Thrill of the unexpected

While being taken to watch animals in the wild is exhilarating, one cannot but long for the surge of excitement that chance encounters bring.

As I turned the focusing ring of the spotting scope, the two came into view. “Two cubs! They have been here since morning,” said my colleague from Leh.

The cubs were of snow leopards, and were perched on a small flat projection in a rocky mountain ahead of us. They seemed unaware of the attention they were getting, and the great excitement they were causing. A host of tourists had gathered around three spotting scopes set up at vantage points. The cubs were, of course, oblivious to our presence; only powerful lenses could bridge the great distances that separated us.

We were in Leh, in March this year, and on the second day of our trip, we got news of the leopards that were spotted a little below Ulley village, in the Sham region of Ladakh. We set off post-lunch, a mixed group of Ladakhis and ‘down ke log’ (as non-Ladakhi Indians are referred to). We parked our vehicle on the road below Ulley and walked as briskly as we could, to the group of tourists and locals who had already gathered to watch the cubs for the past few hours.


The cubs were majestic, their snow white bodies starkly in contrast with the surrounding brown of the rocks. Occasionally, one of them would move a bit or stand for a few seconds to stretch before changing position. Those amongst us who were lucky to be using the spotting scope at that time, would squeal with excitement or gasp with wonder.

But soon, the excitement in me died, and I guiltily wondered why. After all, I was looking at the charismatic leopard of the trans Himalayas. I compared this experience, with another, over a decade ago, when I saw an adult snow leopard for the first time near Markha village. We least expected it. We watched it for over an hour as it slowly descended a mountain slope. Every minute was thrilling, to say the least.

But this felt different. Over the years, “snow leopard” tourism has become popular in the winter months, and Ulley is one of the destinations as it has a good snow leopard population in the mountains around it. Local trackers set out in the morning to survey the surrounding mountains. If the animal is spotted, word is sent to the tourist lodge in the village, and tourists are ‘taken’ to see the animal. We too were ‘taken’ to see the cubs. I realised where my lack of excitement was stemming from. There is really no comparison seeing an animal in this manner, as against chancing upon one without any warning. The excitement in the latter situation is greater.

We were at the Ulley spot for over an hour-and-a-half, till the sun went down, and it started to get dark and bitingly cold. For a while, I sat on a rock, and contemplated my lack of excitement. Slowly, memories came back of the many lucky moments, when something appeared in front of me without prior notice: A satyr tragopan that I chanced upon, when I turned a bend while trekking in the Sikkim. It was barely a few feet away from me, and for a few moments we looked each other in the eye. More recollections flooded in: a sloth bear that crossed our path on an evening walk in rural Odisha; a draco or flying lizard in Kerala, which I almost dismissed as a yellow leaf; a python that came close to our vehicle in Pench….and even a moon moth that I discovered on my front door one night in Pune.

“Staged tourism”, whether it is of the tiger or the snow leopard kind, is driven by the desire of visitors to see specific animals. This often puts pressure on a certain area, with hoards of tourists rushing to a spot. In the case of tigers, it is quite possible that the animal is stressed by the disturbance of a bunch of excited tourists.

Responsible tourism is watching nature with no baits and tracking. It is exploring the unexpected. The ‘not knowing’ what one may see, is what makes walks or travel in wilderness areas so exciting.

Conservation and Nature is a series brought to you by Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group (

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 8:52:13 AM |

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