Sunday, 13 November 2016


typical terrain in our patch in Ladakh, with a snow leopard track in the snow on the right
Icy mountains … remotest Asia … the ends of the earth … too hostile to survive.

But there is life here … a beautiful big cat … so rare it has become the stuff of legends … as mythical as the yeti.

This ghost like creature is the holy grail – the ultimate wildlife challenge. Almost impossible to see, let alone film - the snow leopard.

the beautiful big cat is so charasmatic that it inspires many artists
These are of course just so many words but they are the words I wrote for  the opening of my film on snow leopards and you only have to climb up into those unforgiving mountains to try to find that elusive cat to realise the truth of the challenge. The question comes to the fore, why even try?

Well, as a freelance wildlife film-maker you have to take risks to stay at the top of the game, even try to film subjects that have never been 'done' before, especially if they are considered ‘impossible’. Trouble is, on this occasion all the major broadcasters thought it was impossible to film snow leopards so I had to risk investing £120,000 of our own money to prove it wasn’t.

our location was in the Zanskar Mountians to the west of the capital of Ladakh, Leh

Never has that truth that ‘if you don’t get any film you don’t get to eat’ been closer to reality but we did get some good footage and so ITV, PBS in America plus a distribution company came up with the half million I reckoned I needed to give my team a fair chance of success. Our attempt would be based in Hemis National Park in Ladakh, NW India, an area of some of the most rugged terrain in the Himalayas and based on our research and recce, a favoured place for snow leopards.

typical rugged mountains favoured by snow leopards
The pre-eminent mountain scientist Dr. George Schaller described this as “a land of just enough” and that goes for humans as well as the animals. The mountain-sides are precipitous, largely barren, with few plants for the critters to eat, so predator territories are huge and definitely hostile to would be film-makers … and for me in this ‘just enough’ land, tinned tuna and rice was the gastronomic highlight.

The ‘office’ was daunting but truly beautiful and the Ladakhi people a joy to work with. Nothing was ever too much trouble for them and however hard the going, they never lost their sense of humour. The cricket matches with them were good too. England versus India has seldom been more competitive and on one memorable afternoon, with a light falling of snow on a turning wicket, a snow leopard watched the match from the rocks three hundred feet above.

we were a happy crew from start to finish ... and the top of that far ridge was a regular path for our quarry. The gent on the right is the eminent snow leopard scientist Rodney Jackson, an endless source of help in our quest.
We were operating in the area that snow leopards hope to find their prey, so in winter that meant from about 12,000ft to 16,000ft. There is little snow in the western Himalayas, which is fortunate as despite their name, the cats seem to hate snow. They try not to walk on it, maybe to avoid leaving pug mark signs of their presence ; not very helpful to us in our attempts to find them. It was difficult to see the cats, let alone film them, for the area was a maze of precipitous mountain sides and everything was confusion.

tough terrain, even for big cats

However, in time it became clear that the cats were using the paths of least resistance through their large territories and would mark their passing on prominent rocks, letting others know they were there, especially if in heat and looking for a mate. They spray the rocks with urine, the best sites being overhung so that any rain or snow doesn’t wash their scent away. Once we understood their significance, finding these spray rocks was simple and essential, for then we had an idea of where and when the cats would be passing.

Other clues were their calling and the key time for this is winter, particularly in January and February, the mating season. It’s cold in the mountains, about minus 20c at night and with a broken zip on my tent, sleep was fitful, though a blessing in disguise for that is when the ladies scream, telling the males where they are … us too. I’m always amused when climbers suggest they have heard yetis screaming when what they are hearing is snow leopards.

the beautiful art of Gary Hodges
One of the highlights of our filming was the first ever sighting of a pair of snow leopards courting and my main cameraman Mitchell Kelly even managed to film them mating. [I saw them doing it the following year but was unable to reach the cliff ledge with the camera].

This sequence was one of our few true successes during our filming because right from the start the film became a damage limitation exercise. My colleague and co-cameraman on this quest was to be Chip Houseman, a close friend and highly talented cameraman with whom we had won a BAFTA for photography of the tiger film we made for the BBC and National Geographic.

Chip was a true 'mountain man', born and raised in Montana

During this filming Chip and I  laid plans to tackle the snow leopard and sent friend Rinchen, ex. warden of the Everest National Park to Ladakh to recce the area and work out the logistics. But just two weeks before filming was due to start, tragedy struck when Chip and his girlfriend Helen were killed in a Thai Airlines crash. I still haven’t really got over it.

budies in arms while filming tigers in India
A year passed before I could find another cameraman who was good enough to rise to the challenge and mad enough to try. Australian Mitchell Kelly had been besotted with snow leopards since childhood and had already done some great work in the Himalayas, so he was up and running soon after starting. We had designed two remote cameras that should provide us with intimate film and sure enough they did, so intimate that one cat even misted up the lens with its curious investigations of the technology. 

our remote cameras did work at times

However, their complicated wiring, the brutal cold and rugged terrain proved challenging and they became known as ‘confusion cameras’, all too often failing at crucial moments to film passing cats, even a mating pair.

My plan as producer was to feature Mitchell and his quest as the thread of our story, for I was now becoming crippled with arthritic hips and even looking up the mountains made them ache! Years of chasing pussy cats up mountains had done me in, most notably due to more than two years following a puma in the Patagonian Andes. But I was determined to be in Ladakh to film Mitchell with the cats, even if I had to limp up the hills with a stick.

on some days it was cold and grey
Mitchell had already had to be evacuated from the mountains twice, once for ripped stomach muscles due to hauling gear up steep slopes but also for altitude sickness. They call it ‘sickness’ but its actually a killer and when I joined Mitchell to film him on our last trip, the altitude nearly did for him on the first day in the mountains, in spite of acclimatising for five days. If Air India hadn’t been able to fly into Lei for the emergency evacuation, Mitchell would be dead.

most of the worlds 4 -5,000 or so snow leopards are in this area of Asia
Trying to recover the film was almost as tricky as filming the cats, but luckily one of my assistants Ralph Bower was about the same build as Mitchell and proved to be an ideal ‘stunt double’ for scenes of ‘Mitchell’ searching the mountains. Like I say, the film became a damage limitation exercise, especially when one of our porters was carrying equipment down a scree from a precipitous hide, slipped on the ice and slid several feet down, scattering rocks and snow far down the mountain. I watched in horror as he lay still for several minutes before he gingerly kneeled up and dusted the snow off his bruised body. Thankfully he was shaken but OK, unlike my £35,000 'Big Bertha' lens which was broken in half and beyond repair. Broken or not, it had saved him from cracking his head on the rocks so much the lesser of two evils … just another little set-back in our adventure.

Our ambition was to feature one particular cat and try to habituate it to our presence but were unable to see them often enough to achieve that ultimate aim. But we did get to recognise one individual that we called Mikmar, Ladakhi for ‘Red Eye’. He was our local male and had obviously been in a fight for the territory with another male, for he had a damaged left eye, hence his name. And finally we managed to film him on a kill, a large bharral, a half sheep, half goat and the cats favourite prey in our patch of mountains. When we started out we were pleased to capture any sort of image of a snow leopard as each one seemed a miracle, so in the end filming our cat in close up on a kill was a highlight.

our star male Mikmar, damaged left eye clearly visible, passing one of Rodney Jackson's camera traps
Our film was a struggle, probably inevitable given that we started off from zero. It was a battle of will against adversity, made possible by the tireless assistance of our Ladakhi helpers and their positive mental attitude. Us wildlife film-makers are often ‘accused’ of being very patient but I think very bloody minded would be a more appropriate description of our mind set. As Winston Churchill famously said “Never, never, never give up’.

David Willis in Kenya with his son Miguel, waiting like us for the crocs to strike
This story of our quest has a happy ending, for I’ve been a friend of David and Judy Willis since the early ‘80’s, sharing many filming trips in Africa and India. David  makes his living from creating brilliant traditional  'Genre' paintings for the Sheikhs in Oman and this enables him to escape into the bush for widlife filming and photography. I’ve known his son Mateo for a long while and when he told me recently that he’d been commissioned by the BBC to film snow leopards, I was delighted to give him a bit of gen about where and when, even lend him my journals so that he could read about our trials and tribulations, along with what and where things  worked out for us.

friend David out filming Arabian Leopards in Oman with his son and ace cameraman Mateo
The film Mateo has contributed so much to is the new BBC1 Attenborough series ‘PLANET EARTH 11’ – MOUNTAINS, and it’s showing this Sunday at 8pm.

David Willis's stunning portrait of a snow leopard and 'harmonic convergence' to be advertising his own son's filming in the Radio Times
I was touched that both Mateo and his producer Justin Anderson thanked me for my small contribution to the success of their filming and it sure is rewarding to help others in their quest, especially friends. I’ve been in touch with Mateo and this is what he told me about their filming :

“Yes, filming snow leopards is a combination of bloodymindedness and long days! Myself and cameraman John Shiers spent two winters in Ladakh. For the third winter I was joined by camera assistant Duncan Parker. In total we spent over a hundred days in the field. Also a large number of camera traps were deployed each winter and contributed significantly to the footage of snow leopards we were able to capture".

"Filming snow leopards highlights how important an understanding of the subject is. Without Hugh’s prior experience and the knowledge of the spotters we wouldn’t have stood a chance as the area they range across is vast.  Success was only possible because we knew when the leopards were mostly likely to move and the areas they tended to frequent; the scent rocks, ridges and mountain paths."

capturing the magic - Willem de Beer

As a passionate conservationist, I think it's great that the BBC has invested so much time and money, technology and not least talent into giving this team a chance of success, for seeing wildlife on television in all it’s glory has got to be of benefit to the survival of those charismatic cats. Judging by the recent trailer I've seen on the BBC of two snow leopards fighting and hearing other great things about their footage, all I can think is WOW!

Just remember when you watch this programme just how tough it is to film there, then prepare to be impressed. You will never see television better than this, such great film of truly wonderful creatures in all their elusive glory.

        - November 13th – BBC1 8pm – PLANET EARTH 11 – MOUNTAINS -

No comments:

Post a Comment