AMAZING IMAGES OF SNOW LEOPARDS CAUGHT ON CAMERA IN INDIA.

The image above, and other superb photographs, are the fruits of a three-year camera-trap project conducted by prize-winning German photographer Sascha Fonseca in the high altitude Ladakh region of northern India. “The mystery surrounding snow leopards always fascinated me,” says Sascha. “They are some of the most difficult large cats to photograph in the wild.” He explains how following the animal in its freezing cold, high-altitude terrain is a daunting challenge for any photographer, but that camera traps can do the work for you. Even then, it’s hit and miss.

“Of course, I got a lot of photos of snow and other animals,” he says. “Camera trapping can be frustrating, but also rewarding. You never know what you’ll get.”

A wild snow leopard triggers a DSLR camera trap high up in mountains of Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas.
A wild snow leopard triggers a DSLR camera trap high up in mountains of Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas. © Sascha Fonseca / WWF-UK

How the cameras work

Camera traps (also known as sensor cameras) aren’t only for wildlife photographers – today they’re a standard tool for researchers and conservationists. There are two basic kinds. The first uses active infrared technology: a transmitter placed on one side of a trail sends out an invisible beam of infrared light to a receiver on the other side and when this is broken – say, by a snow leopard walking through it – the receiver electronically triggers one (or more) cameras to take a picture.

The other uses passive infrared: a single camera is linked to a detector that scans the surroundings for infrared energy emitted by warm-bodied animals. When the sensor detects both heat and movement, the camera takes a picture.

Sensor cameras can be set to record video or to capture multiple images just seconds apart, and they can store thousands of pictures on a single memory card. Crucially, they’re non-intrusive, so they don’t disturb the animals or affect their behaviour. This has opened up a whole new window for wildlife research. For elusive species such as the snow leopard, these cameras provide solid, verifiable evidence of animals that generally remain hidden from view, and record behaviour that no observer would otherwise witness.

A wild snow leopard triggers a DSLR camera trap high up in mountains of Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas.
A wild snow leopard triggers a DSLR camera trap high up in mountains of Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas. © Sascha Fonseca / WWF-UK

There are many other uses for sensor cameras. They can help reveal how wild animals and livestock interact with each other, and provide a dynamic new tool against poaching, sending images to park rangers over phone or satellite networks in near real time. The images and videos they produce also make them excellent tools for engaging with the public and inspiring communities who live alongside wildlife.

Spotting patterns

Researchers studying snow leopards first use traditional clues, such as tracks and droppings, to discover the cats’ habitual routes and resting places. They then set up their camera traps in places the felines are likely to visit. It may be weeks or even months before a snow leopard passes the same way again or before the scientist can return for the images, so the cameras need to be tough and able to withstand sub-zero temperatures. Each snow leopard has a unique pattern of spots. To identify an individual beyond doubt, you need to see the patterns on both sides of its body. In early research, two cameras were set up at each location in order to photograph the animal from both sides. Now, with passive infrared, a single camera can usually achieve this as the cat moves around. Scientists study the downloaded images carefully, matching the snow leopard’s pattern against a database of animals known from previous surveys.

The more images they have to work with, the better. Computer software can confirm an animal’s identity, and algorithms can estimate the number of snow leopards within the area surveyed. Armed with these tools, our knowledge of snow leopards and our ability to protect them are both increasing rapidly. Sascha Fonseca leaves the data-crunching to the scientists. He contributes to snow leopard conservation in his own unique way. “By sharing their beauty with the world, I hope to raise awareness of their existence and the importance of protecting their habitats,” he says. Anyone seeing his spectacular images must surely feel that same amazing inspiration.

A wild snow leopard triggers a DSLR camera trap high up in mountains of Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas.
A wild snow leopard triggers a DSLR camera trap high up in mountains of Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas. © Sascha Fonseca / WWF-UK