Few land animals are as adept at camouflage as the rare and elusive snow leopard, and with this in mind we challenge readers to see how quickly they can spot the large cat in the photo atop this post. (The leopard is circled in red in the bottom image.)
The image – and four others that accompany this post – was captured by wildlife photographer Inger Vandyke, who recently returned from Ladakh in northern India, where she and Mark Beaman spent several days among mountain wildcats that are almost mythical in stature, because they're so rarely seen.
Vandyke, who is from Australia, described her experience as being "almost spiritual."
She and Beaman spent 17 days in the spectacular Himalayas, enduring numbing temperatures, as part of an expedition sponsored by the UK-based Wild Images.
"Mark and I were out in the field for the duration of 17 days without a shower and in the same clothes that we started in," Vandyke told GrindTV. "On one watch for leopards, one of our Ladakhi friends bought us a liter bottle of water to drink at 1pm. By 2:30 p.m., in the broad sunlight, that water had completely frozen over."
Endangered snow leopards reside in the rocky, steep terrain and prey on wild sheep and smaller animals. Throughout the 17 days, Vandyke and Beaman spotted five snow leopards, but were amazed by the large cats' ability to seemingly vanish before their eyes.
"Snow leopards camouflage themselves so well in their landscape that they can turn their back on you and literally disappear into their landscape," Vandyke said. "When I look back at my photographs I often wonder how many we might have walked past in the field and simply didn't see them."
Vandyke and Beaman join an elite few who have photographed endangered snow leopards. Vandyke is the first Australian to photograph them and is believed to be the first woman to have photographed a snow leopard attack, in this case involving bharal, or blue sheep.
She credited the Ladakhi people for helping to spot animals that she and Beaman might never have seen.
"The Ladakhis are incredible in this way," Vandyke said. "Some of spotted snow leopards, then tried to point them out to us and it took us several minutes to train our vision to see them.
"Even in the 'camouflaged leopard' photograph you see in my images, we had followed that leopard so we knew where he was, but each time we took our cameras away from our faces to have a rest from carrying a heavy lens, we would try to locate him again to take a photo and it would take us a minute or more to try and find him again as he hid behind a rock."
The “camouflage image” was captured as one of the leopards hid and waited for blue sheep to round a corner, to come within striking range. The leopard launched its attack on a female sheep, but the sheep was able to elude capture.
"Seven out of eight snow leopard hunts fail and we tried desperately to sit and hide so we wouldn't interrupt his hunt," Vandyke said. "We wanted him to be successful so he could enjoy some food."
But the cat realized the surprise element was lost. It licked its paws, and climbed to a rocky ledge, where presumably it would spend the night.
Vandyke said witnessing the attack was the high point of her career as a photographer.
"That encounter was, and will probably always be, one of the the most incredible experiences I've had with a wild animal in my life," she said. "I was shaking at the end of it. Of course, this was partly because I was cold from sitting for hours in the ice while all this transpired, but I was also shaking because I couldn't believe what we had just witnessed."
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