KIBBER WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
SPITI VALLEY - HIMACHAL PRADESH - INDIA
SNOW LEOPARD QUEST 3
March 2019 saw us return to India for another adventure in search of the Snow Leopard. This time we were going to the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. Our journey began in Delhi with a three and a half hour train ride to Chandigarh, followed by a three-day road trip to Kibber. We travelled on the most amazingly scenic, narrow mountain roads and with the possibility of snow, ice, rockfalls and avalanches it's easy to understand why these roads are deemed some of the most dangerous in the world.
From Chandigarh we had overnight stops in Narkanda, Kalpa and Kaza. The three-day drive gradually gained in altitude, allowing us to acclimatize to the high altitude of Kibber. With our excellent driver, Rakesh, and our very knowledgable guide, Dinesh, we felt completely safe and at ease throughout our journey. No tents this year as all our accommodation was in hotels and homestays.
Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary is located high in the Himalayas in the region of the Spiti Valley in the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Kibber is a cold desert wildlife sanctuary and was established in 1992. The sanctuary ranges in altitude from 3,600 m to 6,700 m (11,800 ft to 21,900 ft) and is spread over a vast area of 2220 sq km in the highest regions of the state.
The breathtaking location of the Himalayan village of Kibber.
Kibber is a small village of around 80 houses on the edge of the sanctuary, perched on the summit of a limestone rock at an altitude of 4,270 m or (14,200 ft). This makes it one of the highest villages in the world connected by a motorable road.
During the winter, extreme conditions, high altitude and remoteness keep the area isolated for about six months of the year. The heavy snow on the mountains brings Blue Sheep (Bharal) and Ibex down near the village and this also brings their predator, the elusive Snow Leopard, close to the village.
After our overnight stay with a family in Kaza, we left early morning for the 40 minute drive to Kibber. The plan was to visit Key Monastery on our way, however, during our journey we received news that there had been a sighting of a Snow Leopard, not far from the road, close to Kibber. With this news of a possible Snow Leopard sighting, we eagerly set our course directly for Kibber.
The beautiful and dramatic landscape where the Snow Leopard had been reported being spotted.
On our arrival we could not believe our good fortune, the Snow Leopard was still there, sleeping on a small, snow-free patch of ground.
After about an hour sleeping, the male Leopard stretched, raised his head and had a good look around before getting up and making his way across the snow to a rocky outcrop above him.
Snow Leopards are perfectly adapted to the cold and the high altitude of the Himalayas, with their long tails and thick, warm fur.
The Leopard finds himself a comfortable spot for the next hour, relaxing like only a cat can. He looks and behaves just like a domestic cat back home. What a privilege to be able to sit and watch this rare and beautiful creature in the wild, so relaxed and going about its normal everyday activities.
After resting for a while he sits up and has a good look around.
Then he has a good stretch and starts to make his way back down through the snow,
We had the pleasure of being accompanied on our trip by Nikhil Virdi, an Indian film maker who had been tasked with making some short films for the Indian tour company, Wild World India, who had organised our trip.
The Snow Leopard walked a short distance from his resting place to the carcass of an Ibex, a large wild goat, which he had killed two days earlier.
Anne and Nikhil, with the team of guides and trackers from Spiti Valley Tours (Kaza), watching the Snow Leopard in action.
The Leopard approached the carcass slowly and cautiously, gently touching its hind leg with his paw and then growling, as if not sure whether the Ibex might get up and run!
Snow Leopards can take three or four days to eat their prey and during that time they remain near the kill to defend it from scavengers, eating every few hours until the carcass is bare.
They hunt wild sheep and goats such as Blue Sheep, Ibex and Argali. Having plenty of wild prey in the area is very important for the survival of this rare cat.
They are opportunistic predators and will take prey when they can, but on average they take large prey every 8-10 days.
Seeing a Snow Leopard in the wild and on a kill, in these harsh conditions, is extremely rare. It was a very special moment to witness such a sighting and capture it on camera.
Arriving at Sonam Homestay in Kibber village where we were to spend the next nine nights with Sonam, Rinzin and their two boys. We had a wonderful time and were made to feel very welcome and comfortable and had some amazing food.
The rooftops of homestays make great platforms for viewing the surrounding mountains.
A herd of sheep and goats returns from the mountains in the early evening. They arrive en masse and then split off to their various homesteads as they make their way through the village.
Domestic animals are kept in pens next to the houses, protecting them from Snow Leopard attacks.
On our second day in Kibber we returned to the same view point as the previous day, however, this time the weather had turned. It was snowing and bone-chillingly cold. The wind caused blizzard conditions, it felt well below zero, especially with the wind chill. We spent the next six hours in the freezing cold but the sight of the Snow Leopard in action in front of us made it all worthwhile, even if it was almost impossible to see at times.
It's never easy to spot a Snow Leopard, especially when it's camouflaged against the rocks. Generally you have a much better chance when the animal is against the snow but on this occasion, in the blizzard conditions, it was almost impossible to see as he was actually covered in snow!
Spot the Snow Leopard!
He stands up and shakes off the snow .....
He approaches the frozen Ibex carcass which is now almost completely buried in the snow ....
Once again he approaches the carcass tentatively before eating.
Beautiful morning, the sun rises over the snow-covered village of Kibber.
The villagers remove the snow from the rooftops of their houses as soon as possible, to stop heat from the stoves in the house from melting the snow and causing damage.
Kibber Monastery on the edge of the village.
Old Buddhist texts stored in Kibber Monastery.
The driver above is using a blow torch to defrost the engine parts under the bonnet! Being at an altitude of over 14,000 ft and with temperatures at night dropping to well below minus 20 degrees, fuel in the tank and hosepipes regularly freezes. In order to avoid this potentially dangerous action, Rakesh, slept overnight in our vehicle. He would wake at regular intervals to start the engine and keep it running for 15-20 minutes, before turning it off and going back to sleep only to wake and repeat after another two to three hours!
Local life in the village.
The village of Kibber is surrounded by the most spectacular scenery with amazing wildlife on its doorstep.
Himalayan Red Fox
The fox makes a quick getaway.
Nikhil making his way through the deep snow.
Nikhil filming Anne trekking through the snow.
Trekking above Kibber is no easy walk at over 14,500 ft.
During our time in Kibber we were also accompanied by Lara Tsering (Spiti Valley Tours, Kaza). Together with his whole team, he ensured that we had a safe, comfortable and extremely successful trip in the Spiti Valley.
Onwards and upwards!
After a two-hour trek up the mountain we stop to set up our gear at the edge of a ravine, with the news that a Snow Leopard has been spotted on the other side.
We are duly rewarded with a spectacular view across the ravine and a Snow Leopard sleeping on a narrow shelf of the rocky outcrop in front of us.
More photographers arrive as news of the Snow Leopard spreads.
Late afternoon, the sun starts to go down and, after spending most of the day sleeping, the Snow Leopard goes on the move in search of prey.
The Snow Leopard makes its way up the mountain ravine.
He walks along the edge of the ravine.
Spot the Snow Leopard and five Blue Sheep.
The Blue Sheep have spotted him! The Leopard needs to catch its prey by surprise so once seen, as on this occasion, the Leopard gives up the pursuit.