A beauty better off unseen
By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-03-20 07:41

For most of us, a snow leopard is a shy and elusive cat but a stealthy and deadly animal - a predator that sits on top of the food chain across central and South Asia's rugged 1,230,000 sq km mountainous regions.

But the animal is no match for us humans. Cangmujian villagers in Rongxia township of Tingri county in the south of the Tibet autonomous region trapped a snow leopard in a cave after it killed a cow earlier this month. The village is at the foot of Mount Qomolangma, and thankfully officials persuaded the villagers to release the poor animal.

I said "thankfully" because it was not killed like Longtail, a snow leopard being studied by the Snow Leopard Trust in Mongolia.

Longtail was shot on Jan 1, 2009, by a Mongolian poacher. The trust continues the fight to save the endangered species after 25 years of struggle.

The snow leopard rules the wild, rugged mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

But it still is at the mercy of humans. Sometimes called an ounce, the cat can be found in the Pamirs, Tianshan, Karakorum and Kunlun mountains, the Lower and Greater Himalayas and southern Siberia. But despite being the top predator, it is rarely seen in the wild.

Just how rare its sightings are can be gauged from Peter Matthiessen's masterpiece, The Snow Leopard. Matthiessen traveled with field biologist friend Georges Schaller to the Dolpo region in northwestern Nepal that borders Tibet. There they studied the Himalayan blue sheep, or bharal, and also recorded sightings of the snow leopard.

When the book was first published in the late 1970s, the snow leopard - like the yeti - was a half-legendary creature, which very few people thought actually existed. Not surprisingly, it eluded Matthiessen until the end of the book.

Schaller, however, collates his data and learns to tell leopard excrement from those of other animals.

Contentment for Matthiessen is more precarious, though he finds his spiritual place.

The Snow Leopard carried us into a grand, Buddhist tale of our quest for meaning. By the end of their expedition, Matthiessen and Schaller have seen wolves, foxes, rare mountain sheep and other denizens of the Himalayas. And in the end when Schaller realizes he has seen many signs of the snow leopard but not the cat itself, he muses: "We've seen so much, maybe it's better if there are some things we don't see."

The book not only deals (and celebrates) the snow leopard and the Himalayan blue sheep, but also presents the Himalayan way of life in its vividness. That sense of wonder at the beauty of this world forms the core of the book.

The wonder that the beauty of the Himalayas awakens in us is natural. Not for nothing have the Himalayas been declared a biodiversity hotspot. They are indeed one of "the richest" reservoirs of plant and animal life on earth, but unfortunately they're also the "most threatened".

The Himalayas are home to at least 350 species of mammals and 1,200 species of birds, and the water bodies and grasslands that support these species are vitally important for humans as well. This is where the ounce bounces onto the screen.

Since it sits on the top of the food chain, even a slight change in its number or habitat will spell doom for the Himalayas and in effect the global environment.

If that is the case, we must stop destroying the cats' habitat and killing its prey.

E-mail: oprana@hotmail.com