Snowman Trek Bhutan – Yaks, Herders, and the Snow Leopard

Sep 11, 2019 | Bhutan

Turning west, we began a new route for the coming 10 days. This area has more trekking and local-use trails, but there are still very few tourists compared to other trekking routes around the world. We saw only 7 other trekkers, in groups of 1-2, during the entire time we hiked. What we saw far more regularly were yak herds and herders on the move. Springtime means new grasses in the fields and new babies in the herds. Local families take their animals higher and shift to temporary, tarp-covered stone huts for a few weeks at a time, moving higher and higher as the weather warms. On more than one occasion we had to step aside to allow 80-100 yaks to pass, their big eyes wary of our foreign sounds and smells. Herders whistle, throw rocks at stragglers, and chase wayward yaks back in the right direction.

A herder drives his yaks across a river. Even the tiny calf has to swim.
Herder tents (blue) in a high valley so the herds can graze on summer grasses.
Baby yaks are hunted by snow leopards in the spring. Herders bring them close to home at night.

Yaks are not the only animals in these mountains. Himalayan Blue Sheep (more grey than blue) also roam in good numbers, and we came upon more than one herd grazing placidly. Both the National Park and the Buddhist religion offer protection for animal life, which results in robust wildlife across the country. During the course of our trip, we spotted blood pheasant, Himalayan Blue Sheep, pica, and even a snow leopard. Seriously.

Blue sheep skull that we found along the way
Blue sheep (internet photo)
A brave pica let me take his photo.

Elusive and solitary, snow leopards are so rarely seen that it took me a second to recognize the animal in front of me when it appeared. Lured in by baby yaks, the winter-starved snow leopards hunt closer to human activity in the spring. Every evening, herders gather their animals into stone pens, often guarded by a dog who will bark voraciously at any intruders. Snow leopards therefore often hunt baby yaks during the day while the herds are grazing on the mountainsides. Somewhere just ahead of us, this snow leopard was hiding and hunting when our staff stopped to set up lunch in a wind-sheltered gully just around the corner at the base of a ridgeline. Our staff never saw the leopard, but they must have spooked it. The leopard popped up over the ridge and ran across the trail only 12 feet in front of me.

The leopard was looking at me, and I looked back with a flash of recognition and awe. The white coat, spots, and long tail were unmistakable. It was perhaps 130 lbs, not yet full grown, with 4 feet of body and another 4 feet of tail. The long tails of these cats are distinctive and stand out immediately. The snow leopard kept going down the near side of this small ridge and up the far side as I yelled back to the 3 clients within earshot behind me. We all stared in wonder at the grace and power fleeing our intrusion into its territory. When the leopard was gone, we were awash in delight and disbelief. I looked back and saw the one-time zookeeper in our group had his arms up in celebration and in victory, while his eyes were still wide with incredulity.

The snow leopard was gone, but I can still see it crossing our path and looking at me. The moment remains etched into my memory and my soul.

I definitely wasn’t fast enough to get a photo of the snow leopard, but these two internet photos are the closest to what it looked like in that moment.