Maurice discusses the fun in trying to find something that does not want to be found or simply does not exist…
Rinzin: ‘It can only be the Leopard Cat, the Marbled Cat doesn’t live at this altitude!’
We were hot on the trail. Accompanied by a National Park Officer from the Deboche Post (who is worth mentioning is single handedly responsible for monitoring any illegal activities in an area the size of a small country– and he has to do it on foot in what can only be inadequately described as an undulating landscape) we headed uphill from the settlement of Deboche at 3800m. Light was already fading. We hurried.
Our mission: Find the Mystery Cat.
We had been informed in Namche Bazar of an unknown cat species that had been surprised during a routine patrol and had scampered away and climbed a 15m tall tree, hiding in what appeared to be a nest of some sort. It was an intreguing account. No self-respecting biologist was going to let such an opportunity pass.
Thus there we were, accompanied by the first-hand witness trudging up a ridiculously steep forested hill. He had failed to mention beforehand that it was an hours climb. I hurled insults at the mystery cat when I wasnt doubled over gasping for breath in the thin air of 4000m. The NP Officer and Rinzin seemed oblivious to it all as they skipped ahead. Thus I sent a fair share of insults towards them too for good measure.
Suddenly the NP Officer stopped dead in his tracks, we peered through the trees, not knowing what we were looking for. We stood frozen like statues – it was however something that he had heard. Rinzin had heard it too – faintly. The sound of a cat ‘meowing’.
We headed up silently, carefully but unsuccessfully trying to avoid dead leaves lest they give our position away. We were about as stealthy as an elephant walking over bubblewrap. I wielded my telephoto camera lens ahead of me like a gun ready to capture any fleeting image that would make them all famous. That was the idea anyway.
Nothing. A product of our imagination – unlikely. A hopeless cause – certainly. We gave up and headed for the tree where the cat had taken refuge a few weeks earlier.
There was indeed a nest of sticks at the apex of the tree 15m up. Without a seconds hesitation, the most agile within our company – Rinzin, volunteered to climb the tree. Showering us in branches he reached the top – it was the only way to find any evidence of the cat. Dangerous? You think! It was the moment of truth – but there was no sign of the mystery cat. Instead of being disheartened by our lack of discovery we were bouyed by the thought of ‘what if’. What if this was an undocumented cat species in SNP of which we had just discovered a nest.
Light was fading quickly now. The mist closed in blanketing the forest in white. Only the sound of our feet crunching on the crisp snow beneath our feet pierced the silence. Had we been gorillas we could have qouted a suitable film to describe our appearance. We descended through the forest.
Our next discovery was no less exciting. It challenged the conventional definition of a bioligist (insert ‘fascination with scat/faeces’). It certainly didnt look like much but to the trained eye this was evidence of the Mountain Ghost – the Snow Leopard. The very reason for us being here in SNP! Without having to draw straws to see who would have to taste it to confirm its freshness we managed to ascertain that its was indeed fresh (within 3-4 days). The aroma was simply beautiful. We breathed deeply.
We peered into the forest around us. Our imagination conjuring up a herd of Snow Leopards around us. Rinzin, not satisfied with having found scat decided he had to take it with him – the often qouted phrase of ‘you never know when this might come in handy’seemed a little dubious to apply in this case but it didnt stop him.
If there had been a Snow Leopard watching us from the lengthening shadows it probably would have used Rinzin’s now trademarked expression; ‘what the hell is this?!’ at the sight of his faeces being kidnapped. It needed a plastic bag to transport however – putting a steamy turd in his pocket was a stretch too far. Even for Rinzin.
Maurice: ‘Look around, i’m sure you’ll find one!’
My words were disappointingly appropriate. It took less than 2 minutes to find a plastic bag. Plastic: the curse of the 21st century, even at 4000m in the stunning Himalaya several hours hike above the nearest settlement, far off the beaten track it manages to make its presence known. Depression aside. We contineud back to Deboche encountering more Snow leopard faeces (which also disappeared into the bag – it was turning into quite the collection) as well as the faeces of the Common Leopard.
The scat tells a story, an interesting one at that, and one that has come to light during the research. The Snow Leopard and the Common Leopard seem to coexist side by side. It seems the Snow Leopard, often given the blame for all livestock losses, may be taking much of the blame for the antics of its spotted cousin.
Either way it was exciting to find evidence of the Snow Leopard. There is indeed a ghost in the mountains.