Photographer reveals sad twist behind viral snow leopard image

'I’ve observed a visible difference. I can see it in my pictures.'

Can you spot the snow leopard in this photo? The challenge of finding this expertly camouflaged big cat in its alpine environment has been baffling nature lovers for years.

Now the photographer behind the 2019 iconic image is warning seeing the elusive species could become more of a challenge to find in the wild. Returning to the Himalayas on photographic expeditions every year, Saurabh Desai has witnessed climate change rapidly destroying snow leopard habitat.

“I’ve observed a visible difference. I can see it in my pictures, I can see it when I’m there,” he told Yahoo News Australia from his home in India. “If I can measure a change in five years, I can’t imagine the scenario in 20 or 30 years.”

A photo of a snow leopard on a hill in the Siti Valley
Can you spot the snow leopard in this photo? Source: Saurabh Desai

Desai’s photographs have helped drive international interest in the protection of snow leopards which are listed as vulnerable to extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and are thought to number between 2,710 and 3,386 individuals.

He has shared several jaw-dropping images from his February 2023 expedition to India's Spiti Valley, as he prepares for another trip to the region next year.

Three snow leopards from a distance.
Over the last five years, Desai has watched snow in the Spiti Valley deplete. Source: Saurabh Desai

'Mental game' of taking a photo of a snow leopard

There has never been a verified snow leopard attack on a human. They have learned to be wary of our species which has poisoned them to protect livestock in India, and hunted them for skins in China. This means photographing them in their natural habitat is a challenge.

“Because they are not comfortable with humans, we have to give them time to get used to our presence,” Desai said.

Including the trek itself, Desai’s photographing adventures through the Spiti Valley usually last between 15 to 20 days.

“On the first day we keep a distance of 500 metres to 600 metres. On the second, third and fourth days they know we are harmless and start feeling comfortable and let us get close. But that distance is still 100 to 150 metres.”

Three snow leopards on a hillside.
Locals are increasingly valuing the importance of snow leopards. Source: Saurabh Desai
A snow leopard face against a white snow background.
While snow leopards are masters of disguise, they don't camouflage well in snow. Source: Saurabh Desai

The best time to photograph the species is February because they are more active during the winter breeding season, and males often travel great distances within their territories.

At this time, the animals can venture down the mountains to 14,000 feet, but the temperature in this region can still drop to -35 degrees. Staying still in these chilly conditions is a “mental game” for Desai.

“It’s more psychological than physical,” he said. “Anything below -10 or -15 degrees feels extremely cold,” he said. “The first few days are always difficult in terms of acclimatisation. The air is thin and the oxygen level is almost half of where I normally live. You start feeling comfortable gradually.”

More amazing stories on wildlife photographers

Climate change threatening snow leopards and humans in Himalayas

Over the last 15 to 20 years, Desai has watched the local farmers’ relationship with the snow leopard change because the species’ presence attracts tourists to the area who are willing to pay to see the animals in the wild.

A village in the Siti Valley
Villages in the Himalayas could become unviable due to climate change. Source: Saurabh Desai
Saurabh Desai with his large camera on an expedition.
Saurabh Desai returns to the Spiti Valley every year. Source: Saurabh Desai

They no longer worry the snow leopards will attack their livestock and are instead invested in their protection. Like the big cats, locals also face being displaced by climate change.

The changing environment is now the biggest topic of conservation whenever Desai speaks with farmers who have existed in the harsh environment for generations.

“They’re saying the glaciers are melting so fast, that by the time the harvesting season comes, they don't have water, because the glaciers have already been melted,” he said.

“Then people on the lower side of the valley are having issues with flooding. For them the weather is very unpredictable. The impact is very crazy because people living there are completely dependent on glacier waters.”

If you'd like to find out more about Desai's next expedition to the Himalayas you can click here.

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