Last October, Panthera gathered stories from our scientists, researchers, and partners to document their favorite encounters with big cats in the wild. This month, read our Director of Snow Leopard Programs Tom McCarthy's account of a sighting that still moves him, twelve years later.
Life Around Us
by Dr. Tom McCarthy
As the pinging grew louder in my headphones, I knew that my radio-collared snow leopard was just over the rise. I inched my way toward the ridgeline, ignoring the Gobi desert vista stretching out below. But, as usual, only an empty hillside greeted me when I crested the ridge.
Still, the steady radio ping told me she was close, so I set up my telescope in the shade of a large boulder and watched the valley below. Routinely eluded by these secretive cats, I didn't expect to see her today. Then, like a ghost, she appeared from a brush thicket three hundred yards down slope. For the first two minutes, I didn't breath, hoping not to attract her attention. Oddly, her interests seemed elsewhere--she kept looking into the thicket.
Then, with no concern for stealth, three balls of fur exploded from the brush, crashing into their mother's legs. Cubs! The 2-month-olds tussled with each other and rolled into a shallow ravine. I tucked myself farther into the shadow of the boulder, but at this distance I was surely well hidden. I thought.
An instant later, the mother leopard turned slowly and looked toward me. She seemed to stare directly into my telescope, clearly not pleased. With that, she abruptly departed, urging the three cubs to follow. Stopping to pick up a straggler in her mouth, she topped the next ridge, and the family disappeared. I tracked her many times over the next 4 months, yet she never allowed another glimpse of those cubs. A dozen years later, I reflect on that day, and am content to have had a moment in the presence of such a rare and precious sight.
Dr. Tom McCarthy, Panthera's Director of Snow Leopard Programs, began his professional career studying brown bear, black bear, mountain goats and caribou in Alaska in the early 1980s. A strong interest in international conservation led him to Mongolia in 1992, where he eventually assumed management of a long-term snow leopard research project under the guidance of Dr. George Schaller. Tom currently leads the first-ever long term snow leopard study in South Gobi, Mongolia, a joint project between Panthera and the Snow Leopard Trust, while expanding initiatives for snow leopard conservation in countries throughout their range.