My closest encounter with a snow leopard took place in the Altai Mountains with an ink brush in hand. My eyes locked onto the powerful hind legs and broad paws and then the impressively long tail decorated with rosettes. It was the tail I had read about and adored, a tail that gave balance in 50 foot leaps and saved from thousand foot drops. I was sitting at my desk surrounded by ink pots studying three ancient snow leopard images. The first decorated the canvas of a woman’s body. She was the Ice-Maiden, a two and a half thousand year old mummy belonging to the mysterious Pazyryk culture. In the second image, a snow leopard was featured, full body and hunting a deer in a male Pazyryk tattoo composition. The full composition was made up of one snow leopard and two panthers hunting deer. There seemed to be less realism reflected in this tattoo as snow leopards, unlike wolves, hunt alone, even when faced with prey several times their own size. The third image was originally stamped into a metal belt buckle found at the Berel Scythian burial complex and showed the snow leopard as predator of its key object of prey, the horned argali. The heads of both animals were twisted backwards facing each other displaying the symmetry characteristic of the “Siberian-Scythian animal style”. In this image the snow leopard had no decorative rosettes; rather, each bone of the skeleton was marked and woven into the design.
I was retracing the lines with my ink brush, as if re-walking ancient pathways, in search of any clue hidden in the details that would hint at the symbolic meaning of the snow leopard in the centuries long passed. I suspected, that knowledge of snow leopard biology, behaviour and habitat would be essential to working with the representations before me. I lacked such specific knowledge but was aware that conservationists were working on snow leopard conservation in the Altai and in the very regions where these ancient images had been discovered by archaeologists.
The opportunity to join a snow leopard expedition arose two years after my desk top encounter. The expedition was being run by the Altaisky Biopshere Reserve and ‘Arkhar’ conservation NGO and I was the guinea pig volunteer. The purpose of the expedition was to check and service camera traps placed at strategic points along Chikacheva Ridge, one of six main snow leopard and argali habitat areas in the Russian Altai. As the expedition started, I set off towards the cold and beauty of Chikhacheva Ridge with three men and a dog: Sergei indomitable expedition leader, Alexander, loyal photographer, Aleksei, PhD student and driver, and ‘Rick’, gentleman of them all, Sergei’s German Shepherd.
Because we would be moving into a Russian border zone, I had to obtain an entrance permit at Kosh-Agach, the last regional administrative centre before the border with Mongolia. Collecting a border permit is always a worrying moment. Despite the fact that the application process is relatively straight forward it takes two months for the application to be processed. In addition, permit laws change relatively frequently whilst a tendency for lack of transparency and clear communication between officials and the earnest conservationist does not! There were no guarantees that my permit would be ready, even though a phone call 3 days prior to setting out confirmed that it was. I had read in a Lonely Planet travel guide that Kosh-Agach has an end-of-the-world type feeling to it and so it does. On a cloudy day, surrounded by miles of windy steppe, one could truly believe that one had reached the end of the world. Even the black kites and eagles seemed to have suddenly reached the end of the sky and being unable to fly any further bunched up in flocks, accumulating around the roof-tops in Kosh-Agach high street in unimaginable numbers. But I was driven by my goal and would receive the essential permit. The sky would clear to reveal distant snow-capped mountains, and we would drive on freely, released into the land beyond the end of the world to where the snow leopard reigned.
Alas, it was not to be. The law had recently changed requiring of expedition volunteers not one application form but two. The feeble power of a single document had placed a sudden end to my journey. Staring realistically at the armed border guard in green suit and leather boots, I prepared myself to gracefully say my goodbyes and set off back to Novosibirsk800 km in the opposite direction. Sergei, expedition leader, surprised me. Such an outcome would be least desirable he stated, and certainly not ‘po chelovecheski’, ‘right or friendly’! He proposed that instead of making camp in the 5km border zone I had to permission to enter, we would camp just outside of it. In areas where the camera traps were located inside the 5km zone, I would stay at camp and they would walk the 10 km extra distance to access the cameras. As a guinea pig volunteer, I was under no illusion that my practical contribution on this expedition was close to zero. For the first time I studied the face of our expedition leader more closely, and behind his learned composure detected that sending a volunteer home at this point for the sake of a more convenient expedition plan would be harder for him than requiring the team to add a mere hundred kilometres extra walking distance to their expedition. At what stage in conservation training I wondered, had ‘po-chelovecheski’ become a priority conservation value for this man.
Relieved to be moving on again we drove beyond Kosh-Agach towards the pretty forms of Chikhacheva Ridge. Over the forthcoming days we set up camp at different points along the hem line of the mountains’ skirt folds, trekking by foot to the camera traps higher up along the ridge. Despite there being plenty of time for rest and conversation I was taking in so much new information that the time pasted quickly. The team were hot on safety and so I was learning how to use a GPS unit to mark points, track routes and retrace the paths I had walked. It was tempting to be lazy about using the GPS once it was hanging round my neck as there was so much to look at; birds, flowers I had never seen before, animal tracks and marks left where animals had bedded down into the ground. In any case, being so high up, camp was usually in site. My lazy attitude changed however, when the mist came down in minutes reducing visibility to a minimum. I acquired the discipline of making a mental note to check my phone for coverage, look around me far and near, check the radio and GPS and keep everything charged with spare batteries ‘in a favourite pocket’. I learned to use a solar battery to charge my phone, how to communicate correctly over radio “Priyom!”, how to distinguish snow leopard tracks from those of a fox or wolverine, how to recognise the ridges and flats the snow leopard prefers to inhabit and how to make makeshift matches from bits of wood when our last box began to run low. I was aware of how much the team knew and all that they were doing that comes only with constant experience of life in the field.
Travelling from one camp to the next in our small jeep took just a few hours, long enough to either fall asleep or gaze out of the window at the surroundings. Being a rock art enthusiast, I spend any car journey though the wilds of Altai searching for the kind of rock that might bear ancient petroglyphs. Spotting a boulder that looked promising to bear a Bronze Age elk and thinking aloud pointed it out to nobody in particular. “Now that’s an interesting looking boulder!” I said. None of my companions seemed to follow my line of reasoning, glancing out of the window but failing to notice any boulder shockingly different to all the others that speckled the hillsides. Sergei however, said decisively, “That’s not the stone we want.” It seemed a strange response but I realised that Sergei too had been deep in concentration, gazing out of the vehicle window, scanning the landscape in search of his own markers for snow leopard whereabouts. What he meant of course, was “You’re barking up the wrong tree. That’s not the kind of stone a snow leopard would urinate on!” With that I resisted from pursuing the dialogue any further thinking it more fruitful for us both to sink back into our own worlds of incessant seeking, him for the snow leopard, me for an elk image in ochre. When you are intently focused on scanning the landscape for clues to a treasure for which there is no map, there can be no ‘other’ type of stone.
Stones, I realised, were equally as important to the conservationist as they are to the rock art enthusiast. Sergei’s stone was used as a scent post by the snow leopard. These reserved, long-tailed cats urinate on stones, rub their cheeks up against them leaving single white hairs behind, and make scrapes with their back legs nearby. This type of stone could also be a way point for many other kinds of birds and animals inhabiting the mountain range, some of which would re-mark the spot on detecting the scent of a snow leopard. My stone, however, might bare an ancient representation of a snow leopard, or images of its prey, the argali and ibex. The stone Sergei wanted was situated high up on mountain ridges difficult for man and dog to make their way along. The stones I wanted were, as a rule, situated at lower altitudes, near the confluences of rivers, and often at an angle providing an alignment with a significant mountain peak on the horizon. These were guidelines I had arrived at although no archaeologist has yet succeeded in discovering the principles that determine the specific choice for a rock art location. One had simply to persist in learning to seek them.
Snow leopards likewise are notoriously hard to sight. They are solitary animals, well camouflaged against the rocks with their light coloured fur and dark rosette patterning, although I have read that their long, thickly furred, boa-like tail can sometimes give them away. These qualities, coupled with the fact that the Altaisky Biosphere Reserve has only been working with camera traps in the Altai Mountains since 2011, severe working conditions and active poaching meant that Sergei Spytsin more than had his work cut out.
Although the camera traps had produced photographs of snow leopard the previous year there were no guarantees the snow leopard still inhabited the area and could be caught on camera again. Deep snow cover, guns, snares and reducing numbers of suitable prey were obstacles the resilient snow leopard would have to overcome. Two expensive cameras had been stolen previous to this expedition despite being carefully hidden and the stories of leopards killed for their fur and real traps being set by local inhabitants on known migration routes were heart rending. There were no images of snow leopard found in nearly six months of photographs from the cameras checked on day one of the expedition. It was a less happy evening that day at camp. It didn’t take much imagination to guess the various scenarios that must be running through their minds in explanation of the lack of snow leopard images. I felt for Sergei Spytsin and his team. I knew that Spytsin had refused offers to train in the states with conservationists who trapped, drugged and collared snow leopards in the name of scientific research because of the stress it inevitably caused the freedom loving animal, despite the personal benefits the opportunity would have given him. I couldn’t help wincing and fearing for his fingers as I watched him remove his gloves at the top of the ridge to remove the memory card from a hidden camera in weather conditions so harsh they had frozen the water in our water bottles. If this was what it was like in May, how did they cope with winter expeditions in minus 40. I wondered, what passion motivated this conservationist to overcome all obstacles and persist in dedicating himself to the survival of an animal he had never once actually had the reward of seeing live in the wild.
On day two the feeling of anticipation was more intense as we waited to see what the memory card from the new cameras would reveal. I waited at camp that day and enjoyed sitting comfortably in a large chair, writing my diary amongst the tiny yellow flowers that were growing inside the tent. Late afternoon I watched out of the window hoping for the snow storm to pass and a glimpse of the team returning safe and well. I wanted to time the hot meal and tea so it would be ready on their arrival. The plov was ready and the tea gently brewing when I received the radio message that they would soon be at camp. As they walked into the tent I tried to gauge the expression on their faces for signs of hope or sorrow. To my surprise, despite spending hours walking through the wind that whipped and tugged and the sharp stones that sliced beneath feet and paws they declined a cup of warming tea in their impatience to check the memory card for the much hoped for photographs of snow leopard.
There they were; the photographs that displayed the characteristic behaviour of the majestic beast. In one photograph the snow leopard seemed to be staring at the camera with its tongue sticking out. Was that an aggressive gesture? Could the snow leopard be sticking its tongue out at Sergei? “No”, he said, “They do that when they pick up the scent of another snow leopard”. So, there’s more than one out there, I thought. It was a happier evening at camp that day and we watched ‘The Life of Pi’ on Sergei’s ipad.
On the final day of our expedition in the mountains I stayed back at camp again. The weather had cleared so I set off on a walk to explore.
I couldn’t help thinking about how Sergei had never once seen a snow leopard in the wild and how in contrast, my searching had been rewarded with thousands of rock art images. The moment of discovery was always sudden as I tended to come across images accidentally spotting a petroglyph from just a couple of steps away. Sometimes being so unexpectedly confronted with the laconic beauty of a deer would make my heart leap, or the shock of discovering a masterpiece in a landscape with no other sign of ancient civilization would make my tired legs give way underneath me. That said, I knew I could never meet the master of the ancient art. How many times had I felt so close to the veil that divides time and prayed for just one moment of shamanic download that would give me a glimpse of those human hands and knowledge of the true meaning of the images that would finally release me from guessing.
As I walked a black kite flew overhead, circling around our campsite. I’ll follow the kite, I thought. If there is rock art here, the kite will lead me to it. It seemed unlikely, as the soft steppe was just speckled with the occasional rock and boulder. There were no rocky outcrops that would provide the perfect situation for a sanctuary. But I felt my inner compass begin to tickle as it always did just prior to a find. The kite flew in the direction of the raised area behind our campsite, which had a soft hilly surface and small undulating mounds. Some were covered in small stones hinting at ancient burials. A row of springs and a black-water divining pool lay between the knolls. The kite flew up higher in the direction of the confluence of two rivers. I followed. Two more steps and there it was: a single boulder covered in images. I followed the kite further upstream knowing there must be another image somewhere near the water source. In the end I found it, just one tiny image about three centimetres long reminiscent of an argali, prey for the snow leopard. I stared at the petroglyph which had been pecked into the rock as if it were walking along the rock surface towards the snow-capped mountain that stood across the steppe on the distant horizon.
In the evening Sergei’s team returned and we shared the amazing gifts of the day: visual documentation of the snow leopard and of ancient rock art depicting animals that have today become rare and endangered species. I told Sergei that I felt blessed we had all found or been given what we so earnestly sought. Trying to express what I felt, I asked him: “What are the chances of finding photographs of snow leopard in the entire AltaiMountain region and what were the chances of finding that one tiny rock art representation in several square kilometres of steppe? How do you explain that kind of thing?” “When you really search for something, he said, you end up developing a kind of sixth sense and pulling it out of the noosphere.” What he said made perfect sense. To pull knowledge out of the noopshere, the planetary sphere of mind or thinking layer of planet Earth you needed magnetic resonance and magnetic resonance was created by the heart and seeking.
That last evening over supper, I thought about the words so often quoted, “Seek and you will find”. How frustrating it can be to find the things we desire, the perfect job, the perfect house, even the keys to one’s apartment when they are misplaced, and yet how easy it had been on this expedition to find what could have remained invisible inhabitants of a blindingly beautiful landscape. Is that what the quote means? Not, ‘keep asking for what you want and eventually you’ll get it’, but ‘seek for what’s deep in your soul, and you will find it’. Is that why the expedition had resulted in such joyful receiving; because everyone was seeking the things that represented their true soul’s passion, setting up a kind of magnetism that would inevitably bring the seeker to the sought? I had to acknowledge, that it was the expedition team, the way they worked and their principles that had given me strength and not in fact the sensational photographs of the snow leopard. I looked across the camp supper table at the grey-bearded conservationist and his team squeezing jam from a packet onto a teaspoon. How easy it was on this expedition to feel the peace and harmony of nature. For now, the landscape was still intact. The ancient burials remained untouched, the rock art had been preserved, the animals had made it through another year; there was wood for the stove; the company of seekers had warmed my bones and no doubt somewhere up high we were being observed by the fearless golden eyes of a snow leopard moving slowly and silently across the crags.