Wildlife: A rare sighting of three snow leopards stalking their prey was made at the Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP), earlier this month.

While camera traps have been able to capture images of the elusive snow leopard, the last human sighting of a lone leopard was made in 2007.

A research team counting blue sheep at Tongdreyshesa, Thimphu, a three-day walk from the nearest motor road sighted the three leopards.

Tongdreyshesa is an alpine region of the park located 4,050 metres above sea level.

While observing a herd of blue sheep, the research team eventually became aware of three other animals near the herd.

Only using binoculars did the team realise that they were watching three snow leopards stalking the herd.

“We saw three of them, all in stealth mode. They were hunting the same herd of blue sheep we were counting, “ said Leki, a member of the team, to forester Ugyen Tshering, who authored an article on the sighting that was uploaded to the agriculture ministry’s website.

Leki could not speak to Kuensel, as he did not have the necessary approvals from the ministry.

“All I could think of was trying to capture the moments in photo … I realised that not many get to sight the snow leopard with one’s own eyes and definitely not three on prowl together,” Leki said to the article’s author.

He was able to capture at least two photographs that show why the snow leopard is so rarely sighted. Its spotted patterned camouflage allows it to blend in with the rocky terrain.

“I was luckiest of all to see them three in one spot … never in my wildest dreams, I thought I’ll be able to see such hard to detect creatures with my naked eyes,” said Leki who has also served for more than a decade as a wildlife conservation ranger in protected areas including JDNP.

He is currently a final year B.Sc student at the College of Natural Resources in Lobesa.

(Dr) Phuntsho Thinley, who once served as the JDNP’s manager and has studied snow leopards in Bhutan, explained that it was most likely that a female snow leopard and her two cubs were stalking the herd. He said that the usual size of a snow leopard litter is two cubs.

He added that the only other time snow leopards hunt in a group is during the mating season when the male snow leopard follows the female.

(Dr) Phuntsho Thinley, currently with the Council of Renewable Natural Resources, has estimated that there are between 11-17 snow leopards in the western part of JDNP, an estimation that has been validated by the latest survey of blue sheep. Blue sheep is the primary prey for the snow leopard.

It is also the International year of the snow leopard this year and the Wildlife Conservation Division of the agriculture ministry is conducting a survey of the animal as part of its conservation effort.

Meanwhile, the mother snow leopard and her two cubs were not successful in their hunt that day. The blue sheep became aware of their presence and the herd eluded the elusive snow leopards.

By Gyalsten K Dorji