What Will Happen to the Snow Leopard of the Himalayas?
William deBuys on a Species Fighting to Survive
We linger among the birches. The exertions of Kang La have tired humans and pack stock alike, and with Bhijer cut from our journey, we have a day to burn. We spend it resting in a grove beside a shallow, sparkling river. A second reason for our layover is the predicament of Vishnu, the smallest and youngest among us.
He claims to be fourteen but looks ten. I never see him without his striped wool cap pulled down to his eyebrows. The cap has lop-eared flaps, from which the tie-cords dangle to his chest. His face is dark, his eyes quick and wary. You could not fail to notice him, and not just because he is so small among the adults. His profile would have done well upon a coin or a movie poster, and he carries himself with a lightness that catches the eye. His older brother had been asked to join the expedition, charged with bringing several horses, but an obstacle arose and the brother could not come. The horses, however, were still needed, as was the money to be earned by their rental. And so the family sent Vishnu in his brother’s stead, as custodian for the stock.
Vishnu’s cousins among the crew tease him much but also look out for him. He has proved an able worker, nimble and uncomplaining on the trail, and energetic in camp. All went well for him until yesterday at Kang La. After our wind-sheltered lunch below the pass, Vishnu and the other wranglers gathered the stock to resume the descent. But a horse in Vishnu’s string was missing. He searched the vale where we had paused, looking into alcoves and behind boulders, but the horse was not there. Don’t worry, his mentors told him. The animal has already gone down the trail, seeking better graze. We will overtake it.
But we didn’t. And no horse tracks were seen once we exited the rockscape of the gorge and could read the sands of flatter country. The horse was not ahead of us.
The riding and pack stock grazed that night not far from camp, and Vishnu kept vigil over them until long after dark, hoping that the missing horse would straggle in.
But it never did. This morning, before the sky was light, he set out. He had no choice but to retrace our journey of the previous day, up through the stony gorge, even to the heights of Kang La. He must have worried for the safety of the horse, which in its solitude might have fallen prey to wolves or a snow leopard, but he probably feared the wrath of his brother even more.
While Vishnu labored up the pass, making a journey unthinkable for a boy his age in a more cushioned society, the rest of us tended to laundry, journal writing, or nothing at all. Our camp was spread through a wood below the mouth of the torrent we’d followed down from the pass. The torrent joined a tributary to Lake Phoksundo, which flowed over a broad, cobbled bed. Sandbars divided the braided channels, and on one of these Tonio, a genial outdoor guide from Alaska and one of our strongest walkers, discovered the paw prints of a large predator.
The tracks cross two patches of sand. The best imprint shows where the creature planted its hind foot atop the track of its larger forepaw. The prints are almost round, not oval like that of a canid—a dog, jackal, or wolf. A canid track would show an apex in the curve of the toes. The arc of these tracks is even. The pressed sand also conspicuously lacks the register of toenails: dogs and their relatives cannot retract their claws; cats can, keeping them sharp.
The forepaw tracks are four inches long, front to back: the cat was big. This was a snow leopard. Our Nepali companions say it was likely not the print of a full-grown leopard, which can be larger still, but easily that of a juvenile, a youngster on the prowl. There is no telling when the tracks were laid down, but it likely occurred not long before our little city of noise and movement arrived among the birches.
In the course of the morning nearly everyone troubles to hop the river braids to inspect the leopard tracks on the sandbar. To prevent an inadvertent footstep from destroying them and to make them easier to find, Tonio surrounded the tracks with rings of water-smooth stones, which rendered them curiously shrine-like. I visit the tracks with Wangmo, and again with Dr. Sonam and Amchi Lhundup, who have become accustomed to my questions about wildlife. The sight of the tracks now prompts greater volubility. Both men tell of attacks on livestock in their home villages in which snow leopards, singly or in pairs, killed sheep and goats, sometimes yaks. Lhundup reports one instance near his family’s home in Mustang in which eighty animals were slain, producing such a surplus of hastily butchered meat that only a fraction of it could be consumed or sold, much of the rest going to waste, producing an economic catastrophe for the families involved.
Wangmo mentions that the worst depredations seem to occur in the aftermath of very snowy winters, when the bharal have “moved away,” or more likely died off. Springtime would find the leopards starving. And so the cats stalk the livestock of the villages, sometimes entering the actual villages and making their attacks in the stone pens adjacent to the houses. Until she went to school in Kathmandu, Wangmo had herself been a herder, and she says that when she took her charges out to graze, she was careful to keep them in the open and to avoid boulder-strewn ground where a leopard might lie in ambush.
A particularly gruesome detail, widely reported, is that snow leopards “drink the blood” of their victims. The misperception is understandable. Snow leopards kill sheep or goats with a throat grip, crushing the trachea and suffocating them. (They attack larger prey, like a young yak or, potentially, Vishnu’s errant horse, at the nape, their teeth seeking the gaps between vertebrae and, through them, the spinal cord.) In the mayhem of an attack, with bodies thrashing, a throat on which a snow leopard had clamped its powerful jaws might tear, and blood spew. A witness, charging into the sheep pen with cudgel in hand, or a later visitor to the stained killing ground might think that a meal of blood had been the leopard’s chief desire. Then, too, the aggrieved owners of murdered livestock naturally vilify their nemesis. Attributing a vampire’s thirst to a varmint that slays more than it can eat and apparently revels in the act of killing makes a kind of sense.
From that point of view, the videos that Sonam, Lhundup, and I watch on Pau’s smart phone make sense too. Pau got them from the proprietress of a house in Shey where he and the other two had gone for butter tea. The videos had been recorded months earlier during yarza gunbu season in high country east of Kang La. The first shows a single snow leopard, barely alive. Someone (out of frame) teases it with a haunch of meat, probably yak, while someone else yanks its tail. The second video shows two snow leopards, the larger surely the same animal as before, being roughly dragged by their tails.
The leopards, both juveniles, are lethargic, their hindquarters limp. Although one may have been slightly wounded on a foreleg and the other has a slack noose around its neck, no evident injury accounted for their passivity. Surely the cats had been poisoned. The second video ends as both leopards are slung like so much garbage into a cleft of rocks.
Estimates of the total world population of snow leopards hover near four thousand. The crucial question for their survival is whether adequate habitat can be reserved for them, safe from attacks by humans and safe also from the inroads of human livestock, which consume the herbage on which the leopards’ wild prey depend. Unfortunately for the leopards, yarza gunbu has become a vital source of income for many Himalayan communities, an economic savior that partly counterbalances the widespread decline of agriculture, to which climate change, in turn, contributes mightily. The bizarre fungus draws thousands of local people and even more outsiders into habitats that would otherwise see only the occasional nomadic herder, or no one at all. Many of the yarza hunters come with pack animals. Their impact on the fragile tundra is heavy, and if they have a rifle and a bharal comes within range, pow, they collect the makings of a feast. Meanwhile, grazing competition between bharal and livestock of all kinds continues to increase in most areas, or at least remains high, assuring that snow leopards feel the squeeze of Petri Earth.
For the farmers and herders of Dolpo the snow leopard is understandably an enemy, a threat to their precarious existence, but they acknowledge that the rest of the world has a different view. The woman who shared her videos with Pau did so on condition that they not be divulged to the authorities. The rules of Shey-Phoksundo National Park are clear: snow leopards and other wildlife are to be protected. But the 1,373-square-mile park is not a park in the sense familiar to most Americans. Some nine thousand people live within its boundaries, and the enforcement of its rules is notoriously flaccid. Shey-Phoksundo is administered from a trim masonry complex beside the Suli Gad at the park’s far southern boundary, and rangers rarely trek farther afield than Ringmo. Still, a video showing the torture and killing of one of the most exotic predators on Earth might prompt additional, bothersome patrols. Better to keep things quiet.
Geneticists tell us that the snow leopard diverged from its closest relative, the tiger (not the common leopard), about two million years ago, when the Himalaya was half its present height and our Sapiens ancestors still lived in trees. For at least the last million years, the cat has coevolved with the bharal, its favored prey. Their fatal dance is like that between the cheetah and the gazelle, which has engendered in both species the ability to sprint at dazzling speed. In the case of snow leopards and bharal, their ages-long duel has produced an escalation of stealth, as well as detection, in tandem with the capacity to endure one of the most punishing environments on the planet.
Zoos will preserve many splendid and fascinating creatures deep into the future but they cannot deliver the relationships that formed them. Only wild environments can do that, and wild environments, squeezed by Petri Earth, are everywhere embattled. A recent report asserts that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades.” Those million species constitute about a quarter of all the animals about which enough is known to support an assessment. The snow leopard is among them, and although the bharal is fairly common today, the time may come when it, too, joins the ranks of the threatened.
We know that things will get worse before they get better. The momentum of climate change guarantees it, to say nothing of the assured increase of human population by several billions more. Such prospects behoove us to become latter-day Noahs. We need to build arks, vehicles to carry the beauty and diversity of Earth’s present creation across the inhospitable seas that lie ahead. Some of us, like George Schaller, have been at it already for decades, building arks in the form of parks, wildlife refuges, reserved forests, wildlife corridors, restricted use zones—the potential designs are legion. Old, leaky arks, like Shey-Phoksundo National Park, need an overhaul to become seaworthy, and even then, the voyage is sure to be rough. The imperative is to launch as many such arks as possible. Some will sink, some will be blown off course, and not all the rest will get through with their cargoes intact. But a hopeful spirit, committed to intrinsic good and with faith in surprise, compels us to make the effort. We cannot know the outcome. If we prepare, not for the worst, but for the best, some of our arks will complete their voyage to better days. The more we build, the more will make it.
Such an effort will require the kind of determination Vishnu showed as he searched for his brother’s horse. Through the long climb up the defile to Kang La, he saw nothing of the animal. Nor did he find it where we paused for lunch, in the wind-sheltered bowl where he first detected its absence. Vishnu kept climbing, up and up, with the pea gravel sliding underfoot, requiring him to double his exertions. He continued to the very top of Kang La. From there, he scanned the great snow-streaked cirque. He looked and looked, examining every slope and gully. Finally he thought he spotted a shape near Black Pond. It was the merest speck but it seemed not to be boulder. Then the speck seemed to move. Yes, it moved. He was certain now. At once desperate and exhilarated, Vishnu flew down through the switchbacks, down the trough between snowbanks and across the boulder fields to the lake. The speck indeed proved to be his truant horse. It neighed in recognition. It was hungry, scared, and lost, and it was every bit as glad to see the boy as the boy was to see it.
Vishnu’s victorious return makes the camp merry. His comrades build bonfires of birch wood, and the stories and jokes begin to flow. Someone produces a drum and begins to sing. Others join in. They celebrate Vishnu in long, repetitive songs, improvised on the spot, with teasing, limerick-like verses. Well before the embers of the fires cease smoldering, Vishnu is sleeping, I presume soundly. Eventually I sleep well too, but before drifting off, I lie some minutes in my tent, eyes closed but still seeing the videos of the poisoned snow leopards, the embers of their eyes also smoldering.
From The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss by William deBuys, illustrated by Rebecca Gaal and available via Seven Stories Press.