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The Leopard and the Spotters: Snow Leopard Tales from the Himalayas

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Dr. Orton tracks the legend of the snow leopard in Himalayan folklore and its transformation from an inebriated antagonist into a welcome neighbour.

Snow leopards enjoy drinking blood to get drunk.

At least, so I was told for years on my fieldwork trips to the high-altitude desert of Spiti in the Indian Himalayas. Elusive, endangered and almost impossible to see in the wild, the snow leopard is the subject of many Himalayan legends, but these stories of snow leopards drinking blood to get drunk are among the most perplexing. Recently, narratives surrounding the snow leopard have been changing, and I made it my mission to track these tales of the apex predator from the world’s highest places.

On Blood

Over and over again, I would hear the same account of snow leopards: “Snow leopards enjoy drinking blood to get drunk…When a snow leopard hunts, he drinks the blood [of his prey] as humans drink alcohol.”

There is, in fact, a stuffed snow leopard in the forbidden prayer hall at Komic monastery: one of the monks there told me that the leopard got into the barn, killed the animals and started drinking the blood to become drunk.” I also heard the same description of the hunting technique of the snow leopard, with the addition: “Snow leopards hunt by hiding among the grass. When a snow leopard hunts, he presses his ribs in a line on one side behind one another.”

These accounts may befuddle wildlife biologists, who are not accustomed to this way of perceiving a snow leopard kill. Biologist friends of mine have speculated that perhaps these accounts stem from the fact that a snow leopard kill does involve a lot more blood when the animal preys upon domestic livestock and the leopard will not be able to eat a lot of meat.

This was borne out by my own conversations with residents, some of whom asserted that the snow leopards kills more when its prey is domestic; the perception is that they only drink the blood in this case. When its prey is a wild animal, it has to work harder; it has to kill just one animal and eat the meat.

The issue of snow leopards attacking domestic animals is a topical one. Snow leopards’ main prey are ibex and blue sheep, but due to habitat degradation that diminishes wild prey, snow leopards sometimes attack livestock. This led to clashes with local herders, who have previously killed the leopards to protect their income.

It’s not all bad news, though. Previous improvements in the journey from Spiti to Manali and the presence of conservation organisations like NCF have eroded the perception that snow leopards are a threat to livelihood. It is common now to speak to residents whose livestock has been predated, but who nevertheless are sympathetic to the aims of conservationists and understand that snow leopards need food.

As for the common theme of snow leopards getting drunk, this is reflected in a fable told to me by a monk in Pin Valley, in which a snow leopard is outwitted by a fox and a rabbit. They use the snow leopard’s intent on getting drunk to get the leopard killed by villagers and thus gain their freedom.

The Snow Leopard in Tibetan Buddhism

Spiti, like much of the Himalayas, is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, whose canon includes the songs of the saint and poet Milarepa, renowned for his ability to transform into a snow leopard. A film about Milarepa was shot in the stunning landscape of Spiti in 2006, and the local perception is that the Dalai Lama approved of the script.

In his Song of the Snow Ranges, Milarepa retreated to Lashi Snow Mountain, where communications are cut off for six months. His disciples, in the belief that he had died, went in search of his corpse. They saw a snow leopard in the distance, and believed that it had killed him, then noticed that there were human footprints beside the leopard’s tracks.

When they found Milarepa, he told them that he was the leopard: “To a yogi who has completely mastered his Prāna-Mind…the essence of the Four Elements is perfectly controlled. He can transform himself into whatever bodily form he chooses.”

Some of my interviewees in Spiti explained the transformation as being due to the fact that Milarepa has never harmed anyone, so every sentient being is close to him. This is a very different interpretation to that of some Buddhist scholars, according to whom the Milarepa transformation story represents the ‘taming’ of nature and of the mind.

The explanation given to me in Spiti for Milarepa’s transformative abilities, however, stressed his coexistence with nature and his compassion for living beings. I heard from one interviewee that Milarepa only ate nettles and became totally green, suggesting a reciprocal relationship between the poet-saint and his environment, rather than one of mastery.

Local explanations for the snow leopard transformation illustrate the dynamic exchange between Spiti and outside cultural influences. The Milarepa story has found its way into the region from the Tibetan Buddhist canon, but it coexists with distinct local portrayals of the snow leopard and the relationship that humans have with the natural world.

The Snow Leopard and the Spotters

To see a snow leopard in the wild is an elusive dream for many visitors, and simply hiking in the Himalayas is not enough to guarantee a sighting. This has given rise to the phenomenon of “spotters”, Spiti residents who go out to look for snow leopards in order to guide tourists’ experience. This in itself necessitates accurate knowledge of snow leopard ethology

Local tour organisers told me that they send out scanners to different locations to track snow leopards using techniques employed by field biologists. Spotters track individual snow leopards then call the prospective tourists in order to reduce tourist’s time in the snow. One technique is to identify a kill site and return to it.

This synthesis between the approach towards snow leopards of field biologists and locals has in this sense been brought about by Spiti’s increasing connectivity to the rest of the world. Whereas the snow leopard used to be the enemy, now it is a big source of income to local people.

Stories of snow leopards in Spiti cannot be pinned down in a fixed system; they must be chased through the dynamic web of Tibetan Buddhism, local folklore and ethological narratives. Conservation NGOs and the arrival of ecotourism in the area have changed perceptions of wildlife and Spiti’s portrait of the snow leopard will likely go on changing. While the local caricature of the intoxicated, blood-drinking snow leopard remains, this apex predator is now also seen as both an economic asset and a valuable part of Spiti’s natural heritage.

Find Out More

To find out more about the anthropology and folklore of the Himalayas, take a look at our Anthropology courses on Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, Himalayan Folklore and Religion of the Himalayas. Our interdisciplinary course on Culture and Conservation will give you an insight into the link between wildlife and anthropology. You can also learn more about Dr. Orton’s work in the Himalayas on our Research page or in her blog post Of Mountains, Wishes and Hidden Places.

Our courses are templates of possible routes of study and can be combined, adapted, or designed from scratch to suit your interests and goals. Dr. Orton will work with you to design a course of private tutorials tailored to your needs, ability and schedule – whether you are undertaking your own research for an independent project, writing a book or simply have a personal interest. Click the link to find out what it’s like to work with her!

Finally, if you are interested in undertaking your own fieldwork, take a look at our Research page. Contact us to find out more!

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