Our 4x4 truck bumps over boulders and splashes through streams as it drives further into the deep forest of Naltar Valley in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region. This area is popular for its alpine ski slopes, mountain glaciers, green meadows, and vibrant lakes. But today, our guide has promised us a view of one of the Himalaya’s more hidden natural wonders.
We’re on our way to see a snow leopard.
Our bumpy ride comes to a halt in a clearing of trimmed grass scattered with pine cones. Tall trees cast shadows on the hot summer day and wave in an intermittent breeze.
We get out of the car, stretch our limbs, and make our way to a caged enclosure, where a bearded man named Ghulam Rasool greets us. He then turns toward the cage, makes kissing noises, and calls out, “Meri Lovely (My Lovely.)” Lovely, known locally as Lolly, looks away uninterested, her spotted black and white back towards the crowd. “She’s well fed at the moment,” says Rasool. “She growls and responds when she wants food. She’s a good girl.”
As more tourists arrive and the chatter gets louder, Lovely lets out a low rumble. It’s a faintly audible growl from deep within her body — nothing like the roar seen and heard in popular media. She turns her head and briefly scans the commotion, opens her mouth to show sharp canines, and then looks away again, back into her own world.
Lovely is a nine-year-old snow leopard who spends day and night alone, with no other animals of her kind. The only change in her life are her two habitats. In the winter, when snow blankets the valley and snow leopards look for food and mates, their fur keeping them warm and broad paws working as snowshoes, Lovely is kept in a cage near a ski resort. When the snow melts away, she’s brought into the lush green valley where tourists visit her. She has never hunted or mated. Nor will she be able to.
“Lovely’s only utility at the moment is recreation,” said Hussain Ali regional program manager of the Snow Leopard Foundation. “Since she didn’t receive the early days training of hunting and survival from her mother her chances of survival on her own are nil.”
As I watch Lovely in her cage, I’m struck by the paradox this big cat represents. Snow leopards belong in the wild, but Lovely’s captivity affords tourists the ability to see a snow leopard up close, to learn about this predator’s plight. This cage is also her blessing, in a region where snow leopards are losing habitat and the mountains they call home are becoming more and more inhospitable. As Ali says, without her captivity, Lovely would likely be dead.
Snow leopards populate the mountain ranges of 12 countries across Central and South Asia. Scientists estimate that fewer than 6,400 snow leopards inhabit an estimated area of 1.8 million square kilometers. Their habitat is threatened by development and land degradation. Snow leopards are also killed by pastoralists who see the big cats as predatory threats to their livestock. According to a report from the World Wildlife Fund, an estimated 450 snow leopards are killed each year.
In Pakistan, as part of a recent habitat sampling, it has been estimated that there could be as few as 40 snow leopards, far fewer than previous estimates of around 420 cats. However, experts believe that more than 70 percent of the world’s snow leopard habitats are still unknown — and many of these habitats may be situated in Pakistan. Either way, saving and conserving every snow leopard is important.
But in Lovely’s case, saving her meant taking her from the wild. In December 2012, volunteers from the Khunjerab Villagers Organization (KVO), a community-based nonprofit working for wildlife conservation, were on a routine stroll around Khunjerab National Park, more than 100 kilometers from Lovely’s present location. Upon reaching the Khunjerab River, the volunteers spotted a female snow leopard perched against the backdrop of the snowy mountains, gazing into the far distance.
The volunteers instantly took out their camera and began to film. After all, these elusive big cats rarely showed themselves. In the footage shared by the volunteers, the snow leopard sits still, her translucent gaze mirroring the breathtaking views around her. She looks below the line of the camera facing her and then switches her gaze upward on her left. Then, for a split second, she looks squarely into the lens of the camera.
While the volunteers watched her make these repeated motions, they heard a low cat-like whimper from below. They looked down to find a cub by the riverbank, its foot stuck in the icy slush. The cub, hardly a month or two old, appeared to be frozen.
“The mother snow leopard was watching the cub from atop,” said Mubat Karim Gircha, office manager at KVO. In the video, the mother snow leopard starts climbing up hill, looks one last look behind, and disappears from sight. “The mother was crossing the river along with her two cubs. One of the cubs made it across and went its way climbing up. The other one, Lovely, was left frozen along the bank,” he said.
After the mother left, torn between her concern for the two cubs in opposing directions, the volunteers, along with representatives from the provincial wildlife department, took the cub to a nearby wildlife check post. A small fire was lit and goat’s milk was fed to the cub.
The next evening, officials from the Snow Leopard Foundation, including Hussain Ali, visited the site and inspected the snow leopard’s condition. “It was in good health,” said Ali. “We scanned the area and tried locating the tracks of the mother. The cub [inside the cage] was left outside for four to five hours in the hopes that the mother may come looking for her,” he said, adding that it didn’t work. “The local community and volunteers were extremely anxious that the cub would die if left on its own in the wild. Hence, there was no option but to keep it in captivity inside a sanctuary.”
Lovely isn’t the only case of a captured snow leopard living a lonely life. One prominent case is Leo, who currently resides in the Bronx Zoo in New York City. In 2005, Leo was recovered from a shepherd in Naltar Valley and moved temporarily to New York as part of a memorandum of understanding signed between the World Conservation Society and the Gilgit-Baltistan administration.
Another case is the tragic tale of snow leopard, Sohni, who died in captivity three years ago in a zoo in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Sohni was originally gifted to the son of Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and had been living a life of isolation and neglect.
Lovely isn’t neglected, but she could be taken care of in a better way. If anything, her presence is a reminder that we have work to do when it comes to learning how to coexist with these big cats. As excited kids poke their fingers through the cage to get a reaction from Lovely and adults gather against the enclosure to pose for a selfie with her in the background, one can’t help but think about how circumscribed this beautiful creature’s life is here. When the numbers of her species are depleting for so many reasons, and little is known about those very numbers due to unchartered areas of research, Lovely stands as a reminder of the wild leopards we should strive to protect.
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