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Finally on eye-level with the Grey Ghost of the Himalayas!

Finally on eye-level with the Grey Ghost of the Himalayas!

There are few animals I’ve been dreaming of seeing for as long as the Snow Leopard. It was not until quite recently that seeing a Snow Leopard seemed like something impossible. However, that changed when it became possible to see this big cat in Ladakh, India after spending days scanning the mountainsides with a telescope accompanied by local guides. Until then I only knew the Snow Leopard from the series ‘Planet Earth’, but suddenly I saw trip reports from people I knew that had seen a Snow Leopard! Around that time I started studying at the university and I decided then that I would make the trip to the Himalayas after my studies so I could see a Snow Leopard. Many a boring seminar was also used by me to read up on all the trip reports about Snow Leopards or to scour the websites of local tour companies to find an affordable trip. I even contacted a few local tour companies about a trip, but that never turned into anything real.

Then the increased chances on seeing a Snow Leopard also took away some of the magic of the species for me. After all, at first this was the big cat that almost no one had seen and that seemed to pose an unattainable challenge. Now that almost everyone seemed to have seen it, its attraction had a bit lessened for me. After India, Mongolia and China followed as countries where Snow Leopard could be seen. I certainly still wanted to see it, but it was no longer at the top of my priority list. The trip I had determined to go on after my studies became a combined trip to South America and to Borneo where I managed to see the Bornean clouded leopard. That was surely the successor of the Snow Leopard as a ‘mythically difficult’ big cat.

Then came corona and my faraway trips after that went to Latin America due to a combination of factors. In the fall of 2022, India suddenly came into the picture again. I heard from Andreas Jonsson that he and Janco van Gelderen, with whom I had traveled before, intended to try to see an Asiatic Golden Cat in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in India. That idea appealed to me because that cat is one of the most difficult cats to see in Asia and I understood that Andreas also wanted to go to Ladakh to see a Snow Leopard. In a fairly short time a nice trip was put together: first to Ladakh for the Snow Leopard, then to Eaglenest for the Golden Cat and finally to Pench National Park to hopefully see Tiger and a black Leopard, which was also hanging around there. A little later I heard the news that it was now also possible to see Pallas’ Cat in Ladakh. So my trip would start a few days earlier to see that species as well.

On March 1, 2023 the time to depart was finally there and I went by train to Schiphol to start my journey to Delhi which would be preceded by a transfer in Zurich. I was supposed to arrive around midnight in Delhi and I would then take an early flight to Leh the next morning. It took a very long time for our plane to depart from Amsterdam. So long that I started to worry about whether or not I would actually make the connecting flight. The steward reassured me: because I flew with Swiss and the transfer in Zurich would be to another plane of that same company, they would wait for me. However, when we landed in Zurich and after I had taken my phone off airplane mode, I immediately received a message: my flight had been rebooked and I would now fly via London. That would mean arriving at 11.30am on Thursday 2nd March instead of 00.30am on that day. As a result, I would certainly not be able to catch my flight to Ladakh because it would leave at 6 o’clock in the morning on March 2nd. So panic!

From the plane I went straight to the transferdesk. Fortunately I was at the front of the line. They did their best to get me on a suitable flight, but it soon became clear that I was in serious trouble. An arrival time of 8 o’clock on March 2 was possible with another flight, but then I still wouldn’t be able to get on a flight to Ladakh. The main complication was that the next available flight to Ladakh would not depart until Saturday, March 4. This would mean I would lose the whole part I had planned to use for the Pallas’ Cat. However there was no other option and I had to resign to that. From the airport in Zurich I was able to arrange an alternative plan so that I could at least visit the Taj Mahal in the time I would now have in Delhi and I would also be able to do some bird watching.

So that’s how it came to be that on Thursday afternoon I was standing stood in front of the Taj Mahal instead of being at an altitude of 3500 meters in the Himalayas.

Taj Mahal

Although it was quite nice to see this iconic building as well, I still wished I was somewhere else! However, those two days flew by. The next morning was spend in a birding reserve near Bharatpur where I managed to see some nice new birds including the tallest flying bird in the world: the Sarus Crane. Also I was glad to finally see a wild peacock for the first time.

Indian Peafowl

Brahminy Starling and Long-tailed Shrike

Just a beautiful little lake with (among other things) Oriental Darter and Little Cormorant

Indian Pond Heron

Spotted Owlets

Bull with some Cattle Egrets

Greater Spotted Eagle

Tawny Eagle

Close-up of Jungle Babblers

Close-up of Oriental Darter

The Sarus Crane!

Then very early on Saturday morning I was picked up from my hotel at 3am to have another go at catching the early flight to Leh. That one in fact got also delayed, but fortunately it did eventually depart and I was in it. It even landed in good order at the place I was supposed to go: the town of Leh in Ladakh!

Seeing the Snow Leopard was now the first priority. We had about a week for that which was not that much, but I was optimistic about our chances. There had been some frequent sightings in the weeks before. Getting close enough for an ‘acceptable’ picture would be another matter however. That would still be very difficult. My chances of seeing Pallas’ Cat were getting very slim though because to even be able to search for it we would need good sightings of Snow Leopard within the next couple of days.  

Before we could get down to business however, we had to get used to the altitude first. Leh is already at an altitude of 3500 meters and Rumbak Valley, where we would go, is even higher at 4200 meters. A too rapid ascent would increase the risk of altitude sickness, so spending two days in Leh to acclimatize is recommended. I had already noticed in the Andes that fortunately I do not easily suffer from altitude sickness, but it is better to be safe than sorry. It is not lost time either, because around Leh it is possible to find a number of iconic bird species from the Himalayas.

That same afternoon we were picked up by our local guide Wangial to start looking for the Ibisbill. That species was at the top of the list for me. We didn’t see the Ibisbill that afternoon, but the Güldenstadt Redstarts were everywhere and I also enjoyed seeing adult Black-throated Thrushes. It was also special that we found a group of at least six Pine Buntings, which was a very unusual sighting in Leh.

Güldenstadt Redstart

Black-throated Thrush

Masked Wagtail


Pine Bunting

We left early the next morning to increase our chances of getting Ibisbill. And we actually found one! Only this bird saw us before we saw it, so I only saw it in flight and didn’t have any pictures. Then we went to a place where Solitary Snipe could be found. This snipe is usually even more difficult to find than the Ibisbill and is also a specialty of the high Himalayas. There was a snipe there, that we did not initially see with the binoculars, but he could not escape the thermal camera. We had very good views!

Solitary Snipe

However, we were unable to find an Ibisbill. When we drove back to the hotel, Stanzin, our other local guide, suddenly got a call that a Snow Leopard had been seen somewhere in a different valley. We had to go there of course!

It turned out to be several hours driving. For the last bit we had to go on an unpaved mountain road, but we got there! It was reminiscent of a Dutch birding twitch and when we arrived I already saw a group of twenty people looking at some rocks. However the animal was not in view anymore. Were we just too late? Luckily we didn’t have to wait long. The animal was suddenly back on a rock! Through the telescope I finally came face to face with a Snow Leopard for the first time! That was quite a special moment. What a beautiful animal to see with those rosettes on the fur and that enormously long tail! Through the telescope I got very good views. I also got a record shot, but it was a bit too far for good pictures.

Snow Leopard

After a few minutes the animal got up and climbed up the rocks. That was also a cool sight to see, but in little time the animal had disappeared behind a rock.

Snow Leopard

Predictions were made about where he would reappear, but the animal did not and we wouldn’t see him again. We did see a few distant Siberian Ibex and my first Himalayan Snowcock. A little closer I saw two new accentor species: Brown Accentor and Robin Accentor.

Robin Accentor

Brown Accentor

Brown Accentor with a Robin Accentor in the background

It turned out that we actually had arrived just in time. Fifteen minutes later and we would have missed everything! Seeing my first Snow Leopard took some of the pressure off. Now we would try for even better sightings!

The next day we finally headed out for Rumbak Valley. On our way to a place without running water, probably without internet, with electricity, but above all, of course, with Snow Leopards! First, however, we stopped at some rivers again to check for Ibisbill another time. We did not see an Ibisbill but did see a beautiful male Citrine Wagtail.

Citrine Wagtail

After all our fruitless attempts I didn’t have much faith in seeing Ibisbill anymore, but then our guide Wangial found a distant Ibisbill! Clambering over a wall along the river we were able to get closer and there actually turned out to be another one there! I was able to walk along the river and approach the Ibisbills. With some careful sneaking up on them I got some nice pictures too!


The trip to Rumbak had started well! We continued and in the afternoon we arrived in Rumbak. We were welcomed by a group of Blue Sheep that was relatively close: the Snow Leopard’s favorite food!

Blue Sheep

In a small village we had our homestay where we would stay for the next few days. The village turned out to be populated by a nice group of beautiful Tibetan Partridges and the more common Chukar.

Chukar and Tibetan Partridges taking refuge on the houses of the village!

From the village we walked to a viewpoint to have our first Snow Leopard scan. We stayed there until the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Then it immediately got nasty cold! We did not see a Snow Leopard. However, a distant Lammergeier flew by and we found Himalayan Snowcocks.



Himalayan Snowcock

Also a Blue Sheep was posing nicely.

Blue Sheep

The next morning I woke up early to invest in some proper pictures of the birds around the village. That was a lot of fun especially the Tibetan Partridges although the omnipresent Horned Larks were also hard to get tired from.

Tibetan Partridges

Chukar Partridge

Horned Lark

Robin Accentor

Hill Pigeon

Then we went on a trek to the village of Urité. Here we would have a better chance to see Eurasian Lynx and of course we wanted that too! Along the way we of course also looked for Snow Leopard. The surroundings were already beautiful!

Some nice interruptions of our walk were the soaring Lammergeier and Golden Eagles which sometimes came quite close.


Golden Eagles

However, we did not find a lynx at Urité. There were only Blue Sheep on the slopes.

Blue Sheep

So we walked back in the afternoon. While crossing the frozen river we suddenly heard a cat calling in the distance! That sounded really good for Snow Leopard! We listened intently and very vaguely we heard it calling a few more times. A quick scan of the mountainsides got us nothing. When we walked a little further down the river we saw a number of people standing together in the distance. They might be looking at a Snow Leopard! Our guide set the pace and we tried to follow as closely as possible. Out of breath, we finally arrived at the place where the people were watching. With their help, we soon had two Snow Leopards in view! One was calling on the slope to our right and the other on the slope to our left. What a great experience!

Snow Leopards

Then the Snow Leopard on the slope to the left started walking down! That was really cool to watch. The Snow Leopard eventually disappeared from sight.

Snow Leopard

Then I suddenly saw a number of guides looking down. There was another Snow Leopard!

Snow Leopard

I immediately went down along the road because I already saw that the road made a curve from where the Snow Leopard could be seen at a relatively short distance. I could keep an eye on him. I ran a little bit because he could easily be gone again. There was some whistling from further up so I started walking again, but I gestured where I wanted to stand. I did go on, wasn’t going to let that chance pass! A few people walked with me, including one who, despite all my directions, couldn’t pick the leopard up. He was close to despair, but luckily the Snow Leopard waited for him. When I got to the curve I went down on one knee and started taking pictures. It wasn’t long before the rest of the group was standing next to me. And the Snow Leopard put on a show!

Snow Leopard

After this wonderful sighting, the Snow Leopard disappeared again. I was already very happy with the pictures I had taken. A sighting of this quality is still extraordinary! While we were talking for a while, the Snow Leopard suddenly came back! We quickly started taking pictures again. The Snow Leopard sniffed extensively at the spot where the previous one had lain which gave us the impression it was another animal, but this was not supported by a comparison of the pictures afterwards. They show the same spots in the same places. Anyway: another series of pictures followed.

Snow Leopard

Then that Snow Leopard also left and the show was really over. We were left in ecstasy. What an unexpected end to this day! The trip was now actually already more successful than we could have hoped and we were only on our first day in Rumbak! The behavior of the Snow Leopards also suggested that there might be a mating happening soon. So the next day was eagerly awaited!

On the way back we saw a nice Woolly Hare.

Woolly Hare

The next day the expectation proved justified because on the slopes where yesterday one of the Snow Leopards was still calling, two Snow Leopards were now sleeping, looking like large spotted rocks!

Snow Leopards

We could quietly watch the sleeping Snow Leopards while we waited for the sun to rise. It is freezing cold before sunrise by the way.

Before sunrise…

After sunrise!

When the first rays reached the Snow Leopards, the female stood up and walked over to the male. The male obediently followed and the first mating of the day took place.

Snow Leopards

How cool to see that too! The whole day would go that way with the Snow Leopards alternating mating with lots of sleeping and the occasional walk on the rocks.

Snow Leopards

In total, they would mate fifteen times that day! I was also able to make a nice video of it.

The great observations also made something else possible: I dared to think about Pallas’ Cat again! We still had the whole week ahead of us on that Tuesday and that offered opportunities! Fortunately, Andreas was also keen for it and we were able to arrange it with our guide. So the next day we would headed out for the place Hanle where the Pallas’ Cat could be found. Very early in the morning I got my final new bird species though, found from the toilet!

Brandt’s Mountain Finches

Then we said goodbye to the Snow Leopards that were clearly tired from their previous day’s efforts!

Snow Leopard

Did we succeed to find the Pallas’ Cat in Hanle? Click here to find out!

And after Hanle we moved on to Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary with very special birds and mammals. See more here!

If you want to go straight to the final bit and look at some pictures of Tigers, Leopards and a Rusty-spotted Cat and watch some nice video’s, have a look here!


8 comments so far

Wim WiegantPosted on7:43 pm - Apr 6, 2023

Gaaf hoor…!

Lodi NautaPosted on4:30 pm - Apr 8, 2023

Heel mooi Lennart! Prachtige foto’s (die wat mij betreft wat ontkracht worden door die eeuwige handtekening! Misschien om jatwerk te voorkomen, maar wat zou het! Ik zou dit handtekeningen weglaten.)

    adminPosted on2:32 pm - Apr 9, 2023

    Dank voor je reactie! Heb ik nog wel zo mijn best gedaan om een wat fraaiere handtekening te laten ontwerpen :). Ik vind het zelf niet zo storend omdat ik in de compositie van de foto wel aandacht besteed aan de handtekening. Ik heb er bewust niet voor gekozen om het door de hele foto te laten terugkomen, dat zou ik eigenlijk moeten doen om jatten te voorkomen, maar dat vind ik wat te ver gaan. Ik zou het bijvoorbeeld wel fijner vinden als ik alle foto’s op een groot scherm zou kunnen tonen, maar dat kost meer capaciteit en het is heel makkelijk te pikken. Mensen scrollen er wsch toch langs. Hopelijk lukt het toch nog om er een beetje van te genieten 🙂

Justin JansenPosted on5:37 pm - Apr 8, 2023

Wat een fraai verhaal, en dito foto’s.

Phil KokenPosted on9:06 pm - Feb 14, 2024

Ongelooflijk gaaf allemaal Lennart! Klasse.

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