Ladkah urial, Asiatic ibex, Royale’s pika, woolly hares and numerous birds of prey such as lammergiers, Himalayan griffon vultures, golden eagles, plus Himalayan snowcocks and ibisbills to name a few. We also found fresh tracks of Tibetan wolf and Eurasian lynx. Although sightings of snow leopards can never be guaranteed, this tour certainly offers an excellent chance whilst being as comfortable as possible. Simply spending time in this incredible part of the world will leave a lasting impression on you.

Ladakh urial

This is what a frozen waterfall looks like.

Sunday Market in Leh

Searching for snow leopards


Large-eared pika

Robin accentor

Himalayan griffon vulture

Ladakh urial

Golden eagle


Having a Whale of a time in Sri Lanka (Part 2)

After our terrestrial wildlife bonanza in Yala we headed north to Trincomalee on the north east coast, passing through the edge of the lusher and more mountainous hill country en route. We also made a stop at Passekudah for lunch with a great seaside view.

Situated on the east coastline, Trincomalee is most well known for its huge harbour, (the world's second largest natural harbour) which had an important role for the British during the second World War and is now very busy with freight ships. This region is also the centre of the Tamil language in Sri Lanka and has only fairly recently opened itself up to tourism, since the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War.

 The Hindu Shrine at Fort Fredrick, Trinco.

The coastline here is beautiful and supports a very diverse and exciting marine life from large gatherings of krill, deep sea fish and cetaceans to the wonderful hard and soft corals, colourful reef fish, sharks and turtles of Pigeon Island.

It was the marine reserve of Pigeon Island we visited first of all where we enjoyed some superb snorkelling. The highlights were a hawksbill turtle, more than 20 black-tipped reef sharks, trumpet fish, huge numbers of five saddle parrot fish, a giant moray eel, sebae anemonefish, wedge-tailed triggerfish, pufferfish, white-spotted boxfish and soft coral

Moorish idol

Black-tipped reef shark

White-spotted Boxfish (male)

Criss -cross Butterfly fish

Sebae anemonefish

Pinstriped butterflyfish

Blackspot sergeant

Two-lined monocole bream

Shoal of parrot fish

Lined surgeonfish

Silver mono shoal

Freckled Hawkfish

Hawksbill turtle

Giant Moray eel

Five-saddle Parrot fish

Trumpet fish

Soft corals


wedge-tail Triggerfish

It was in the early 1980s that researchers discovered an important new population of blue whales feeding off the coast from Trincomalee. They were being attracted by the large blooms of krill in the underwater canyons in March and April in particular. Sperm whales also frequent the area on their migrations and Bryde's whales, spinner, Pantropical bottle-nosed, spotted and striped dolphins and pilot whales are also all regular visitors.

Unfortunately the year of our visit, coincided with a particularly strong El Nino which was affecting the sea temperatures, even in this part of the world and the krill and whales were scarce this year. We made fruitless boat trips each day in search of the mighty whales, but even though the sea conditions were ideal, with flat calm waters, there was no sign. The BBC were also out trying to get some underwater footage for their upcoming Blue Planet series too, but were also having a hard time finding any whales.

However finally perseverance paid off. Typically right towards the end of our last boat trip, as we were about to head back to land, we caught sight of a blow in the distance and another boat in the area. They radioed over to us that they had a Blue whale! The excitement began.

We all scanned the horizon and after little time, we began to worry that it had moved on already and we had missed our chance. Then out of the blue, it rose up giving us all a phenomenal view of the head, back and tail as it made a series of dives. It was a magical sight and even hearing the tremendous air blow, from the largest creature on the planet was enough to make us all gasp in awe. We nearly had the chance to get in the water with it, but the timings sadly just didn't quite work out.

Blue Whale

We also had some great views of acrobatic spinner dolphins, white-bellied sea eagle and flying fish to keep us entertained during the journey.

Spinner dolphin

From here we travelled to Sri Lanka's cultural Triangle staying in Habarana. Here we searched for the grey slender loris and chevrotains at night in Popham's Arboretum. We were unsuccessful with the loris, but did find a great small Indian civet. Birdlife included many dry forest species such coppersmith barbet and small minivet.

Small Indian civet

Blue tiger Butterfly

Indian brown mongoose

Coppersmith barbet

Small minivet

We also climbed to the top of the iconic 3rd century Sigiriya Rock Fortress, which gave incredible views over the dry forests. A highlight was also watching the antics of the endemic and very bold Toque macaques with their distinctive hair cuts.

We concluded the trip with an unforgettable hot air balloon ride over this landscape with views of Sigiriya in the distance.

Sigiriya in the distance

Hot air balloon ride.

Dry forests

Dambulla Cave Temple

Young monks at Dambulla.