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Stories From the Roof of the World
By Don Hunter
University Press of ColoradoCopyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
GEORGE B. SCHALLER
ON MEETING A SNOW LEOPARD
PAKISTAN —A renowned biologist vividly describes his first encounter with a snow leopard and the lofty world it inhabits.
Whenever I walk through the Bronx Zoo, I like to halt in front of the snow leopards. Their luxuriant smoke-gray coats sprinkled with black rosettes convey an image of snowy wastes, and their pale, frosty eyes remind me of immense solitudes. For a moment the city vanishes and I am back in the Hindu Kush, the home of these magnificent cats.
The December cold gripped the valley as soon as the feeble sun disappeared behind the ridge. The slopes and peaks above an altitude of 11,000 feet were snow-covered, and a bank of clouds along the distant summits suggested that soon so would be the valleys. I hurried down the trail along the edge of a boulder-strewn stream until the valley widened. There I stopped and with my binoculars scanned the steep slope ahead, moving upward past the scree and outcrops, past scattered oak trees and stands of pine, to a cliff over a thousand feet above me. A female snow leopard lay on the crest of a spur, her chin resting on a forepaw, her pelage blending into the rocks so well that she seemed almost a part of them. Several jungle crows sat in a nearby tree, and a Himalayan griffon vulture wheeled overhead, intent, I knew, on the carcass of a domestic goat the leopard was guarding.
I angled up the slope toward her, moving slowly and halting at intervals, seemingly oblivious to her presence. She flattened into the rocks and watched my approach. Once she sat up, her creamy white chest a bright spot among the somber cliffs, then snaked backward off her vantage point to become a fleeting shadow that molded itself to the contours of the boulders. She retreated uphill, crossing open terrain only when a tree or outcrop shielded her from my view. From another rock she peered at me, only the top of her head visible, but a few minutes later she stalked back to her original perch and casually reclined there. I was grateful for her curiosity and boldness, for she was so adept at hiding that I would not have seen much of her without her consent. I halted 150 feet away and in the fading light unrolled my sleeping bag along a ledge in full view of her. Lying in the warmth of my bag, I could observe her feeding at the kill until darkness engulfed us. And then there was only the wind moaning among the boulders and the occasional grating of tooth on bone as the leopard continued her meal.
That night it snowed, heavy moist flakes that soaked through my bedding. I huddled on the ledge, sleeping intermittently, until the rocks once again emerged from the darkness. Over four inches of snow had fallen. As I rolled up my sodden belongings, I envied the snow leopard, which sat protected and dry in the shelter of an overhang. I descended the slope through clouds and falling snow, heading toward the mud-walled hut that was my base camp in the valley. Though I was tired and chilled, the mere thought of having spent the night near a snow leopard filled me with elation.
With the support of the New York Zoological Society and the National Geographic Society, Zahid Beg Mirza of Punjab University and I had come to Chitral in West Pakistan to make a month-long wildlife survey in the Chitral Gol reserve. This reserve, comprising about thirty square miles of rugged mountains with peaks rising to an altitude of 17,500 feet, has for many years belonged to the royal family of Chitral. Now His Highness Saif-ul-Maluke hopes to convert the area from a hunting reserve into a private sanctuary where visitors might observe the wildlife. Of particular interest to us were the Kashmir markhor goats, one of seven subspecies of Capra falconeri.
The markhor spend May to October at timberline and above, but they winter in the valleys where there is less snow and more food. In the Chitral Gol, evergreen oak trees provide the markhor with their main winter forage. It was startling to see these goats clamber with amazing agility among the branches of an oak tree, as high as twenty feet aboveground, as they searched for tender twigs and leaves. Most of the herds we saw were small, ranging from two to eighteen individuals, and usually consisted of several females — many of them accompanied by one or two kids, a yearling or two, and often some young males. Each herd tended to confine its movements to a particular locality.
On the other hand, the adult males, easily recognizable by their long, spiraling horns and flowing white neck ruff, roamed widely, either alone or in small groups. In late November and early December some adult males joined the females in the herds, the first sign of the rut that was to reach its peak in late December. Only one large adult male accompanied a herd during the rut, a good indication that at that time relations between rivals were strained. Our census showed that about 100 to 125 markhor wintered in the reserve. The population was healthy and breeding was good. An average of 1.3 kids accompanied each adult female and 16.5 percent of the population consisted of yearlings. If poaching could be fully controlled and the range less heavily used by domestic stock, the Chitral Gol might some day become the most important refuge for this increasingly rare goat.
One day, shortly after our arrival, we found old snow leopard tracks crossing a snowdrift at 11,000 feet, and I became determined to meet one of these cats. Snow leopards live in the mountains of central Asia, usually occurring above an altitude of 5,000 feet, although in some areas, such as the Pzhungarian Ala-Tau of the USSR, they are found as low as 3,000 feet. Their range extends from the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan eastward along the Himalayas and across Tibet to the Szechwan Province of China and northeastward along the Pamir, Tien Shan, and Altai ranges to the Sayan Mountains that straddle the border between Mongolia and Russia near Lake Baykal.
Because of its remote habitat, coupled with its shy nature and rarity, the snow leopard remains the least known of the great cats. Most published accounts say little more than that they migrate seasonally up and down the mountains with the herds of wild sheep and goats that constitute their principal prey. Only occasionally do such accounts contain an interesting bit of information. In the Khirgiz Ala-Tau, for instance, snow leopards are said to rest in nests built by black vultures in low juniper trees, and a Russian biologist watched two snow leopards play, rearing up on their hind legs and exchanging blows before "arching their backs at one another" and parting. Hari Dang, an Indian mountaineer, has seen snow leopards repeatedly, and his article "The Snow Leopard and Its Prey," published in the October 1967 issue of the journal Cheetal, represents the best attempt so far to gather information about this elusive cat.
For a week I searched for snow leopards, following tracks until they disappeared among the crags. A snow leopard in a zoo may mark its cage by rubbing its face sinuously against a log, scraping the floor alternately with its hind paws, and then turning — its tail raised and quivering — and squirting a mixture of scent and urine. At other times, it may scrape and then defecate at the site. Now, in the wild, I found similar signs. Occasionally a pungent odor on a tree trunk or rock told me where a snow leopard had left its "calling card," and scrapes, with or without feces, also advertised its presence. The feces revealed what the animals had eaten. I examined sixteen droppings; of these, five contained markhor hair, eight the remains of domestic sheep and goats, two solely a largeleafed herb, and one just earth.
Judging by tracks, a female with a cub and a small lone animal, probably a sub-adult, frequented the Chitral Gol during our visit, but other snow leopards no doubt also roamed through the area at times. The tracks showed that snow leopards, like most cats, were essentially solitary except, of course, when a female had cubs. Hari Dang saw snow leopards sixteen times, of which twelve sightings were of animals alone and the rest of pairs. But whether the pairs consisted of a male and a female, a large cub with its mother, or members of the same sex was not specified. Nothing is known about the social system of snow leopards, and I wonder if adults are truly unsociable, like the African leopard, or if they may meet, tarry awhile together, and perhaps share a kill before parting again, as is the case among tigers.
I soon realized that my chances of meeting a snow leopard were slim. The cats were rare, and they traveled far each day in search of food. The large herds of domestic sheep and goats that forage on the alpine meadows in summer had been taken to the villages. Marmots were hibernating. All that remained were scattered herds of markhor and various small animals, such as black-naped hare and chukar partridge, which could provide a snack at most for a predator that may weigh as much as 100 pounds and reach a length of six-and-a-half feet.
The lack of food in winter may force snow leopards into the cultivated valleys, where they lurk around villages with the hope of capturing an unwary dog or other domestic animal. Often they are rewarded with a bullet instead. The demand for spotted furs by the fashion industry has also provided an incentive for killing the cats. Although both India and Pakistan prohibit the commercial export of snow leopards, any number of skins can be bought in local markets for about $150 apiece and smuggled without trouble out of these countries in personal luggage. The International Fur Trade Federation has agreed to impose a total ban on trade in snow leopard skins among its members, a step that will hopefully reduce the demand for this fur.
Having obtained some idea of the favored routes of the snow leopards in the Chitral Gol, I staked out a domestic goat as bait at five different locations. Daily for two weeks I checked each goat, feeding and watering it when necessary, yet the cats eluded me. One night a snow leopard passed within 150 feet of a goat, apparently without seeing it, for the tracks continued without deviation or break in stride.
I had almost given up hope of a meeting when early one morning a sanctuary guard hurried toward me, pointing with his stick at the sky and grinning broadly. Circling high over a ridge near one of the goats were several vultures. A kill had been made. And then through my scope I saw the snow leopard at rest on a promontory. Beside her was a tiny cub, a black and white puff of fur about four months old. In captivity the usual litter consists of two cubs, but litters vary from one to four young. Later I was told by the sanctuary staff that this female had been seen with two cubs the previous month.
According to the literature, cubs are usually born in April and May. Assuming a gestation period of 98 to 103 days, as determined in zoos, this cub had been conceived at that time and been born in August. Soon afterward the cub retreated into a cleft among the rocks and remained out of sight all day while its mother continued to guard the kill. Once a bold crow landed near the carcass and the female rushed at the bird, her movements remarkably smooth in spite of her stocky, powerful build. Afterward she reclined again, dozing or gazing over her domain. At dusk the cub rejoined its mother, greeting her in typical cat fashion by rubbing its cheek against hers. They then fed. On subsequent days they followed the same routine, with the result that I seldom was able to observe the cub.
Daily for a week I watched the snow leopards, sometimes concealed on the opposite side of the valley, at other times near them. I moved a little closer each day until the female permitted me to approach to within 120 feet. Since she spent hour after hour at rest and the cub remained hidden, my behavioral observations were rather limited in scope.
At times I was able to watch a herd of markhor on a distant slope. The rut was now reaching its peak. If there was a female in heat, a large male might follow her closely, holding himself very erect until suddenly he lowered his neck and stretched his muzzle forward while his tongue flicked in and out of his mouth. With a jerk he twisted his head sideways, at the same time kicking a foreleg into the air. To this display the female markhor would often respond by walking hurriedly away. The male followed, which in turn caused her to move faster, until both rushed along the slope and through the trees.
At other times there were birds to observe. Two bearded vultures might be tumbling over and over in a display of aerial exuberance, their hawk-like screams the only sounds among these snow-flecked crags, or I might tally the bird species that passed by me — alpine chough, nutcracker, black-throated jay, pied woodpecker, and others.
After the snow leopards had eaten one goat, I gave them another and then a third. The female killed the last one late in the afternoon, as I watched. She advanced slowly down the slope, body pressed to the ground, carefully placing each paw until she reached a boulder above the goat. There she hesitated briefly, then leaped to the ground. Whirling around, the startled goat faced her with lowered horns. Surprised, she reared back and swiped once ineffectually with a paw. When the goat turned to flee, she lunged in and with a snap clamped her teeth on its throat. At the same time she grabbed the goat's shoulders with her massive paws. Slowly it sank to its knees, and, when she tapped it lightly with a paw, it toppled on its side. Crouching or sitting, she held its throat until, after eight minutes, all movement ceased. Judging by tooth marks on the throat, she had also killed the two previous goats by strangulation.
Hari Dang once watched a snow leopard attack a Himalayan tahr, a type of wild goat: "We were lying behind a boulder watching the thar [sic] climbing leisurely up the scree and the rock overhangs towards the north ridge of Raj Ramba peak, when a flash of white and grey fur dived into the spread out herd and rolled down some hundred feet, all the time hanging on to a young thar ewe." At that point the snow leopard was disturbed by the observer and fled. Dang noted further that "of 17 natural kills seen, 11 were deduced on the basis of the evidence of the tracks to have been made in daytime, generally the early morning and late afternoon." In contrast to my observations, he found that of "34 natural and domestic kills ... most were neatly killed, either with the neck or the spine broken."
One night the snow leopards departed. I traced their tracks past some outcrops and through a stand of pine before deciding to leave the animals in peace. My meeting with them had been brief, too brief to teach me much of consequence, but on seeing the line of tracks continue upward, I hoped that some day I would return and learn more about the life of these phantoms of the snow.
No one knows how many snow leopards inhabit the mountains of central Asia, but the animal is thought to be rare enough to warrant inclusion in the Red Data Book of the world's threatened species. Though the habitat of the snow leopard seems inaccessible, pastoralists and hunters penetrate the remotest valleys and plateaus, shooting the cats and depriving them of their natural prey. Only large and strictly protected reserves may ultimately help the snow leopard to survive in the wild. Several reserves besides the Chitral Gol contain a few of the cats, among them, for example, the Nanda Devi and Dachigam Sanctuaries in India and the Aksu-Dzhabagly Sanctuary in the USSR, but those in South Asia receive at best only the most cursory protection. Zoos are assuming increasing importance as repositories of breeding stock of threatened species. When in 1903 the Bronx Zoo received its first snow leopards, only two others were on exhibition elsewhere, in London and Berlin. By 1970 a total of ninety-six snow leopards resided in forty-two zoos, according to the International Zoo Yearbook. But of these only twenty were bred in captivity, a dismal record. Zoos still draw most of their animals from the wild, principally from the Tien Shan Mountains of Russia, because animals born in captivity seldom live to reproduce.
On seeing a snow leopard in a cage, I can forget the bars and remember when we met on a desolate slope in a world of swirling snow. May others, too, find such private visions until the end of time.CHAPTER 2
JOSEPH L. FOX
FACE-TO-FACE WITH SHAN
INDIA —After much searching, a professor from a Norway university finds himself face-to-face with a snow leopard.
She had been on a kill for the past two days. Though partially obscured by thick brush, we could see her feeding. On the dawning of the third day, crawling from my bitterly cold tent, I spotted her emerging from the brush. She climbed steadily up the sparsely vegetated walls of the gorge surrounding our camp. On an impulse, I grabbed my camera and decided to follow, knowing full well that pursuing a snow leopard on foot up a steep ridge was not likely to result in anything but exhaustion on my part. She went out of view about 500 yards ahead of me, straight up rocky terrain. Climbing as fast as I could in the lean air of 11,000 feet, I began to despair that this would be my last image of this magnificent cat.
Excerpted from Snow Leopard by Don Hunter. Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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