Text & photography by
Tahir Imran Khan
Somewhere in 2005, we were driving down from Khunjerab Pass after a memorable trip with some foreigner friends, Siddique told me that there is a Snow Leopards cub with the security staff at the post of Dhee( Deih ).
Snow Leopard has been a legendary and sort of mysterious animal, mostly we heard of it,in tales and watched in movies and to see it with naked eyes was an exciting thing. Our friends were also extremely thrilled and we jumped out of the comfortable vehicle to watch the animals.
The beautiful cub was a darling sweetheart and was looking as innocent as a Persian cat would be. Margaret immediately took it and cuddled in her lap without any fear or terror as the impression of an adult beast would be, especially in its natural habitat.
We were told that the scientific name of Snow Leopard is PantheraUncia and higher classification is Uncia. Its a carnivorous animal and an adults weight is 27 to 55 kgs in average and at maximum 75 kgs in males. The length of a snow leopard from head to the base of the tail is 30 to 50 inches with a remarkably long tail from 31 to 39 inches.
Snow leopards’ tails are long and flexible, helping them to maintain their balance, which is important in the rocky terrain they inhabit. Their tails are also very thick due for storage of fat and are very thickly covered with fur which allows them to be used like a blanket to protect their faces when asleep.
Being large cats, their eyes are pale green or grey while they have long, thick fur which varies from smoky grey to yellowish tan, with whitish under parts. They have dark grey to black open rosettes on their bodies, with small spots of the same color on their heads and larger spots on their legs and tails.
Their ears are small and rounded, all of which help to minimize heat loss. Their paws are wide, which distributes their weight better for walking on snow, and have fur on their undersides to increase their grip on steep and unstable surfaces; it also helps to minimize heat loss.
It is estimated that around 3,500 to 7,000 wild snow leopards remain in the mountaineous regions of central Asia, including the high mountain ranges of Pakistan. In addition, there are between 600 and 700 snow leopards in zoos around the world. Its being near to extinct and at present included in endangered species of animals, native of the mountain of Central & South Asia with few sightings is Pakistan. Attempting to import a snow leopard hide into the USA is punishable by a fine of up to a $25,000.In Nepal such trade could mean a 5-15 year jail sentence.
None of us was well attentively listening to such technical details as the beauty of the lovely cub was extremely mesmerizing and everyone was longing to take it in lap and make a memorable photograph with it. This first encounter with this charming animal was outstanding and developed my interest in Snow Leopards.
The books and internet information told that its a shy animal and its range is quite wide and an animal sighted in one country may appear in another season in some other country. As it lives in cold areas only, therefore in summers it may live in areas from 2700 to 6000 meters above sea level while in winters, the animals come down in search of food & fodder, hence may descend to an altitude of 2000 meters.
Later on, while preparing tourism development plan for Norther Areas ( present GB ), Yasir Hussain, a young and dynamic officer told that a snow leopard was found and caught near Khunjerab and sent to USA to raise in better environment and would be returned to Pakistan after proper care and when it would be able to live independently.
The animal was named as LEO and sent to the Bronx Zoo in America with an agreement that proper facilities would be developed at Naltar and LEO would be back in its original country land. It was interesting to know that this was the same animal which we saw during our trip and as now LEO is a celebrity animal with its international fame, an association with such a figure was exciting to boast in friends circles and while talking on wildlife.
After this wonderful friendly sighting of the young LEO ( named afterwards ), my second sighting of another snow leopard was depressing and disappointing.
We were on a trip to hike the Mukshpuri Peak above Dunga Gali, a lovely tiny village in Galliat region near Murree. Usman Hanif, one of our friends is a highly reputed wildlife photographer. He suggested us to start hike from Nathiagali to visit Lalazar Wildlife Park en route to climb Mukshpuri. He told that Lalazar Wildlife Park is the only place in Pakistan with a Snow Leopard in captivity. There was a pair of beautiful local common leopards in a large captivity and that was a lovely sight as the leopards were in quite a good area and in natural environment.
We were thrilled and looking forward to see the Snow Leopard but it was extremely surprising and unacceptable to see a beautiful and adult Snow Leopard in an iron cage which was not bigger than a birds cage, which we usually have at home.
The story of this leopard is also surprising as we were told that WWF got information that some political figure has kept a Snow Leopard at his house in Dunga Gali. They asked the owner to handover the leopard to WWF so it was shifted to the park but without any proper planning or arrangements. Therefore, the animal which was well kept and well fed, though illegally, was shifted to concerned authorities but now the majestic animal was in worst condition as there is hardly any place for it to comfortably roam around.
Sundar is an Urdu or Hindi word for beauty so the animal is named very rightly as Sundar but its care and feeding seems miserable and if the conditions remained similar, it may not survive very long. Its impressive tail, which has a great role in Snow Leopards life, is only used to sway flies and the poor animal looks sad and
weak to pose for common visitors, who used to throw stones or yell at the animal to get its attention while making photographs.
In October 2015, Noman, Adnan and Amjad came from Karachi with a plan to visit Hunza Valley which is matchless in autumn season. We drove via Babusar and had a great time en route. New tunnel at Atabad and the quality of the newly constructed road from Raikot Bridge to Khunjerab Pass is marvellous.
The memory of 2005 trip of sighting a captured snow leopard cub was in mind and I told the story to friends, who considered me a lucky person to touch a snow leopard in real.
We reached at a post between Sost and Dheeand to my extreme surprise; the local staff told about the new activity and showed us another animal which was an orphan baby captured three years ago.
The animal is put in a cage and the post staff takes care of beast. Now its a good sized animal, the cage of whom is lying cruelly on the road side. It was unbelievable as a lot of NGOs work in the region and then there are organizations including WWF and IUCN and it has not been noticed by anyone.
The Snow Leopard at Dunga Gali, called as Sundar was a disappointing sight but atleast the surroundings and environment was comparatively better while this unfortunate poor soul is in most ugly and unfavoring condition. Again, the only activity here is a photograph to show friends as one of the tours highlights, which further make the animal disturbed and uncomfortable. This magnificent animal is named as Louly( Lolly or Lovely ? ) and can be seen at Belie post on Karakoram Highway while driving from Passu to Sost.
Reports say that government is trying to bring back LEO to Pakistan but after my awful experience of watching snow leopards in cage at Dunga Gali and Gojal, I firmly believe that we should not bring LEO back till we have the proper captivity with appropriate facilities for the lovely animals.
Mr. Nisar Malik of Walkabout Films is really a creative and novel person to launch multiple ideas and to promote Pakistan as a unique and unparalleled destination. His documentary on Snow Leopard is worth watching so the following words by an expert like him would be considered with great concern and respect.
Any habitat we create for the snow leopard cannot, of course, replicate the stunning terrain of their mountainous homesThose steep cliffs and high rocky outcrops can never be recreated, but at least we can give the snow leopard a decent enclosure and provide it with proper care and dignity to live out the rest of its life in captivity.
( this article was published earlier and now the beast has been shifted to Naltar in a vast enclosure ).