Photographing the Elusive Snow Leopard In the Towering Himalayas
On World Photography Day, read about the challenges of photographing one of the most elusive predators.
(This video has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark World Photography Day. It was originally published in December 2018.)
For trekkers on the Annapurna circuit trail, the village of Manang is where the road ends and the trails up to the high mountains begin. Far from the paths walked by well over one hundred thousand people per year, Tashi Ghale, a Manang-based photographer turned field biologist, is busy deploying and collecting camera traps at high-elevation; trying to document and understand one of the world’s most elusive predators – the snow leopard.
As stealth hunters, snow leopards have tremendous camouflage that makes documenting their presence a challenge and the vastness of their barren alpine territory only adds to the difficulty.
Yet, capturing images of these high-mountain predators has become one of Ghale’s specialties.
After over a decade of field biology work, Ghale was recognised with the 2016 National Conservation Award from the WWF in recognition of his contribution to wildlife conservation.
Mongabay-India, in collaboration with thethirdpole.net, sat down with Ghale in the backyard of his guesthouse in Manang to learn what started him on his path as a field biologist as well as what motivates him to climb up again and again to the frigid abode of the snow leopard.
What motivates you to do this challenging job as a field biologist in the high Himalayas and why is it important?
Some people do yoga to rejuvenate themselves, others listen to music, read books or play games but I go to the mountains for such refreshment. The mountains are my yoga. The day you can collect images or videos and then watch on your laptop you feel like you are in heaven.
This March, I brought down the SD card from the mountains and opened the video and found a snow leopard and her cubs playing for three hours on camera. It was wonderful!
These observations generate new facts and evidence that also add value to the scientific community. Many people don’t know that snow leopards also eat fruits such as juniper berries or the roots of ephedra plant.
When these new things are revealed through pictures and videos from camera traps then it’s easy to communicate how these animals survive and what’s their population status.
When scientists go about digging out new knowledge from these camera trap images, I feel so happy I am able to contribute. I also engage myself to bring awareness to the new generation.
We (the Snow Leopard Conservancy) also take local students out to the field and teach them how to install camera traps, talk to them about why they are important, and also tell them why we need to take care of wildlife. We also do essay competitions, paintings competitions in schools.
I do it because I think if even a small percentage of those trained eventually work on conservation that would make a huge difference. We need to bring more people who care about this planet on board. These children in schools and the youth in colleges need to learn more about these species.
It is us who have put these wild animals in danger and we have to be more responsible and act in any ways possible to protect them. They have value on this planet.
What led you to choose this profession of wildlife research in the mountains?
It all started with a training provided by wildlife experts in 2004 that changed my life in this direction. In 2004, I participated in a training camp for nature guides led by Darla Hillard, Snow Leopards Conservancy’s education director and wife of the pioneering snow leopard researcher Rodney Jackson.
I was always fascinated with photography and that was my business from the 1990s. This place (the Annapurna Conservation Area) is awesome for photos since it has really beautiful landscapes.
In 2005, they (the Snow Leopard Conservancy) came again and trained me on how to install camera traps to help survey the local snow leopard population. I hadn’t even finished with my schooling, but the training provided me with a basic knowledge on snow leopards and what kind of habitat they prefer.
In 2006, they sent me few camera traps and I was the one who installed them. Now, my primary focus is on snow leopards.
At the beginning the mission was to take at least one picture of a snow leopard. But when you succeed, your hunger grows to get into next level on your path. I wanted to get more pictures like a group of snow leopards, couples or even family.
My photo-hunting mission became a passion that took me deep into the mountains to the home of wildlife, which have been roaming there for ages.
Could you please explain how you work to install camera traps?
For the first few years, I was more like a camera traps installer than a field biologist. At first, it (camera placement) wasn’t that systematic; it was a bit more ad hoc. But over time we learned about the qualities of the machine as well the science about snow leopards and their habitats.
We identify places that snow leopards potentially would prefer and install our cameras there. Normally, snow leopards prefer places like ridges, rocky outcrops and ravines. We also search for physical signs like their markings or scat (faeces) and visit areas where there has been high human-snow leopard conflict. We talk to the herders who frequently visit those places.
The most sighted locations are typically well-suited habitats, so we take that into account for the camera placement. After a few weeks we go back and collect the cameras and smile if the snow leopard had showed up. If not, we wish ourselves better luck next time.
In 2016, we started using a grid system for camera placement, with each grid cell comprised of 5 square kilometres. In this area, there are 26 grids and in each we install two camera traps – one for still image and another for video but in the opposite direction so that both parts of their bodies can be captured. Once we install we return home and go again for data collection after a few weeks. That’s how the regular data collection work gets done.
But we have only been able to cover 13 grids now. It takes weeks to do even one. We have two stations, which are at 5300 metres and 5400 metres. Those are the most difficult ones as the area gets buried under snow for months.
How do you feel to be a citizen scientist and how is it to work with people who have formal academic degrees that you don’t have? Do you feel like you could have done better if you had formal education?
I didn’t even complete my school education so being a wildlife field biologist was beyond my imagination. But as I moved deeper, I understood wildlife better. The hardest part now is that I don’t have capacity to analyse the data that we collect from the camera traps. I am deeply involved in fieldwork but I can’t do data analysis as that demands a special capacity, which I lack. However, it’s a group effort. I enjoy my work and feel blessed to work for wildlife.
Which is the happiest and saddest moment for you when it comes to your research work?
Sometimes you’re just lucky. In 2014, I was at 4,200 metres to install cameras for trapping snow leopards. I took one extra camera trap with me and installed it as well. Later on, when I collected the extra camera I found images of something else.
It turned out to be a Pallas cat that was thought to be extinct in the Himalaya. Long back in 1776, German naturalist Peter Simon Pallas first found it in Central Asia so it was named the after him. There was no Nepali name for Pallas cat so researchers named it Tashi Biralo (Tashi is good luck in Tibetan language and Biralo is cat in Nepali). I am honoured and lucky to have the cat named for me.
Of course, there are sad moments too. So far, we’ve lost three camera traps. When you have walked for days and invested weeks planning one installation, you pray for the safety of these devices when you are walking back home. After few weeks you go to the trap location and you don’t find cameras you feel like you lost the world. It’s so painful. There is no use of these cameras for ordinary people but some people steal them, don’t know why?
Another problem is the inaccessibility of the snow leopard habitats. In November 2017, we installed two cameras at 5,300 and 5,400 m and the places were snow covered thereafter. I tried to get those cameras in March but couldn’t do it. Maybe the memory card is already full and batteries are depleted. Mountains are a hard place to work, given the rough terrain and steep slopes. It demands a lot of commitment and patience.
What needs to be done to protect high-mountain wildlife?
Protecting these endangered species is challenging but important work. For example, the snow leopards are the apex predators, which mean they eat prey like the Himalayan blue sheep, which depend on grasses for food. Even in the high mountains, there is a food chain where all species play key roles. If the (the snow leopard population) is not maintained it is a signal of an ecological imbalance. Future generations should be able to see these beautiful species, so we have to keep them protected.
The most important thing is to value these species. We should understand their value first. Then, if we would like to protect them we need to have a deeper knowledge of their behaviour and the threats they face. This is possible through scientific research. With more knowledge about snow leopards, we have a better understanding of their needs and then we can act accordingly to help them survive.
(This was first published on The Third Pole and has been republished with permission.)
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