See | Do
- Stay in a remote Himalayan village in the heart of Snow Leopard country and track Snow Leopards and other high-altitude wildlife every day
- Guided excursions by vehicles. The presence of a wide road network among the mountains helps cover a larger area
- Walks and hikes in Snow Leopard habitat with a dedicated team of trackers and naturalists
- Visit surrounding monasteries located on either side of the frozen Indus. A surreal and private experience in contrast to the busy summer tourist season
- Experience first-hand the lives of the cheerful yet hardy mountain folk in the winter stillness of Ladakh
- Contribute to the lodge’s conservation tourism efforts and see for yourself how it transforms lives within the local community
- Wildlife seen in and around Snow Leopard Lodge—Snow Leopard, Tibetan Wolf, Red Fox, Ibex, Urial, Bharal, Mountain Weasel, Large-eared Pika, Golden Eagle, Lammergeier, Himalayan Snowcock, Solitary Snipe, and accentors and finches
Good To Know
- Minimum stay duration at the Lodge—4 nights
- Acclimatization time required in Leh—2 nights
- Cuisines served—Indian, Continental, Chinese, Ladakhi
- Temperatures range between -14 to +10°C. December-end and January are the coldest months of the year.
- Altitude: Leh—3500m, Snow Leopard Lodge, Ulley—4100m, Snow Leopard Lodge, Mangyu—3800m
- The Lodge (common areas, room and bathroom) and vehicles are fitted with heating apparatus and backup generators to ensure that your stay is warm and comfortable.
- A detailed list of what to carry and wear will be provided during the course of booking
- Services of a tour leader and porters for the trip are provided by the lodge on request.
- The best time to see the Snow Leopard is between October and May—in our last four years of operation, we have seen that the Snow Leopard movement and sightings are consistently good throughout this period
Not so long ago, the very notion of venturing into Snow Leopard country in search of the magnificent cat had seemed like a lost cause. The boundless scale of Snow Leopard country combined with the elusiveness of the cat made it one of the most difficult animals to track in the wild. But that all changed dramatically in the past 20 years or so.
Unlike the increasingly isolated Protected Areas found in the rest of India, which are becoming islands within a sea of humans, Ladakh, with its vast swathes of wilderness and tiny human populations, reverses the situation. There is much to explore outside the limits of Ladakh’s Hemis National Park—all of the Ladakh–Transhimalayas is essentially a wildlife sanctuary.
Rinchen Wangchuk, the founder and late Director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) India Trust, realised it early that to ensure the protection and longevity of wildlife and their habitats, conservation needs to go hand in hand with the empowerment of local communities. The organisation played a crucial role in working with the wildlife department on habitats and communities, both inside and outside the purview of Hemis National Park.
The focus was on sensitising and incentivising the local people, most of whom perceived the cat as a threat to their livestock. Some of them were trained in natural history and taught to work with telescopes and binoculars that aid in tracking and spotting wildlife. The data obtained from camera traps and scat proved vital for the preliminary estimates of the Snow Leopard population in Ladakh. The number is still uncertain, but it varies between 300-800 individuals.
Story of the Lodge
The Snow Leopard Lodge started life as a homestay owned by one of Ladakh’s top Snow Leopard trackers—Tchewang Norbu and his wife Dolma—under the auspices of an innovative programme initiated by Rinchen Wangchuk. It was designed to use tourism as a conservation tool for the preservation of Snow Leopards and their habitats by establishing a direct source of revenue for the local community.
The lodge is located in the beautiful village of Ulley, north of the Indus River, at the head of the valley of the Ulley Chhu, at an altitude of about 13,000ft. Ulley itself is a hamlet of just about seven houses, beyond which are the summer pastures of Yak and Dzo. This is classic Ibex country, and there are few more evocative sights than a magnificently horned male Ibex standing vigil on some impossibly narrow outcropping, a few thousand feet above a plunging cliff. Over the past ten years, this area has been developed for Snow Leopard tracking and has gained a reputation not just for the high numbers of cats but as one of the best areas to spot Ibex, Urial, Tibetan Wolf, Himalayan Fox, Bearded, Himalayan and Griffon Vultures and Golden Eagles.
A few years ago, as demand increased, an annexe was added to the Snow Leopard Lodge. Situated just 50m from the main lodge, with its own lounge and pantry, this building belonged to Nilza Angmo and her son Utsal. A further building was rented from the family of Uley Pa, again widening the stakeholder net.
The Ulley project proved that this could be done successfully, and the time was ripe to expand. South of the Indus River and close to the ancient monastery town of Alchi is the large and prosperous settlement of Mangyu. This remote village boasts a fascinating monastery and temple dedicated to Vairocana along with traditional Ladakhi homes built picturesquely up the slopes of the Zanskar range. The sheer cliffs, valleys with high rocky walls on either side and the broad central spectrum of Mangyu village make for a stunning habitat that is home to a rich variety of wildlife. Here, in the heart of the village and a stone’s throw from the monastery, lies the smaller and more exclusive Snow Leopard Lodge with the Numchung Pa family.
The Snow Leopard Experience
Ulley and Mangyu are both situated within a network of valleys that are well-connected by motorable roads. This allows you to cover a greater area (with the lodge’s dedicated vehicles) than is possible on foot, thus increasing your chances of tracking Snow Leopards. Tracking involves several levels of input—direct sightings reported by villagers; Snow Leopard calls and the alarm calls or evasive behaviour of prey species; scavenging birds and animals like vultures, crows and magpies or foxes and wolves converging on a particular spot that may indicate a kill; the hard-won experience and knowledge of expert trackers and spotters; and most effectively, the visual confirmation of the presence of a leopard through actual tracks in the snow. All of these inputs are constantly collated and processed by Norbu and his team. Satellite teams operate in other valleys and villages, creating an information ‘network’. But all of this effort only serves to narrow down the area of search.
Snow Leopard country is precipitous, treeless and vast. Sightings can take place over a kilometre away. Of course, you need good optics, and at the Snow Leopard Lodge, you have access to some of the best in the world—top-of-the-line Zeiss telescopes and binoculars. But the actual spotting needs to be done by the human eye, and that is where all the skill and almost inhuman levels of concentration of the expert spotters comes to the fore. Watching the spotters scanning a distant ridgeline through a telescope is an experience in itself. You see their entire body go still, every fibre of their being focused on the visual seen through the eye-piece.
Snow Leopards rarely sell themselves cheaply. They make you work for every single sighting! Some of the best sightings follow a momentary glimpse of the top of a head or the swish of a tail from behind a rock, after which ensues a game of patience. The entire experience creates an almost spiritual connection between you and this indescribably beautiful landscape and its wild inhabitants.
The idea behind the Snow Leopard Lodge was to create a comfortable base from where one can search for Snow Leopards and other high altitude wildlife in relative comfort, without having to deal with the exhausting issues of camping in the intense cold of these high mountains. Wildlife-viewing excursions are mainly in the lodge's dedicated vehicles. However, they do encourage exploring the landscape on foot, depending upon your fitness.
The Snow Leopard Lodges are simply yet attractively furnished. AV equipment that allows you to enjoy movies plus board games make the long winter evenings fun. Most importantly, you will be hosted by an expert naturalist cum manager who elevates the entire experience of your stay by answering all your natural history queries while simultaneously interacting with the guests to ensure that everyone is comfortable. The rooms, lounge and dining areas are heated, augmented with hot water bottles and hot beverages to ensure a good night’s sleep and a warm start to your day. Because of the constant freezing temperatures, there is no running water, but hot and cold water is regularly made available in buckets. Toilets are western style with a ‘bucket flush’.
Snow Leopard Lodge Ulley has 11 rooms spread across two blocks, the main lodge and the annexe. The rooms vary in size and are all equipped with twin beds. All the rooms allow for ample natural light to come in, and in return, command fantastic views of the surrounding landscape. Quite often, guests have spotted wolves, Ibex and even the Snow Leopard from their room windows while sipping a cup of hot chai.
Snow Leopard Lodge Mangyu has five en suite rooms, a comfortable dining room and a large lounge commanding impressive views of the surrounding mountains. From the lounge, it is even possible to watch herds of Blue Sheep, Urial, Ibex and on occasion, the carnivores—Himalayan Fox, Tibetan Wolf and the Snow Leopard. The Mangyu monastery, linked to Alchi with its pre-Tibetan elements, is well worth a visit. And, being in a larger village will provide you with some insights into the lives of these warm and hardy villagers.
The Mangyu lodge operates on a buy-out basis (the entire lodge must be booked regardless of client numbers). It is perfect for small groups, families or friends. Or perfect for a couple looking for an exclusive experience in one of the most stunningly beautiful and wildlife-rich winter landscapes in the world.
Snow Leopard Conservation
In Ladakh, SLC India had adopted a two-pronged strategy to promote Snow Leopard conservation tourism, which it sees as a key factor in incentivising local communities to protect rather than persecute a mega carnivore that can cause havoc to their livestock. Success depended on presenting tourists with a fighting chance of seeing the cat in person. To achieve this, a trained cadre of expert trackers had to be created with the skill, knowledge and patience to track and find Snow Leopards in the highest mountains of the world. Needle & haystack come to mind! And, secondly, to recruit potential trainees from beyond the Hemis National Park region, to spread the benefits of Snow Leopard conservation tourism as widely as possible.
The success of the Snow Leopard Lodge is part of the “virtuous circle” of better guiding leading to better tourism, which means more money within the local community. This, in turn, reduces the hostility to Snow Leopards (and wolves) and leads to better Snow Leopard numbers and better sightings.
Wildlife tourism is labour intensive and even a small establishment like the Snow Leopard Lodge generates a multitude of jobs whose economic ripples spread far and wide—lodge and kitchen staff; teams of trackers; drivers who are ever-present at the lodge to man the vehicles used for excursions; Leh hotels benefit in the low winter season. These employment opportunities are part and parcel of any tourism business. However, to truly achieve traction, conservation tourism requires considerably greater investment in the local community, to create a clear link in the minds of the local people that their erstwhile adversaries—the Snow Leopard and Tibetan Wolf—are now benefactors generating income for the entire community.
To achieve this feat, the lodge has adopted the following strategies:
- Via a simple loan and lease agreement, the Snow Leopard Lodge utilises local infrastructure, thereby pumping money directly into the community.
- Snow Leopard Lodge trains and enlists members from the local community as part of their staff.
- The lodge collects direct donations from interested clients and travel agents, and works in association with SLC India to further the important work they do in the areas of research and mitigation of predator-human conflict.
- The lodge maintains a fund with Rizong Gompa, the main monastery in Sham Valley. As per the agreement, a fixed sum per guest per day is paid to the Gompa. The fund is utilised for the benefit of the community at the discretion of the monastery management.
Snow Leopard Lodge is a well-oiled conservation tourism machine that is run by the locals in the remote valleys of Ladakh. Reading about the place is one thing, but you need to stay at the lodge to truly appreciate the landscape, the sustainable practices and the effort put in by the team—all of which comes together to create the perfect Snow Leopard experience. So what are you waiting for? Pick up the phone and book your chance to see the Grey Ghost of the Himalayas.