Changing Planet

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.

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!

Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.
  • Aymeric

    I wonder how clever, or un-clever, it is to show the exact location on map…

  • Bette Libin

    I agree with Aymeric!!!!!!!!! Map should be taken off site.

  • Amy Bucci

    We spoke with Tshewang Wangchuk, and we do not believe that the map is putting the snow leopards in danger. We wanted to show how mountainous and remote the place is, and to appreciate the challenge of getting such shots. Thank you for your concern for the snow leopards though! Please let me know if you have any other questions. -AB

  • ohn

    Poachers could indeed go to the area. This map makes it very easy.

  • Shackleton

    Sounds like dog packs are part of the problem for both farmers and snow leopards. Is managing them part of the solutions?

  • poster109

    God how dumb are you people, pinpoint the rare animal for poachers! Amy bucci, christ woman!

  • Renate

    I agree also that the map should be removed.

  • Jennifer Lee

    We don’t need the map to tell us how mountainous the area is. There are other ways of showing this.

    Better be safe than sorry.

  • Profitable Choy

    The map is a terrible idea. Got nervous even before reading the other comments. Please take it down or provide an email for readers to send complaints to.

  • Miryam

    I agree. I don’t think it was a good idea to show the map, it’s inviting poachers.

  • Amy Bucci

    Again from Tshewang,

    The place marked on the map is a kill site, and not even a den or marking site that is frequented by the snow leopard. It is at least four days’ walk from the nearest road, so access is very difficult.

    Yes, a group of vets are in the region right now who will be deworming the dogs to treat them for the parasites that cause gid disease. There are plans to catch and sterilize the stray dogs later in the year.

    Thank you so much for your interest in snow leopards and Bhutan!

  • Brenda Kim

    Well, I love all the creature, nevertheless I’m not a totally vegetarian.

    thanks for posting move play of this rare snow leopard.
    Hope there’s a way to co-exist between Yak and snow leo.


  • Rahul Ogra

    Pinpointing the exact location of the kill / hidden camera trap on the satellite map, is effectively like pinpointing the home range of this family. That would definitely put their lives in jeopardy, in case the wrong people were to get their hands on this information.

    As someone working with the ISLT Snow Leopard project, on a participatory, community level, conservation initiative in the Spiti area of the Indian Himalaya; I can vouch for the fact that it’s never a smart move to depend entirely on the goodwill of the local herders or pastoralists. For them it is sometimes, simply, a matter of pure economic survival in a harsh mountain environment with their limited resources and livestock. And poachers are often known to exploit the situation.

    I also request that the map should either be taken down completely, or the location of the kill should be obscured.

  • Kelvin Brown

    Great footage of the Snow Leopards, I agree please take the location of the map, four days walk is nothing to poachers! It may too late, they might be on the way…
    I have seen Jaguar in the Pantanal, but to see Snow Leopards WOW..
    Thank you for showing it.

  • Mike Robinson


  • Claudia

    I’m not sure how much danger the map incurs. I don’t know enough about the leopards range/habits and how much they return to the same hunting areas. With regards to conservation efforts, where there is poverty there is desperation. People need to eat. What Tshewang is doing is wonderful and addresses one root cause of the leopard’s decline. He will need a lot of support on all levels….

  • warrenhoob

    These snow leopards are a serious threats for the dedicated mountain guides and climbers that come to these areas.

  • John Daglish

    we as humans have got to help these magnificent creatures to survive and thrive i urge every person in the world to help in any way to keep the snow leopard on this earth thank you in anticapation

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