DARKNESS CLAIMS the last crags. Raghu and I won't glimpse a snow leopard this day. It's not a disappointment. The great cat is only living up to its reputation for being impossible to find. Called shan in Ladakhi, irbis in Mongolian, and barfani chita—snow cheetah—in Urdu, the carnivore scientists label Uncia uncia ranges across about a million square miles and portions of 12 nations. You'll never hear one give away its whereabouts by roaring; it lacks the throat structure, though it can hiss, chuff, mew, growl, and wail. Besides being secretive, well camouflaged, and usually solitary, snow leopards are most active at night and in the twilight hours of dusk and dawn, amid the most formidable tumult of mountains on Earth: the Himalaya and Karakoram; the Plateau of Tibet and adjoining Kunlun; the Hindu Kush, Pamirs, and Tian Shan; the Altay, whose peaks define Mongolia's border with China, Kazakhstan, and Russia; and the Sayan chain west of Lake Baikal.
Bound to high, cold, steep terrain, snow leopards have always remained at fairly low densities, but became still more sparse during the past century because thousands were turned into pelts for the fashion trade. Though officially protected since 1975 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the spotted cats continue to be killed for their coat, worth a black market fortune. Demand for their bones and penis, hyped as tonics in eastern Asia, is increasing. Conflicts with livestock keep growing too, which leads to more persecution by herders. Bait, snares, pitfall traps, and poisons make it far easier to kill a snow leopard than to see one alive. The current population is estimated at only 4,000 to 7,000. While these aren't hard figures, the number may be less than half of what it was a century ago. Some authorities fear that the actual number may already have slipped below 3,500. Five of the countries in snow leopard range may have 200 or fewer.
There's no escaping the fact that most of the world's big cats are in deep trouble, from the heavily poached tiger to the last 30 free-roaming Amur leopards. Snow leopards are no exception. But here's some encouraging news: the rise of grassroots conservation efforts in a few locales to halt the snow leopard's downward spiral. Several community-based programs in India and Mongolia sounded especially promising—at least on paper. But how well do they really work?
Saving an animal means getting to know it, and scientific information about the leopard is scarce. Perhaps no other large, popular land mammal has so many details of its natural history still missing. Raghu, the regional director of science and conservation for the nonprofit Snow Leopard Trust, knows as much as anyone, and he has that sixth sense that researchers with years afield develop, an extra awareness that guides him to the fragile leg bones of an infant blue sheep here in a ravine, or an ibex skull lying there, high on a slope where wind whips the wildflowers into blurs of color, and lets him say things like: "At a fresh carcass, you can tell if a snow leopard with young made the kill. The ears will be gnawed off. Those are all the cubs can get at until she opens up the hide for them." Tall and fit, with a long-legged stride, Raghu is a wizard at trailing faint paw prints across stony ground. But the otherwise ghostlike predators also leave behind a surprising amount of more obvious clues. It helps to picture 80- to 120-pound cats in a colossal litter box.