Skip to content
snow leopard

Chasing ghosts: Our quest for the elusive snow leopard in Mongolia

By  | 

Will we see a snow leopard? That question nagged at me for weeks leading up to our Mongolia trip. Our group of photographers was flying halfway around the world in hopes of spotting and photographing these elusive cats. They are the least-photographed big cats in the world for good reason. The snow leopard population is small and lives in rugged, largely inaccessible alpine environments, making encounters infrequent and challenging. However, I was quietly confident. I hired an experienced team of wildlife trackers with a track record of regular snow leopard sightings.

After arriving in Ulaanbataar, we flew across Mongolia to the far western town of Khovd and drove to our camp in the remote Mt. Jargalant area. This camp was home for six days while tracking snow leopards.

Ger Camp in Mongolia
Our ger camp in Mongolia.

For three days, our trackers discovered signs of leopards, but we had yet to see these majestic creatures. The biting cold forced us to seek refuge in our ger tents, patiently awaiting word from our trackers. The stoves kept us warm, and our bellies were full, but the monotony of waiting began to wear on us. It was a constant battle between patience and anticipation. The question haunting me persisted: Will we see a snow leopard?

Ger Tents in the Mountains
Our home in the remote mountains of Mongolia.

Based on snow leopard reports from local herders, we journeyed up to another remote valley on day four between two mountain ranges. Temperatures had warmed up, and the leopards abandoned lower elevations for colder, higher ground.

Wildlife tracker looking for snow leopards.
Our trackers looking for snow leopards

The local trackers spotted leopard tracks in the snow while the group huddled in our heated ger tent enjoying tea and snacks. Suddenly, some rocks tumbled down the cliffs, and birds flew, chirping in distress, a sign of something on the move. Then came the haunting calls of a snow leopard echoing off the cliffs, with a second call from another direction.

My heart raced as I clutched my 800mm lens, scanning the ridgelines for any sign of movement. A smile crept onto my face, and I couldn’t help but pace back and forth excitedly. The moment we had been waiting for was finally here. The thrill of seeing a snow leopard, an elusive and rare creature, was about to become a reality. Could this be the day?

As quickly as it had begun, it was over. We lost track of the snow leopards, and a wave of disappointment washed over us.

On the fifth day, our trackers spotted a leopard asleep at the entrance to their den. The climb was steep and challenging, but we finally saw a snow leopard! Those who made the climb enjoyed a leopard sitting and walking outside its den.

Snow leopard outside of its den.
Snow leopard outside of its den.
Snow Leopard
Snow Leopard (Photo credit: Donna Passero)

We received reports of two leopards in the valley on the sixth day. One eluded the trackers, but the other was taking a cat nap. Our intrepid photographers made the arduous 2.5 km hike and were rewarded with another spectacular leopard encounter on this cold and sunny day.

Snow Leopard In Mongolia

After our successful encounters with the snow leopards, we turned our attention to the smaller felines that inhabit Mongolia: Pallas’s cats, also known as manuls. Pallas’s cats in Mongolia are threatened by human activity and poaching for their pelts.

I know a group that takes these cats from populated areas and releases them in the remote Altai Mountains, so I asked them if we could tag along on one of their releases. We enjoyed photographing these grumpy-looking cats as they made a new, safer home.

Pallas's Cat
Pallas's Cat

Our adventure in Mongolia was an authentic wildlife photography experience, with equal parts anticipation, patience, effort, boredom, and excitement. As one of our guests said, “If this were easy, everyone would do it. We flew halfway around the world, spent hours traveling across Mongolia, walked countless kilometers in a location only a handful of humans would ever see… and found a species most people would only see in a zoo. Hell ya, it was worth it. It was an experience of a lifetime!”

We’ll return to Mongolia for more snow leopard expeditions. If you have a spirit of adventure and are thrilled by encountering rare wildlife in its natural environment, we’d love to have you join us on our next Snow Leopards and Pallas’s Cats Photo Workshop.

Related Articles

Sign up for our newsletter.

Photography tips and resources, plus our latest trip announcements. Subcribers receive a free copy of our wildlife photography eBook.