Droppings, together with scrapes made by the rear legs, reveal habitual routes that tend to follow ridgelines or the base of cliffs. Scrambling for footing day after day, I gradually realize that these travelers like to mark the same type of features that draw my attention en route: solitary boulders, sharp corners along gullies, knolls, and saddles. Near tree line, they stripe the occasional trunk with long, vertical claw marks.
If my eyes are too busy taking in scenery to notice a fresh scrape, my nose will still register the acrid tang of leopard pee. Elsewhere, I'll catch a musky aroma sprayed from anal glands up onto an overhanging rock. Frequently used scent posts take on an oily sheen. Passing cats stretch to rub their cheeks against them, leaving white hairs for me to tuck in a pocket for luck scaling the next rock face. Fifteen, sixteen thousand feet, no matter how far up I climb, some villager will have gone higher and left stone cairns bearing prayer flags or stacks of horns. Later, the cats come by and leave their own markings on these offerings. "A lot of research on snow leopard movements really tells you more about the limits of human abilities," says Raghu after crossing a cascade swollen with glacial melt. "You can only climb so many slopes before you grow exhausted or encounter sheer cliffs. It is just not possible to keep up." So Raghu tried capturing the cats to attach radios to them. He finally collared a female. But, like previous investigators, he was seldom able to monitor a signal for long before the animal dropped behind some ridge that blocked the transmission.
Over the years, biologists reported snow leopards covering territories of five to fourteen square miles. But when American biologist Tom McCarthy first placed a satellite collar on one in Mongolia in 1996, he found it roaming 386 square miles. "My guess is that the more satellite collars we get out, the larger we'll discover snow leopard territories to actually be," said McCarthy, now the science and conservation director of Snow Leopard Trust. Ten years passed before the next satellite tag was put on, again by McCarthy, this time in Pakistan. By mid-2007 the cat wearing it had revealed its movements over a 115-square-mile area and had moved across the border to Afghanistan.
SNOW LEOPARD RESEARCHERS need to gather more than cat facts, because you can neither understand nor save a predator without doing the same for its prey. Snow leopards hunt chiefly Asia's high-country array of hoofed wildlife: ibex, argali and urial sheep, blue sheep, tahr, the goat-antelopes known as gorals and serows, Tibetan antelope, Tibetan and goitered gazelles, musk deer, red deer, wild boars, wild asses, wild yaks, and wild Bactrian camels. Marmots, hares, and mouse hares (pikas) are on the menu too, along with partridges and turkey-size snow cocks. On top of everything else, snow leopards routinely add the tall, feathery shrub Myricaria and other plants to their diet. Curious, but then my house cat swallows grass and loves cantaloupe.