Monday, 23 February 2015


Off to Hemis National Park, to my little tent in the snow. See you in a week.

Sunday, 22 February 2015


Shan is the Ladakhi word for snow leopard. We saw one today.

This is the more remarkable because we have yet to enter Hemis National Park, yet to camp in the snow, yet to try our mountain-tired legs on the dusty slopes of the Husing and Tarbung valleys. Today we went on a day trip to the beautiful village of Ulley, in a secluded valley beyond the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers.

I knew yesterday that there was a chance we might see a snow leopard in Ulley. Three days ago one took a young domestic yak above the village and has been visiting it ever since. It was seen by my colleague Morup there yesterday. With the wholehearted agreement of my new colleague Konchok, who is accompanying us to the park tomorrow, I decided not to tell my group; after the complexity of our arrival in Ladakh, we felt they needed a good night's rest. So I kept quiet and fretted alone through the night.

The journey to Ulley takes more than two hours and, on the gentle slopes leading up from the Indus, we saw Ladakh urial or red sheep but could not find the wolves which Morup had seen here yesterday. As we neared Ulley, the skies brooding and fine snow falling, we needed chains on our wheels to cross yesterday's snow-fall on many tight corners. All the while the news from our friend Nurboo in Ulley was bad: he had not seen the snow leopard today. She had apparently left her kill.

Reaching Ulley we waited for the cold and the snow to pass, sipping fragrant tea in Nurboo's lovely wood-beamed home. At 4,200 metres, Ulley is the highest point on our tour so it was slowly that we made our way up the ridge behind Nurboo's house to scan for Asiatic ibex and, we hardly dared to hope, for the snow leopard.

The ibex were easy; groups of these magnificent animals were on the slopes on either side of the great valley. Then, as we trudged further uphill, there came a shout from above us. Nurboo had found the snow leopard!

Altitude was forgotten, hearts raced, and we scrambled over snow and rocks to reach Nurboo. By the body of the yak she had killed and eaten sat a female snow leopard, content on a full belly, resting in the first rays of the sun to penetrate the day's snow-laden clouds.

We watched her for two hours as she yawned and flicked her tail, ate snow and defecated, and rolled to face one way then the other. Finally she stood and walked a short distance, her exquisitely squiggled flank towards us, and settled almost out of view on a buttress of rock.

This cat, several hundred metres from us, commanded the vastness of a mountain valley and the focus of eleven westerners crowded around telescopes beneath her. Seeing her my clients joined the privileged group of souls who have seen this wildest of animals on its own terms, in its majestic landscape, when it chooses to be seen. She knew we were there and sometimes she glanced towards us with disdain in her ice-pale eyes, but she chose to be seen all the same.

Snow leopards and ibex, hand made in felt by his son,
for sale in Nurboo's home

There's a snow leopard in the centre of this picture.

Naturetrekkers watching said snow leopard

The view up the valley above Ulley

Tomorrow we walk to Rumbak, in Hemis National Park, and, from my little tent in the ice and snow, I shall not be able to write here for six nights.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   1

Saturday, 21 February 2015


I had been lulled into complacency by the flawless logistics and peerless wildlife of Tanzania. Things on my Big Cat Quest couldn't of course continue so well all year.

They didn't.

Our layover in Delhi was always going to be long, between two in the morning and the six-thirty departure of our flight to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. We diligently waited until six to be told that our flight had been delayed for two hours, apparently thanks to a raging storm in the Himalayas. In return, breakfast would be provided. So far, so reasonable.

Post breakfast, we returned to the gate and again waited. The news reached us perfunctorily: 'Flight 9W 2368 to Leh has been cancelled.' Looking calm is generally best in situations like these so I stood up from my group, the picture of control, and listened to the frenetic conversations in Hindi which had begun with the young man at the gate. We would be officially checked off the flight, our boarding passes and security tags marked as void, our bags would be restored to us and - here's the rub - I would have to petition the airline for space on the next flight. The young man would give no indication of when this would be but I could tell from his guilt-ridden manner that it was not likely to be soon.

Once we reached the luggage hall I left my clients, who were taking the situation admirably well, to wait for their bags. I felt it best to maintain the psychological advantage so I sped to the airline desk to find out the score. Here things began to go properly pear-shaped. There would be no flight the next day, the following day's was full, and there would again be none the day after that. What was more, the freak weather had been present for days and was expected to continue for several days to come.

So would we like our money back? I bit my lip and politely explained that my clients' entire trip hinged on getting to Ladakh and Hemis National Park as soon as possible and that having their money back, as bijou a gesture as it was, was unlikely to appease them.

Stalemate. In a hot arrivals lounge with no-one in the group having slept the night before and several not having slept for two nights, there ensued two hours of phone calls to and from our brilliant ground agency in Delhi and Naturetrek in the UK, plus more conversations with the airline. We made plans A, B, C and D and dreamed up every possible scenario. Finally we indeed opted to have our money back and booked a flight with a different airline the following day, spending the night in the last available hotel rooms in the whole of Delhi.

The weather system passed, our flight left and arrived and, though it had seemed impossible just yesterday, today we are in Ladakh. It is good to be here again.

The lofty Stok range looms to the south of the Indus, across the valley from our hotel. Red-billed choughs swirl and tumble over the hills and under a bridge a brown dipper dips. Friendly dogs curl in the winter sun on the tops of mud walls, smiling ladies greet us, julley julley, as say their constant mantras and keep their prayer wheels always spinning. Yes, it is good to be back.

In the afternoon we failed to find ibisbill at Sindhu Ghat, but saw common merganser, teal, greenshank, redshank and plankton-common white-winged redstarts in the sea buckthorn along the river. We then visited the historic gompas of Thiksay and Shey. At the first the serene Maitreya Buddha quietly smiled and flocks of rock doves flew in swift circles round the hilltop monastery.

At Shey, for the second year, we happened to visit on the day of a great puja, a Buddhist ceremony, led by a rinpoche from Hemis Gompa; the smell of butter lamps hanging over the monastery and the sound of drums and pipes greeting us as, step by high-mountain step, we trudged up to it.

Shakyamuni Buddha

It is late and I have been up since three this morning. We have a long day in Ulley tomorrow, so I must sleep. At Thiksay, though. the courtyard is guarded by a pair of mythical snow lions. Here is one, in case I see none of their real cousins.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

दस रुपये

I leave today for three months in Asia, in search of that great continent's cats. I shall often be in remote areas and at times I may have no access to wifi for long periods. But I will be writing and will post my news and my thoughts here whenever possible.

While I am gone winter's teal will hie home to Fennoscandia and summer's swallows pour in from where I left them in Africa. Stay well Norfolk. See you in the joyous month of May.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78

Tuesday, 17 February 2015


I have said before that to me leopards are, with snow leopards, the most bewitchingly beautiful big cats. With its long fur, handsome face and large black spots, the most gorgeous extant form of the species is the Amur leopard.

Amur leopard and cub by Anne-Marie Kalus

Estimates of the wild population vary, with the Zoological Society of London saying there are fewer than fifty and some believing numbers may be as low as twenty. Today I saw this heartbreaking infographic by memuco on Twitter and reproduce it here (with permission).

Though protecting the remaining wild population and its habitat is critical, the Amur leopard may now effectively only be saved in captivity. Twenty to fifty wild individuals simply do not represent a sustainable genepool or enough of a population to recover numerically. Among the remaining wild Amur leopards only half are female and only half of those are likely to be of reproductive age. If they survive a female's cubs are by her side for two years, during which she can have no further cubs. The mathematics of the situation, even if poaching can be stopped, are stark.

On my return from Asia I will be writing here about the role of zoos in cat conservation, both in captivity and in the wild. They are, alas, the last hope for this sensational animal.

We must work in the world; the world is thus.
No, Senhor Hontar, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.

The Mission (film)

Monday, 16 February 2015

Who's who: some mugshots

My friend Anne-Marie Kalus, who has travelled with me in search of tigers and leopards in India, and more leopards in Sri Lanka, is an ardent felinophile. She is also a wonderful photographer of animals, both in the wild and in captivity. To complement my post on India's cats last Friday, she has kindly let me reproduce some of her photos.

More of Anne's portraits of cats and images of wildlife from around the world may be found on her Flickr site.

Asian clouded leopard

Snow leopard

Tigress in Bandhavgarh, India

Male leopard of the subspecies kotiya
which we saw together in Yala, Sri Lanka

Asian golden cat


Eurasian lynx of the west European subspecies lynx.
Animals in the Himalayas are pale grey and more densely furred.

Pallas' cat

Rusty-spotted cat

Fishing cat

Indian or desert wildcat

Fifty shades of white

I felt at the time the Maasai had taken me into the bosom of their culture.

Their faces say it all.

Thanks to Simon Bright for the photo.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Of cats and commitment

My Tanzania tour client Mick Stallwood is a gifted photographer and has been kind enough to share some of his photos with me. Where I pointed my iPhone in the vague direction of cheetahs and leopards, Mick took gorgeous images of them. More of his work may be found here.

Plains zebras fighting in Arusha National Park

Mother and cub cheetahs in Tarangire National Park

Leopard in the southern Serengeti

Thanks to Mick and Trina for these photos and for their very good company on our tour.

I must also very sincerely thank Zul Bhatia, my Naturetrek tour-leading colleague. Though he now works for the RSPB in Scotland, Zul grew up in Tanzania and is generous with advice and insights on his beautiful home country, its people, wildlife and landscapes.

For almost twenty years, Zul and his wife Jenny have supported a Tanzanian charity called EMFERD founded by a remarkable woman called Josephine Bakhita. In Jenny's words:

She had a disabled son herself and suffered the rejection and isolation that all parents of disabled children experienced. She was a trained social worker and decided to do something herself. She set up a day centre with the help of a European friend. The centre grew and its work expanded to support families in a wide area, particularly those in isolated villages. Her more recent charity is called EMFERD. It stands for Erick Memorial Fund for the Education and Rehabilitation of Disabled, in memory of her son Erick who died in 2003 aged 33. She is based in Morogoro and has several disabled children living with her. Her main work is outreach and setting up a classroom. She also organises workshops for the parents to support and motivate them. She is absolutely dedicated to her mission to aid all disabled children and young adults and families with whom she comes into contact.

If you have enjoyed reading about Tanzania and would like to know more about the work of EMFERD or to support them, please visit the charity's Facebook page.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Tree Where Man Was Born

Today my delightfully witty tour client Liz Beal sent me these photos from our recent trip to Tanzania with her blessing to post them here.

All quotations are from
Peter Matthiessen
The Tree Where Man Was Born

I met no animals but the giraffe, a herd of eleven set about a glade, waiting for night. The giraffe were alert to my intrusion but in their polite way gave no sign that they had been disturbed.

All winter in the Serengeti damp scrawny calves and afterbirths are everywhere, and old or diseased animals fall in the night. Fat hyenas, having slaked their thirst, squat in the rain puddles, and gaping lions lie belly to the sun.

The gold cat eyes shimmer with hidden lights, eyes that see everything and betray nothing. When the lion is satisfied that the threat is past, the head is turned, as if ignoring it might speed the departure of an unwelcome and evil-smelling presence. In its torpor and detachment, the lion sometimes seems the dullest beast in Africa, but one has only to watch a file of lions setting off on the evening hunt to be awed anew by the power of this animal.

Until it is two, the cub is a dependent, and less than half of those born in the Serengeti survive the first year of life.

Yet for all their prosperity, there was an air of doom about the lions. The males, especially, seemed too big, and they walked too slowly between feast and famine, as if in some dim intuition that the time of the great predators was running out.

But the longing for Africa, once contracted, is an incurable condition which, like malaria, recurs again and again. It is not so much the need to see wild creatures – though their multitudes and sounds, their forms and colors, are endlessly exhilarating – as the need for our own renewal of that precious glimpse of the earth’s morning that stirred me so profoundly years ago.

Who's who: more insights from Lucy and Anna

My friends Lucy and Anna, nine and six respectively, have again helpfully provided illustrations to guide me through the pitfalls of wildlife identification, both in Tanzania and in India. Armed with these, what naturalist could go wrong?

Thanks to Lucy and Anna for kindly drawing them and letting me post them here.

Drath by Anna. 'Luke, I am your father.'
Or maybe not that Drath.

Lion by Anna

A bird by Lucy

Tiger by Lucy

Snowleepard by Anna

Nick by Lucy.
She was doing so well on the tiger

Meanwhile, my bean-goose-spotting friend Mike, possessor of the world's only Big Cat Quest t-shirt in black, provided more insightful tips on big cat identification in India.