This wildlife travel guide is meant to be like a trailer for the new Attenborough series. Because we also have individual travel guides for more specific wildlife vacations, such as our safaris, bear watching and whale watching. The travel guide below gives you the perfect introduction to getting your head around the extraordinary life on earth, and where to go to find it.
Snow leopard tracking vacations guide
Shy, elusive and brilliantly camouflaged, the snow leopard is the big cat we know least about as it lives a solitary life in often impenetrable mountain terrain. Snow leopards are found in 12 countries in Central Asia, but Ladakh in northern India is the most established destination for trips that aim to see them.
Known as ‘the grey ghost’ by Ladakhi villagers, snow leopards can melt into the landscape with near supernatural skill
Tracking these ‘grey ghosts’ involves trekking at altitude and camping, all during the winter, when snow leopards descend to lower elevations in search of food, making them easier to track and spot. There are no safari lodges, no sundowners and no guaranteed sightings, of course, but this is a unique chance to explore a remote, dramatic landscape, rich in wildlife, including wolves and bears, and to learn about Ladakh’s fascinating Buddhist culture. And, with the help of brilliantly trained guides and clever initiatives that are convincing local people that snow leopards are worth more alive than dead, your chances of seeing one are way better than ever before.
Read more in our snow leopard tracking vacations guide.
Our Snow Leopards Vacations
What do these trips entail?
No vacation to track snow leopards will guarantee sightings – snow leopards are notoriously elusive and brilliantly camouflaged – but specialist trips to seek them out typically have a pretty high success rate, so you should get lucky. And ‘getting lucky’ can mean being able to observe a snow leopard for a few hours at a time, seeing two at once, or seeing the same animal twice in a single day. In short, snow leopards are hard to find, but they’re sometimes happy to stay in view once you do.
If the leopards give you the slip, there is plenty of other wildlife to watch and enjoy, including yaks, Tibetan ibex, bharal (blue sheep), wolves, red fox and lynx. Look to the skies to spot golden eagles, up high, and lammergeiers, which often fly quite low. When you’re staying in a village, keep eyes peeled for hares, mountain weasels and some of the six species of pika foraging in the frozen glens and paddocks.
Unlike on African safaris, where you spot lion, leopard and cheetah from a jeep, or in Brazil, where you might speed up a river in a boat to see a jaguar sunbathing on the bank, seeing snow leopards in Ladakh means getting physical. You’ll be trekking into the high, rocky, mountainous terrain that they hunt in, for at least five days, at altitude and in cold winter conditions, so a decent level of fitness is necessary. That said, one of Responsible Travel’s recent visitors to Ladakh was 75 years old – and had no trouble at all! Read Colin Hovey’s inspiring account of his trip here.
To track snow leopards, you can join a small group vacation, usually of no more than 16 people, or opt for a private tailor made trip. You will need around two weeks or more, to allow time to fly from Delhi to Leh before traveling into the rugged, high territory of Hemis National Park or the Ulley Valley.
Whichever type of tour you choose, you’ll typically be camping or staying in homestays. Hotels or swish safari lodges don’t exist in the remote regions snow leopards live in, so for accommodation you’ll typically be camping, with the support of a full expedition crew, including guides, a cook, kitchen assistants and porters. On a tailor made departure, you may be joining snow leopard experts, zoologists or local naturalists, with decades of experience in tracking, researching and conserving snow leopards throughout Ladakh. Guides will be equipped with high quality spotting scopes to pick out snow leopards far off.
Some trips also include a night or two in a homestay. This is a great chance to stay with a Ladakhi family, learn more about life in this remote, dry wilderness and hear about their relationship with snow leopards. You’ll also be directly supporting sustainable tourism in the region and conservation of the snow leopard.
Most of the homestays in snow leopard territory were opened under a scheme launched by the Snow Leopard Conservancy in 2002. In return for training in hospitality, hygiene and housekeeping, and items such as blankets and bed sheets, Ladakhi households involved in the scheme agree to stop killing snow leopards, even if they lose livestock. The income through homestays offsets the livestock losses caused by snow leopards. With snow leopard sightings on the increase, the scheme seems to be working; proving to local people that the ‘grey ghost’ is worth more alive than dead.
Although spotting snow leopards is the main objective of any tracking vacation, itineraries usually include some time to explore Ladakh a little, too. This fascinating, high altitude region is a Buddhist enclave in majority Muslim Jammu and Kashmir state. It was once a kingdom, too, so beautiful monasteries, gompas and now empty palaces are among its most fascinating sites, and there are many within or in close proximity to Leh, the regional capital.
Some snow leopard spotting vacations deliberately coincide with Buddhist festivals, all held in February, such as the annual Dosmoche Festival in which monks re-enact ancient Buddhist stories in elaborate costumes. During the Stok Guru and Matho Nagrang Festivals, oracles enter deep trances to predict future events in Ladakh.
Even if you’re not visiting festivals, you’ll almost certainly spend a day or two in Leh. This gives you the chance to learn more about the Tibetan Buddhism practiced here and to soak up the atmosphere of this outpost city, surrounded by mountains and cut off by road in winter. Pausing here is also essential for acclimatising. Leh is at an altitude of 3,500m, and you’ll be trekking up even higher in search of snow leopards, so your body needs time to adjust. The reduced oxygen here can cause headaches, shortness of breath and broken sleep, but nothing more severe. Many Buddhist sites are perched on hillsides, such as Tikse Monastery, so climbing to them is a good chance to practice trekking uphill at altitude. While in Leh you can also visit the local market and stock up on chocolate, fruit, nuts and other essential snacks, before the trek.
If you'd like to chat about Snow Leopards or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.
The snow leopard is an endangered species, threatened by poaching, conflict with people and habitat deterioration, with climate change adding extra pressure, too. No one really knows how many snow leopards exist in the world – their trademark elusiveness makes them difficult to track and monitor accurately – but estimates range from 3,500 to 7,000. It’s suspected that their numbers have dropped by at least 20 percent in under two decades, though, according to WWF.
Obviously, a vacation to spot snow leopards is not your standard two week break and traveling responsibly should be at its heart. There aren’t many tour operators offering trips to spot snow leopards and those that do are usually fully committed to its conservation and to protecting its habitats. The Himalayan ecosystem is fragile, but trips that employ local guides and even a zoologist ensure the impact of your presence on the environment is minimised. Camping responsibly means leaving no trace, so all waste should be taken back into town to be disposed of.
Responsible tour operators in the region often take an active conservation role, reporting any abuse of the environment or wildlife that they see to local authorities. They may even campaign against poaching and the illegal fur trade – check their credentials. Also ask whether the pictures and footage of snow leopards you take will be shared with the Snow Leopard Conservancy for their ongoing studies. This helps it to keep tabs on individual animals and further understand their behavior. The snow leopard is still far from understood completely, so every sighting is invaluable to conservation and research efforts.
In addition, Ladakh has several initiatives in place that feed your tourist money into supporting snow leopards and other wildlife. The entrance fees you pay to Hemis National Park authorities go into direct conservation efforts throughout Ladakh and help to fund rangers and wardens to protect the wildlife against poachers. This is much needed revenue. A report published by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, in October 2016 estimates that between 221 and 450 snow leopards have been poached annually since 2008 – a minimum of four per week. Sadly, this number could be substantially higher since many killings in remote areas go undetected.
Best time to go on a snow leopard vacation
Winter is the time to see snow leopards, when snows bring them down from their high summer retreats to hunt at lower altitudes.
The best time to track snow leopards in the wild is from November to March. During the summer months, the leopards live high above the tree line, but winter snows force them to descend to lower altitudes in search of their preferred prey: bharal (blue sheep), Asiatic ibex and argali (Marco Polo sheep). This means you can spot them at lower altitudes, plus the increased snow cover makes tracking easier, too. Expect very cold nights of -10°C and snow fall, but when the sun breaks through, temperatures can rise to 10°C or even 15°C, although the wind remains cold.
More about Snow Leopards
It’s estimated that between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards exist in the wild, dispersed across 12 Central Asian countries. Find out where to see them on our map and highlights page.
When a 75 year old customer decides to trek in Ladakh’s Himalayas in search of snow leopards you know he will have some fine tales to tell. Read more about the customer whom we think is totally cool for cats.