In spring and autumn in Manang, wildlife photographer and field biologist Tashi R Ghale gets busy managing his guesthouse. But that doesn’t stop him from his passion for wildlife conservation and photography of the world’s elusive and rare cat, the snow leopard, that lives in the world’s highest and harshest climate. Tashi patiently and passionately captures the beautiful animal on lens in Manang, Mustang, Dolpa and Humla. Working in diverse landscapes over a decade, Tashi’s contribution to wildlife conservation has been acclaimed by WWF in 2016, Disney Conservation Hero Award in 2018, and by the US based Snow Leopard Conservation Group.
What fascinates you about snow leopards?
Over more than 16 years of my career, I have seen them only 30 times. Sometimes luck favours me and I can watch them for 8-10 hours but at other times, they disappear in 2-3 seconds. Snow leopards are solo travellers, they are shy and enjoy solitude. During the mating season, the male and female snow leopards can be seen together. They copulate and go their separate ways, and the mother solely raises her offspring, training the cubs to hunt and defend themselves. It’s fascinating to observe their behaviour.
Is there any particular behaviour of the endangered species that inspires you?
I find them to be intellectual animals. There was an incident in Ladakh, India, where a herd of Nayaur (blue sheep) was grazing, and a snow leopard hunted down a Nayaur within 10 seconds. But behind the scene, the elusive cat spent eight hours making a strategy, and it took only a few seconds to kill the blue sheep which are three times its weight. When the predator spots its prey, it doesn’t attack straight, instead it hides away, moves around, and sits like a camouflaged stone, making a surprise attack from their hiding point.
What went behind the scene of a video of a snow leopard walking on a suspension bridge in Manang…
It was in the year 2021, we were a team of five including two foreigners and trek guides. Our team went sighting every day in the hope of spotting the elusive cat. We were unsuccessful in our attempts until the second last day of our stay. But the irony was only two of us witnessed this scene, a trekking guide and I had climbed higher to a witness point searching for the animal with binoculars and a camera. At 5 pm, a herd of blue sheep came running down the cliff. We knew that the snow leopard was hunting for its meal. We became alert and observed the blue sheep, and after a few minutes, a snow leopard appeared. For about 8-10 minutes we saw the animal. As we were on a higher spot, we could see the animal climbing toward a different path. And at that moment, we knew exactly where it was heading to. We rushed to a point where we could see both the path and the suspension bridge. We set up the tripods and all our focus was on the snow leopard instinctively communicating with it to walk on the bridge. The moment was there, the animal crossed the bridge, and to witness such a scene was surreal for us.
What do the local people have to say about your work?
Snow leopard conservation has received recognition mostly internationally and here in Kathmandu especially from the snow leopard community, conservationists and biologists. In the past, the locals were not so fond of the predators and they were regarded as a threat as they destroyed the people’s livestock. Similarly, the government hadn’t implemented any plans or policies before. At present, they’ve established a national park and separated conservation areas. Times are changing now but we still need to work on awareness campaigns.
From your childhood days to now what kind of changes have you seen in your birthplace, Manang?
I was born close to Gangapurna lake, but it has now dried up. The Himalayan region is facing extreme weather and over the years we have seen harsh climatic changes like melting of the glaciers, extreme rainfall and overflowing rivers. With the rising global temperature, the ones who have to bear the impact of climate change are those who stay behind in this region including the wildlife.
Why is wildlife photography important to you?
It’s a medium to understand and examine between issues happening right now. The importance of our ecosystem, food chain and wildlife can be explained in a simpler way that even children can understand and be aware of. Personally for me, after I participated in a training camp for nature guides in 2004, I became aware of the names of diverse plants and birds found in the region and was enlightened about the importance of the ecosystem and its role in the food chain. Snow leopards play a major role in contributing to the food chain at high altitudes. After my first encounter with the elusive cat in 2006, I was driven to wildlife photography.
Three things you’ve learnt from the guardian of the Himalayas
The snow leopard has taught me so many things through their behaviour including adaptation and patience and gratitude toward mother nature. It has so much patience that I get drawn to this creature more.