Snow leopards are big cats, about 60 to 120 pounds heavy and four to five feet tall. So why is it so hard to find one in this photograph? Wildlife photographer, Saurabh Desai, traveled to the Spiti Valley of Northern India for a big cat photoshoot. Among his beautiful repertoire is a photo of what appears like a landscape shot of a snowy crag. However, it’s actually a snow leopard headshot whose coat camouflages him perfectly into his surroundings.
Can you spot the big cat?
If you missed the big cat, you’re not alone. Even locals often miss the snow leopard hiding in plain sight. They’ve affectionately named him “Shan” or “Grey Ghost” in that area. “I wanted this animal to be captured the way people have described it,” Desai said about the photoshoot. “They say that often they don’t see the ‘Shan’ but ‘Shan’ always sees them. I was very [keen] to portray this animal in its own environment, perfectly camouflaged, which is an important skill that helps it in hunting.”
Once you spot him, you may be startled to realize the big cat was staring back the entire time. “I spent almost three years in search of this amazing cat,” Desai said. “When I found it up and close to me, I was speechless.” Keep in mind, Desai stood at an altitude of 17,000 feet with temperatures -30°C, and less than 50% of the usual oxygen levels to get this shot.
Like us, he was also shocked to find the big cat looking back at him. “The picture depicts the Snow Leopard trying to get off the cliff,” he recalls, “but observing our presence, it decided to wait until it got really dark and it stayed there on the edge.”
More about snow leopards
Snow leopards are big long-haired Asian cats that reside in mountainous terrain. Their spotted coats are soft with an insulating undercoat and a thick outer-coat.  However, you may not want to pet these cats. They prey on wild sheep, ibex, marmots, and other creatures. But they don’t tend to attack people. In fact, even if they are disturbed while eating, they are more likely to run than defend their food. Despite being predators, they also eat plants like willow bark, especially during the winter months.
They tend to be shy and elusive loners who hunt mostly at night. Cubs leave their mothers to set out on their own at about two years of age. However, they communicate with other big cats by marking the landscape, including scraping the ground or urinating against rocks.
Snow leopards are extremely agile, able to jump from 6 to 15 meters through their air. They walk along the edges of cliffs and bluffs to scout the surrounding area. They reach these high heights by jumping instead of climbing.
A Vulnerable Species
Unfortunately, snow leopards joined other endangered species on the Red List of Threatened Species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) from 1986 to 2017. Then their status changed to “vulnerable” after experts discovered a population calculation error from the 2008 assessment. Today, about 2,500 to 10,000 remain in the wild. 
“To be considered ‘endangered,’ there must be fewer than 2,500 mature snow leopards and they must be experiencing a high rate of decline,” said Dr. Tom McCarthy, who runs the Snow Leopard Programme at big cat charity Panthera. “Both are now considered extremely unlikely, which is the good news, but it does not mean that snow leopards are ‘safe’ or that now is a time to celebrate. The species still faces ‘a high risk of extinction in the wild’, and is likely still declining — just not at the rate previously thought.” 
Despite the increased population, there are many factors causing the decline of these big cats. Herders and ranchers often kill them when they prey on their livestock. Poachers hunt them for their hides and bones. Additionally, their natural wild prey has lessened as herding and ranching have increased in their area. Therefore, conservation shouldn’t subside for the snow leopards.