Walking along the Himalayan ridges covered with deep snow and carrying a 25 kg camera is dangerous, but not for Saurabh Desai who conquered perilous heights to capture the elusive snow leopard in frames.
With the help of local villagers who accompanied him on the big cat trail, Desai was able to spot the animal in its most wonderfully camouflaged form.
"I took these pictures from a distance of around 200 meters. We used to walk long distance every day and waited for hours in different parts of Spiti Valley to spot the snow leopard. Walking into almost 4 feet deep snow at such high altitude is a challenge – it was not at all easy, and sometimes we had to cope with the speed of the leopard while it was walking on the other side of the ridge," said Desai who was a planning engineer with Larsen and Toubro until he decided to quit the job and hold the camera to fulfil a childhood dream.
Since the past five years, Saurabh has made over 18 visits to the Himalayas - and not long ago, he started looking for the snow leopard in the beautiful Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh.
"I had captured many different species in this region but was looking for the snow leopard here for the past three years. As a fine art photographer, I wanted to click something new and interactive most of the time, so it took a little longer for me. I just did not want to do what has already been seen and done. So, this year when record-breaking snowfall hit the valley, I was there looking for this most elusive cat in the world - deep into the valleys and near the remote villages of Kibbar, Chicham and Langza during my 30 days expedition in February and March."
Surrounded by high mountain ranges between 15,000-18,000 feet, Spiti Valley is home to some unique wildlife - Blue Sheep, Ibex, Red Fox, the Tibetan Wolf and the Snow Leopard – the large cat is listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List.
Various species of birds like the Chukar, Golden Eagle, Lammergeyer or Bearded vulture, Snow Cock and Finches are also part of this landscape. The valley is clearly a photographer’s delight, but this year, Desai chose to concentrate on the ‘Shan’ - the local name for the Snow Leopard.
Desai, however, has a word of caution for nature and photography enthusiasts.
"The most difficult part of this expedition was to reach this place in the palm of the Himalayas where the temperature is freezing at - 25 degrees Celsius. The oxygen level is almost 50 percent less than sea level, and the air is chilled and thin to survive for many of us. Your physical fitness really matters - one should not visit if they are not prepared for such terrain."
The snow leopard cannot roar, though it can hiss, mew, growl or even wail. Desai said the big cat is surviving in an environment of continuous threat and stress.
"The changing climate, increasing population of stray dogs in the valley, lack of education among villagers, and increased tourism in the Himalayan region are posing threat to the species. All this should be controlled, and I guess local authorities are well aware of it. They are gradually taking steps to address certain issues.”
"The ‘Snow Leopard Trust’ along with the Forest Department is making great effort for the conservation of this animal,” he added.
Desai is leaving for another project in the Himalayas for a period of 15 days beginning today, but this time he is planning to focus on the snow-covered landscapes and culture of people living in Changthang area of Ladakh.One can have a glimpse of his varied work in the website and his book of ‘Visual Poetries’ that contain images of nature and wildlife captured in different parts of India.