What does it take to photograph a snow leopard?

Shooting through the pandemic was Sacha Fonseca’s final challenge as he set out on multi-year projects to photograph two of the world’s most elusive big cats.

In December 2018, the Dubai-based German photographer set out to take pictures of the snow leopard in Upper Ladakh where winter temperatures usually dip into the minus 20s. In March 2020, Fonseca’s experiments in Ladakh saw him “walk in knee-deep snow among frozen trees, carrying a lot of equipment” to find an Amur tiger in the Siberian taiga, where temperatures drop another 20 degrees.

The snow leopard is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as Vulnerable and the Amur leopard as critically endangered. Their numbers are scarce, their habitats are remote, and it is extremely difficult to spot and photograph them in the wild. The state animal of Ladakh, the snow leopard is so secluded that we don’t have a term for gathering. Aside from camouflaging very well against rocky outcrops, the snow leopard, like the Siberian leopard, is most active between dusk and dawn.

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Fonseca relied on camera traps, which researchers often use to study wildlife remotely, via a well-placed camera with a shutter that is automatically triggered by a change in movement, sound or light. To withstand subzero temperatures, snowstorms, and animal interactions with equipment, Fonseca worked on a waterproof case for his camera trap in his kitchen. But when the pandemic brought travel to a standstill, Fonseca had to improvise, work with his local acquaintances for help, and wait. Three years later, his Snow Leopard project appeared on social media last week (it’s the first image in this story). Fonseca was quick to point out that the young tiger baring its fangs in front of the camera was “most likely reacting to the sound of the shutter… in fact a gentle character, scanning the valley for prey while investigating a DSLR, as if all for his entertainment.” . With rare access comes great responsibility, and Fonseca’s Instagram posts often slip into context about the precarious existence of these beautiful creatures in a world threatened by poaching, habitat loss, and human-animal conflict.

Seeing a snow leopard in Ladakh

Snow leopards are famous for being solitary and elusive creatures that prefer high, rocky, remote corners. Of the 6,400 snow leopards estimated to roam the mountains of 12 countries in Central and South Asia, about 300 live in Ladakh. Visibility is best in winter, when the big cat descends in search of prey. Fonseca warned in an email interview with Condé Nast Traveler.

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