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The Snow Leopard- The Spirit of Community

Ulley is a village near Leh commonly known for the wildlife which roams its surrounding hills. The residents of Ulley have been commonly acquainted to the wild herbivores such as the ibex, blue sheep and urial. But it has also become fairly accustomed to seeing the snow leopard as a regular visitor. The village consisting of only six families is in the heart of snow leopard territory. During our stay in the village, we saw an array of wildlife- ibex, blue sheep as well as a number of birds. However, we not extremely lucky and did not see the snow leopard during our short stay.

The village of Ulley was once a shepherds village however, due to it being in the prime territory of the snow leopard, the sheep and cattle of the village were often mauled by the snow leopard. The snow leopard was often a victim of a lot of retaliation killing in the region. Tsewang Norbu, at the time a young boy in the village of Ulley was always in awe of and inspired by the snow leopard which he had come across so many times in his life. His passion for snow leopards lead to him giving up his home with the help of the Snow Leopard Conservancy- India Trust and turn it into a guest house for tourists to stay in on the hunt for the snow leopards. Ever since he was a young boy, Norbu’s passion for snow leopard grew and grew. He soon knew every single hill surrounding his home from the back of his hand and after completely understanding the behaviour of the snow leopard, he is known as a legend in the field of trying to locate and spot the snow leopards.

On meeting Norbu for the first time, the passion for the leopard was present in his eyes and the joy of welcoming people into his home only to share the same passion was incredibly evident.

The Snow Leopard Conservancy Trust of India is an organization which is dedicated to promoting measures to lead local people to become more aware of the endangered snow leopard, their prey and their habitats. They have been instrumental in developing homestay projects in Ladakh with the objective to create revenue for villagers from tourism and educate a promote environmental issues related to the habitat of the snow leopard. These activities involve tourists staying in remote villages and help provide additional income to those involved. They have worked with several villages such as Ulley and Saspochey.

The best time to see a snow leopard in a village like Ulley is during the extreme cold and extreme winters since the snow leopard often climbs down from the higher altitudes. However in the summer the small cats thick fur make the low altitudes too hot for them and so they climb up to a higher altitude wear it is colder. Since we visited Ulley in March, our chances to spot the snow leopard were fairly slim especially since 2022 was the hottest year India has seen.

Though the snow leopard would be the cherry on top, I feel that it was meant to be. For me, not seeing the snow leopard was a good thing, since it taught me that there is so much more to a rural community than just a leopard. For me, it was an opportunity to become less accustomed to the city life and live with the people for whom everything matters. I cannot describe this experience as anything less than humbling. Getting to interact with new people from all over the country as well as from other parts of the world, all uniting on one front, wildlife and the fascination and dedication we all share. When I first arrived in the village of Uley, I realised that it is so much more than the snow leopards it is known for.

What fascinated me were the walks up and down the hills, falling into rivers, balancing on pebbles and slipping off slopes. But more than the natural aspects it’s the conversations over dinner, spotting through spotting scopes at the never ending landscapes and laughing at myself because my 250mm lens didn’t even allow me to photograph the largest of ibex. The lessons I learnt about patience were like no other. The endless waits for the snow leopard taught me that patience really is the most important virtue. Accustomed to the adrenaline of sitting on a jeep in wildlife parks in the rest of the country, waiting for hours on end with nothing to see except a few ibex disheartened me at first, but it was the conversations we had in the cold mountains, shivering as the wind cut through us, the goats which were grazing in a nearby field and the common magpie which kept my thirst for taking photographs alive. I expected to be disheartened, going all the way to a place I had never been to before for a week, just to see the ghost of the hills but I was far from disappointed. The winding hills I explored and the people I met, I would not replace for anything. I learnt that even when things do not go your way, something usually does. Going according to plan often ruins the experience and being in the field where extremely few people have really been taught me an immeasurable number if things and I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity I was given. I learnt that it is not only about the snow leopard or making sure you get the best shot, it is about the experience, the people you meet and what you learn. This was one experience I would not give up for anything.

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