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Himalaya ‘ghost cats’ are finally coming into view

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Tourists are getting unprecedented glimpses of snow leopards in India as attitudes toward the predators change, writes Peter Gwin in a feature that will appear in the National Geographic’s July 2020 edition

The old snow leopard was well-known in Kibber. It was unclear when he’d claimed the gorges and cliffs around this ancient Himalayan village, but over the past few years, the people here had come to recognize this large male, with a notched left ear, and kept track of him to the extent anyone could. Like all snow leopards, he was part phantom and would shape-shift, dissolving into these mountains like smoke from the village chimneys, dispersing into the cold, thin air.

The old ones are the ones you must watch. When snow leopards are too old to hunt the ibex and blue sheep that live among the limestone crags, they seek easier prey, the village’s goats and sheep, young horses, and yak calves.

On a bitterly cold afternoon in February, I crouched on the ice-encrusted rim of a gaping chasm, watching the old snow leopard through binoculars. He drowsed on a ledge on the opposite cliff, its sheer walls plunging nearly a thousand feet to the Spiti River. A veil of snowflakes as fine as eyelashes drifted into the gorge, and occasionally, when I jiggled the binoculars, the cat’s smoky fur with charcoal rosettes would be lost among the creases and shadows. “Crap, I lost him again,” I’d whisper. Prasenjeet would look up from his camera and point, and I’d follow his finger back to where the animal lay.

This was, after all, Prasenjeet’s snow leopard. Some of the local guides even called him that. When we’d heard a cat had been spotted, one of them said, “It’s yours,” tapping his left ear. For access to complete feature click here.
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