Snow leopards are so hard to spot that they’re called the grey ghosts of the mountains. Masters of stealth, these big cats camouflage perfectly with their high-altitude habitats in India, Bhutan and 10 Central Asian countries. This makes tracking and estimating their numbers no mean feat. But after months of expeditions into remote mountain areas, Bhutan has become the world’s first country to have completed a nationwide census of the endangered big cat.
The census, released earlier this week, finds 96 snow leopards in Bhutan. Prior to this survey, the population was put down to around 100 to 200 snow leopards in the country, reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Bhutan. The healthy population of the snow leopard, the report said, is a good sign of the health of Bhutan’s high-altitude ecosystem. Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji, the country’s Agriculture Minister, told WWF Bhutan: “This historic survey will allow us to devise the most appropriate management plan to conserve these remarkable big cats, their prey and their habitat.”
Conducting the survey was a challenge. Staff from Bhutan’s Department of Forests and Park Services and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests spent months hiking some of the country’s steepest mountain ranges, conducting surveys of tracks, and installing camera traps in 221 locations. The cameras yielded photographic evidence of new snow leopard populations in Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve and Paro Territorial Forest Division.
Travellers can see the elusive big cat in India, too. The best time to spot snow leopards is from December to February, when they descend to the lower reaches of the Himalayas to hunt prey. The big cat can be sighted in Hemis National Park in Jammu and Kashmir, and Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary in Himachal Pradesh. To read more about where you can spot them in India, see here.