Rare Footage of Snow Leopards Caught by Mountain Yak Herder

Picture of Bhutanese yak herder, Wangchuk and Tshewang Wangchuk
The young Bhutanese yak herder, Wangchuk (left), with National Geographic explorer Tshewang Wangchuk. Photograph courtesy Tshewang Wangchuk

Image of the 125 Anniversary logo A young yak herder, Wangchuk, captured this footage of snow leopards with camera traps provided by the Bhutan Foundation and biologist Tshewang Wangchuk, also a National Geographic Waitt grantee.  The yak herder, Wangchuk (who goes by only one name), is a 24-year-old young man who lives in the mountains of Bhutan, in Tsharijathang Valley near Shinjeyla Pass in Jigme Dorji National Park. (Residents in this area are primarily yak herders as the area is mostly above the tree line.) In February 2013, when one of his yaks was killed, he set up the cameras and got several hundred shots of a family of three snow leopards eating the yak.

Normally, snow leopards hunt alone, but here you see three leopards feeding together. Tshewang and Wangchuk believe this is a family unit—most likely a mother and two grown cubs who are not totally independent yet. The cats seem well fed. They spend about fifteen minutes at the kill, eating as much as they can until they are disturbed by a dog. The dog then eats the kill after the snow leopards run away, and crows scavenge the rest.

GoogleEarth_Image
This Google Earth satellite view shows where the camera trap was set in relation to the Shinjeyla Pass and Tsharijathang Valley. (click for larger image)

Snow leopards are notoriously elusive to photographers and conservationists alike. There have been several reports of a snow leopard with two cubs from different parts of Bhutan indicating that this endangered feline could be breeding and doing well in Bhutan. It is estimated that about one hundred snow leopards in live in Jigme Dorji National Park.

Picture of Tsharijathang Valley, Bhutan
Tsharijathang valley where Wangchuk’s yaks are in winter. In summer the valley is vacated for the wild takin, Bhutan’s national animal, as per an agreement between between herders and the park. Photograph by Tshewang Wangchuk

Bhutanese Yak Herder Cooperation

Tshewang’s challenge is to offset yak losses—like the yak these snow leopards killed—for herders like Wangchuk so that there are no retaliatory killings. He would like to get other herders working toward snow leopard conservation.

Stray dogs are beginning to become a problem for herders in the area. In addition to attacking wildlife, the dogs are also carriers for certain diseases, like GID disease, that affect livestock. GID, a type of tapeworm that becomes a cyst (Coenurus cerebralis) either in the brain or the spinal cord, is causing high yak mortality rate in Bhutan.

Picture of a young takin calf
A young takin calf cornered onto a boulder in the middle of the stream by a pack of stray dogs. Photograph by Tshewang Wangchuk

In order to gain support for snow leopard conservation in the community, Tshewang and the Bhutan Foundation—in partnership with the Snow Leopard Conservancy, the Nature Recreation and Ecotourism Division and the Livestock Department—assist Jigme Dorji National Park and the communities through the Jomolhari Snow Leopard Conservation Program. The program will help yak herders remove threats to their livestock, like GID disease. Other benefits the program aims to offer are:

  • Offsetting livestock predation through livestock insurance
  • Income generation through homestays
  • Income generation through boutique handicraft
  • Snow leopard and prey monitoring by community members and parks
  • Instituting snow leopard festival as main tourism event of the year
  • Using Soe Yutoed School for increasing awareness on snow leopard conservation

Wangchuk has expressed interest in training on treating GID disease and wants to become a community livestock health worker for his area so that he can reach out to other herding camps nearby. In the meantime, Tshewang will be visiting him again this fall to get more updates and perhaps, if we’re lucky, more footage!

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Meet the Author
Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.