While filming with the Riding to Explore team in Ladakh in November 2021, we were lucky enough to spot a snow leopard with her two cubs. Here is a look back on this extraordinary experience, one that would give even the most seasoned wildlife photographers goose bumps.
The idea behind the Riding to Explore project was to climb to an altitude above 5,000 m in order to kite on the glacial lakes. Beyond the sports performance objectives (kiting with water temperatures around 0°C), the plan was also to create exceptional images to show that because of glacier retreat, these lakes are now navigable.
On this expedition we made our way up to Nimaling Lake, located at the foot of Kang Yatse II (6,496 m). But after 5 days of ascent we had to face the facts. The early winter brought bitter cold (consistent temperatures of -20°C, with -30°C at night) and frequent snow. The rivers and lakes were completely frozen. The initial idea was to go over a pass (5,500 m) and descend to the Gya valley where we were supposed to meet to finish our documentary. The village of Gya had been devastated by a torrential flood, caused by the partial rupture of a glacial lake located upstream. But heavy snowfall blocked our way and we didn’t want to commit the horses and the team to this risky itinerary out of range of a rescue. Satellite phones are forbidden in Ladakh so we had no means of communication if anything went wrong.
Reluctantly, we decided to turn around and head back down towards the Zanskar River, where we could take a jeep and try to kite on another lake. The disappointment was a harsh blow. We had waited for four days on the high plateaus, braving the snow and the cold, but we accepted the situation and got back in the car to head back to Chilling.
Meeting the snow leopard
We were driving along the winding road that follows the Zanskar River when suddenly Armelle (who was sitting in the back of the car in the middle, [author’s note]) shouted, “Stop! Stop!” She thought she had seen some wolves on the other slope, about a hundred meters from us. We got out of the car, astonished. These were not wolves but a family of snow leopards, just barely a hundred meters from us! The mother and two little ones were calmly heading up the slope above the river, unworried by the cars passing on the other side. It was unreal!
We ventured the hypothesis that since the icy temperatures had recently frozen the rivers, the mother leopard was forced to bring her cubs lower down into the valley in order to drink. We stayed there, dumbfounded, gazing at this miracle of nature. There are probably no more than three or four thousand snow leopards remaining on earth. We had seen three of them, just in front of us, and gazed at them for half an hour before they headed calmly back up the slope. We decided not to get out the drone out of fear of scaring or injuring them. We took a couple of photos and went on our way, still in awe of what we had witnessed.
At that moment, time came to a stop, as it has in all of my encounters with big mammals, predators, and marine creatures. Lions, panthers, elephants, whales, sharks, manta rays, orangutans, hippopotamus, rhinoceros… time stands still. You are awed by the strength but also the fragility of these remaining big creatures. You try to capture the smallest details. Then you quickly put down the camera in order to save the image with your eyes, creating an indelible memory.
The snow leopard is so well adapted to its environment that even if we weren’t far away and we knew exactly where she was, she became invisible as soon as she stopped moving. It was simply incredible. Her cubs followed her, finding their way in a maze of snow and rocks.
Panther or snow leopard?
It’s a common source of confusion; here are a couple of answers. The word “panther” (Panthera) refers to the genus belonging to the larger family of Felidae. The genus includes five species: the leopard (Panthera pardus), the lion (Panthera leo), the tiger (Panthera tigris), the jaguar (Panther onca), and the snow leopard (Panthera uncia). So all of these felines are panthers, the leopard being synonymous with the panther. Cheetahs and pumas, however, are not part of this family.
In everyday language, the word leopard generally refers to an animal with a spotted tan coat. But it would also be correct to call this a panther since the two are synonymous (and that is also its higher genus, do you follow me?). Furthermore, the animal we call a black panther is actually a black leopard, and not a subspecies. The black panther is a leopard with a genetic mutation (melanism) which gives it its very dark coat.
In the case of the snow leopard, you can either call it a snow leopard, an irbis, or even an ounce. To end this naturalist digression, here is some video shot by National Geographic of a snow leopard taking a 120 m fall while hunting a bharal. Watch out, this is some spectacular footage!
Behind the scenes on a Himalayan expedition
Finally, here are a couple of backstage shots taken during the filming of the expedition in Ladakh. The conditions were extreme and the gear was really put to the test, but the resulting images are truly unprecedented. You can find Armelle and Martin’s project on the Riding to Explore website. A documentary film directed by Alex Lopez is also available, in which you can see my video footage of the snow leopard!