(Update: Steve Winter wins the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2008 award for his photo of a snow leopard at night.)
When a snow leopard stalks prey among the mountain walls, it moves on broad paws with extra fur between the toes, softly, slowly, "like snow slipping off a ledge as it melts," Raghu says.
"You almost have to turn away for a minute to tell the animal is going anywhere. If it knocks a stone loose, it will reach out a foot to stop it from falling and making noise." One might be moving right now, perfectly silent and perfectly tensed, maybe close by. But where? That's always the question. That, and how many are left to see?
Raghunandan Singh Chundawat has watched snow leopards as often as anyone alive. The New Delhi biologist studied them closely for five years in Hemis High Altitude National Park in Ladakh, the largest, loftiest district of northern India, and carried out wildlife surveys in the region over nine additional years. We're in the 1,300-square-mile park this evening, setting up camp in a deeply cleft canyon near 12,000 feet. It's June, and the blue sheep have new lambs.
We keep one eye on a group crossing a scree slope, the other eye on the cliffs at its top. Leopards are ambush hunters that like to attack from above. While the common leopard of Asia and Africa relies on branches and leaves for concealment, the snow leopard loses itself among steep jumbles of stone. This is exactly the kind of setting one would favor. But I'm not holding my breath. Raghu has sighted only a few dozen in his whole career.
Lengthening shadows coalesce into dusk. Wild roses perfume the Himalayan canyon as passing squalls brush the ridgetops with new snow. I imagine a leopard easing down the darkened slopes. It flows low to the ground, with huge gold eyes and a coat the color of dappled moonlight on frost. The body stretches four feet from nose to rump. Its tail, the most striking in the feline family, is almost as long, and so thick and mobile it looks as if the cat is being followed by a fuzzy python. The snow leopard sometimes uses its tail to send signals during social encounters or to wrap partway around itself like a scarf when bedded down in bitter weather. But the main function of this plume is to add balance in an environment with thousand-foot drops.
In Mongolia a park ranger once told me he'd seen snow leopards crouch and sway that plume in the air to lure curious marmots closer, just as hunters do with white rags. Possible. But I heard a simpler explanation from Sodnomdeleg Bazarhuyag, a retired doctor in a community of herders in northwestern Mongolia. We went to search out snow leopard sign in a gorge glistening with river ice. When a band of scimitarhorned wild goats (ibex) appeared on the skyline, Bazarhuyag scanned carefully around them, saying, "Snow leopards are good at hiding, but sometimes they forget about their tail."