Hemis National Park – Kingdom of the Grey Ghost

“… Vast sheets of snow cover the land as far as the eye can see… Nothing breaks the stillness of the jungle, where trees once full of leaves stand covered in snow, as if silent observers of the happenings of the forest. The setting sun casts a orangish – golden hue, making the snow a mirror.

Atop a silvery boulder sits a creature… call it a Grey Ghost if you will, its grey coat hidden perfectly in plain sight. Only the black spots betray its presence to the trained eye. The Snow Leopard sits still, staring into the landscape, relaxed, green-eyed, detached as snow melt, and vanishes as the light changes….”

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The Snow Leopard, one of the most critically endangered big cats in the wild. Can we save them?

Sitting in the high altitudes of the Eastern Ladakh region of India is the Hemis High Altitude National Park. Spread across an area of nearly 4,400sq km and one of the largest national parks in South Asia, Hemis is the quintessential kingdom of the elusive Snow Leopard.

Covering the areas of Rumbak, the Marka catchment and parts of Zanskar, Hemis is home to one of the largest population of Snow Leopards in the world.With around 200 Snow Leopards recorded in the park, it is famously known as the Snow Leopard Capital of India. Hemis sits at an altitude of 3300 – 6000m, making it the largest high altitude protected area in India.

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Stok Kangri, the highest peak inside Hemis National Park (source)

Hemis National Park is one of the largest national parks in South Asia, it is the quintessential kingdom of the elusive Snow Leopard.

Founded in 1981 and named after the famous 400 year old Hemis Gompa (or monastery), and watered by the Indus river, Hemis is thinly covered and is rocky in terrain. There are also numerous Tibetan Gompas and Holy Chortens located inside the park. Six villages exist within the confines of the park. The villages –Rumbak, Kaya, Sku, Shingo, Urutse and Chilling – are home to about 1600 people

Plenty of rare wildlife is found in the park, including the Bharal, Tibetan Wild Ass (Kiang), Red Fox, Rhesus Macaque, Marmots, Wolves and many more. All these support the existence of the Snow Leopards, leading to a good and stable population.

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Bharal or Blue Sheep (source)
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Ladakhi Urial in Winter (Source)

Winters in Hemis can be extreme, with temperatures close to freezing point during the day and dropping to as low as -15 degrees Celsius at night. The Zanskar river and its tributaries are frozen.

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Confluence of the Zanskar and the Indus rivers at the border of Hemis National Park (source)

The best way to get to Hemis National Park is via road from the town of Leh, the 17th century capital of Ladakh. Hemis is open for trekkers from April to September. While summers offer the best time for visiting Hemis, Winters can offer a unique perspective of the place. The trek from Spituk Gompa near Leh passes through the Jingchen valley into Gandu La and the Markha Valley, reaching Hemis via the Kongmaru La is a picturesque trail and offers adventurous souls a happy experience.

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Bird’s eye view of Hemis National Park (source)

Hemis is also famous for the Hemis Tsechu festival that celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava (or Guru Rinpoche) and attracts thousands of tourists and pilgrims from across the world.

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The Grey Ghost of the mountains (source)
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Hemis Monastery in the 1800s
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Hemis Monastery (source)

Poaching for fur, bones and body parts to be sold on the black market, loss of prey, conflict with humans has pushed the Snow Leopard to the brink of extinction. Only sustained conservation efforts, awareness and community programs in Snow Leopard areas can ensure the survival of these superb cats.

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Hemis Tsechu festival celebrates the birth anniversary of Guru Padmasambhava (source)
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A monk performs during the Hemis Tsechu Festival (source)
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Markha Catchment Area and Stupas (source)

Check out the footage of the Snow Leopard captured by BBC for their amazing Planet Earth series. If you haven’t seen Planet Earth before, now is the time. it is one of the greatest TV shows on nature and wildlife in our generation.

Additional details about Hemis National Park

Best time to visit: May to October. April – June and September – December are the best seasons for bird watching. September – June is a good season to spot wildlife.

Accommodation: While there are no noteworthy facilities for trekkers and tourists, dormitories and tents can be used for overnight stays. Accommodation is also available at the Hemis Gompa and the East West Guesthouse. Make sure to pack warm clothes if you’re visiting in Winter.

Distance from major cities: Leh (10km), Delhi (571km), Chandigarh (400km)

Contact details: Director of tourism, J&K government, Srinagar Tel.: 72449/ 73648/ 77224. After working hours: 77303/ 77305.

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Will the Snow Leopard survive for posterity? Only time and sustained conservation efforts can tell us.

Hemis National Park – Kingdom of the Grey Ghost is a part of the new series of articles on ‘Forests of India’ that I’ve started writing about. In this series, I aim to cover some of the most lesser known, but equally good forests of India, as well as some of the most famous and popular ones. It will include Corbett national park, Silent Valley National Park, Manas National Park, Kaziranga, Namdhapa, among others. I will also include other National parks in south India that I’ve visited personally as part of this series.

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