Documentary about the mountain snow leopards of Pakistan. Two years in the making, it contains the most detailed footage ever to be taken of this elusive cat.
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High in the mountains of Pakistan
lives a cat so elusive that it's rarely been filmed.
when the BBC Planet Earth series
showed the world the first images of a wild snow leopard hunting.
For the men who filmed this shot,
it marked the beginning of a love affair with the snow leopard.
I just looked straight into her eyes and she just caught mine,
and I think that was love at first sight.
Driven by this new-found passion,
the two men returned, determined to
get to know this almost mythical beast,
this icon of the wilderness.
What they discovered went far deeper than they had ever expected,
to the very heart of the cat's battle for survival.
The leopard jumped out, she fell
down and fainted and the leopard took off.
He's saying that if the leopard comes back,
I'll just have to shoot it.
This is the first film to go beyond the myth
and tell the snow leopard's real story.
Unlike most people who go in search of endangered animals,
Nisar Malik is not a biologist or a wildlife cameraman.
Nisar is a journalist and he's gained an intimate knowledge
of these mountains and their people
by working here for 20 years with foreign news crews.
Most of the news stories I was
covering related to Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan,
the children of war, the front line
between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance,
and a lot of the opium and heroin trade that was taking place then.
Nisar is now returning to Northern Pakistan
for one of the biggest challenges of his life -
to build on the tantalising snow
leopard material he helped capture for Planet Earth.
This quest has brought him to the mountains of Chitral,
part of the giant Himalayan range that stretches all the way to China.
No-one knows how many snow leopards remain here,
the cats are so rare, and the terrain so challenging
that many fear they will
become extinct before anyone finds a way to count them.
In winter, Chitral is cut off from the rest of the world
by heavy snowfalls and rarely visited by outsiders.
Accompanying Nisar is expert cameraman Mark Smith.
Together they plan to spend at least a year in pursuit of their dream,
which means spending Christmas away from home.
I guess snow leopards is about the only thing that'd make you come out,
the thought that maybe just up there
there is still a snow leopard and you might just film it.
It's the biggest draw you could possibly ever want.
Christmas morning, and Nisar prepares an unconventional meal.
And rather than just sitting around looking at the snow,
I thought have a big pumping breakfast today.
Has that got testicles in it?
It's got a heart, liver and kidneys.
I'm slightly hungover so that's not probably the most exciting thing.
-Do you want beans?
So little is known about these isolated valleys
that the team's best chance of sighting a leopard
is simply to cover as much ground as possible.
Fresh snowfall covers all animal prints, making tracking difficult,
but it does transform the valley into a fairy-tale landscape.
As soon as it starts snowing,
as soon as it starts looking like this,
it just becomes a completely magical place.
What the team does discover is a haven for wildlife.
Markhor are extremely rare mountain goats, but they seem abundant here.
This is an encouraging sign as markhor are prime leopard prey.
After weeks of searching, there's no sign of the elusive cat,
and as the snow get heavier, animals start to move to the lower slopes.
The animals are struggling.
We can't get around much.
I think it's time to beat a retreat, get out of here.
They need to find a place where a leopard will come to them,
but guessing the best location
for a stake-out is almost as hard as finding a leopard.
Nisar's newsgathering skills will be needed.
His local contacts may provide a lead.
The story is if you tell the snow
leopard that you are king of the jungle,
it takes a step back and lets you go through.
As usual, plenty of stories but nothing helpful.
Finally they get a tip-off -
a snow leopard has been seen coming close to a nearby village.
I just hope it's there when we get there. How fast can this car go?
Having spent weeks searching Pakistan's wildest frontiers,
could the team really succeed in a place so accessible to humans?
For once, there is truth in the rumours.
Let me see.
The snow leopard is not only here, but out in full view.
It's just the most fabulous, fabulous feeling ever.
Right in front of us
is one of the most elusive creatures in the world,
looking straight at us.
Oh, here we go. Hello.
For years, scientists and film-makers
have tried to get close to the snow leopard and failed.
But now here was a snow leopard venturing into our world,
no longer the stuff of myth and legend
but a living, breathing animal.
Day after day, Mark is able to film this consummate mountaineer,
a creature utterly at home on these perilous slopes.
Her markings provide superb camouflage,
whilst her giant paws and immense tail lend balance
to some very precarious manoeuvres.
A wild snow leopard relaxed in the
presence of humans is completely unheard of.
Why should an animal accustomed to roaming hundreds of miles
keep returning to the same spot?
Before Mark and Nisar can find the answer, she disappears.
A few days later,
Nisar gets worrying news from the local village.
We've just got reports that a sheep
herder out here had about 18 of his sheep and goat attacked
by, apparently, an old leopard
and we're just going up
to have a chat with him and see if there's any truth to the matter.
Perhaps the chance of an easy meal
had lured the female leopard into the heart of the settlement.
He's saying when you get wounds like this, only the leopard does that.
It's got very sharp incisions.
But I'm still surprised it's so close to the population.
I thought it must have been while they were grazing on the mountains.
The herdsmen of Chitral survive on the margins, especially in winter,
and can't afford to lose their livestock for any reason.
But predators also have an urgent need to feed,
and they make no distinction between wild and domestic prey.
As animals descend to escape the snows,
these conflicts become heightened.
As with many remote places,
the notion that isolation has led to a perfectly preserved wilderness
is simply untrue.
The population is expanding,
and the boundaries between wild and
cultivated areas have become blurred,
increasing the potential for conflict.
When the female reappears, it
becomes clear that the proximity of livestock
is not the real reason she's here.
So I was concentrating on getting shots of the snow leopard,
and Nisar was stood by my side and he went,
"There's another one." And I was saying, "Shut up, it's not."
And he said, "There's another snow leopard."
And he'd seen this snow leopard moving inside the cave.
And then suddenly from that hole pops out this face,
you could see it was a juvenile -
it just had this lost look about it -
and I was in fits.
I was jumping up and down and Mark was going,
"Oh, my God! Let me frame her."
The next time Mark and Nisar find them,
the young male cub has grown in confidence
and is venturing further from the cave.
He seems to have taken a dislike to the local magpies.
He was learning. Everything he was doing, he was mimicking the mother.
She doesn't like magpies either,
but he was looking at them as playful things.
She probably considers them a nuisance.
There is play-time...
..and then there are times
when a young snow leopard needs to pay proper attention.
Whenever she went hunting, there was
this amazing communication between them
where she'd take a few steps, he'd start following...
And then she'd just turn around and
look at him and he'd just look at her
and then just slink away and go back and sit in the cave.
Obviously there was a training goes on which was not hands-on.
It was look, but don't come near me.
A one-year-old cub needs as much food as its mother.
With two mouths to feed, the female is under pressure to kill regularly.
News of an even more brazen attack
on local livestock is of great concern to Nisar.
This is the lady, when she came in, she pushed the door open
and the minute she did that, the leopard jumped out,
pushed her back, she fell down and fainted and the leopard took off.
This one's actually been eaten from
the back, it's pretty gory right now.
Nisar knows a killing spree
so close to where the mother is hunting is dangerous.
She'll be blamed even if she's not the culprit.
I've asked him, if he goes up again
with his livestock and the leopard comes back, what is he going to do?
He's saying, "I'll just have to shoot it."
With so much at stake,
it's a relief when Mark gets concrete evidence
the mother CAN provide for her cub from the wild population of markhor.
Her prey weighs as much as she does,
and dragging it up a slope as steep as this must take enormous effort.
It's imperative she gets the carcass back to her den
so that her cub can feed undisturbed by scavengers.
But a single markhor won't feed the pair for long.
Within a couple of days, she'll need to hunt again.
Over the next few weeks,
Mark and Nisar spend long periods with the mother and cub
and start to build a detailed visual record of snow leopard family life.
By capturing the pair on film,
Mark and Nisar have started to bring the snow leopard
from the realm of myth into the land of the living.
Just as the crew are starting to realise
how challenging it is for a leopard to survive in this terrain,
filming is cut short by a catastrophe,
one that shows how precarious all life is in these mountains.
I was actually starting
to enjoy being here with the crew and seeing the leopard
when Pakistan had one of its largest earthquakes ever in the mountains.
Close to 100,000 people died in that.
The suffering and the kind of horror was beyond belief.
We lost a whole generation of children.
Approximately 40,000 kids died
because this earthquake struck in
the morning and schools had just started.
I've got children and I've seen
children being pulled out of rubble like that and it was horrific.
But it had to be responded to and people like myself,
or anyone who had any expertise, had to respond to that calamity.
With his unrivalled knowledge of these remote regions,
Nisar is ideally qualified to lead a team of mountain survival experts
and deliver aid directly to those most in need.
Every winter is hard for mountain people, but the earthquake
had deprived them of even the basic amenities they needed to survive.
Filming the snow leopard had been a high point of my life.
Responding to people in need,
and they are my people, how could you ignore that?
Six months later, and the
humanitarian disaster has finally begun to ease.
The team returns,
hoping to catch up with their snow leopards before the cub is weaned.
But it's now summer,
and the chances of finding them at this time of year are not good.
In winter, we've established that it has a certain pattern,
and you can sort of follow that,
following the herds of goat and stuff like that,
-but I think summer is anyone's guess.
-It's pretty unknown. It is...
As wildlife shoots go, there's very little known about it.
With scorching temperatures in the valleys,
most animals head back up the slopes
in search of cooler weather and greener pastures.
What might be an easy journey for the wildlife
requires a major expedition for Mark and Nisar,
who will need a much larger team to support them over the trip ahead.
We'll cross that pasture, go over and then go straight down.
And then we go behind these peaks. See that bowlish-looking thing?
That dark patch way back there,
that's the final camp.
And if you went for a two-day walk from there, you're in Afghanistan.
You can almost sense why the snow leopard would be there.
It's got to be really isolated.
No film crew had ventured here before.
One of the main reasons why
documentary makers haven't come out and filmed the snow leopard
is because Pakistan has an image abroad,
it's been exploited for all the wrong reasons.
This is supposed to be the easy part.
We're 40 kilometres from the Afghan border. Al Qaeda has been there.
The Taliban have been there. I've done stories on those things.
But there is so much more we have to offer the world,
and no-one's taking the trouble to find out about that.
We're 150 million people out here, and we're not terrorists.
We have some of the most hospitable people out here.
We have amazing natural history,
and this is a great opportunity to
use the snow leopard as an ambassador
to show that there is so much more that we have to offer.
A week into their journey and the terrain was taking its toll.
It humbled us. It was gruelling. It was really difficult.
Everything is so steep, there's no paths, there's rock falls,
there's mud-slides, it was really dangerous.
The team are heading for a high altitude meadow,
rumoured to be full of marmots, ideal leopard prey.
Nisar establishes a base camp some distance away,
so as not to disturb the wildlife.
They're optimistic that a place with such easy pickings
will be a magnet for predators of all kinds.
That sounds like a good marmot field up there.
If there's a concentration of food,
-you're gonna get something coming in, so let's try that.
The magnitude of the task ahead is felt by all.
I'm like a worried mother.
My son's leaving home.
Up here, animals are not used to seeing humans.
Mark will have to conceal himself by building a hide.
Now all he can do is wait.
As the weeks pass, it becomes
clear that these meadows are not populated by thousands of marmots.
In fact, only a handful live here.
And even those don't do much.
-There's a marmot on a rock in front of me.
It's been there half an hour
and in that time, it's moved its head twice and its leg once.
You have to go through so much just to get close to them
because they're very nervous.
They're like the insurance salesman of the animal world -
they don't do anything without checking everything out first.
With the rumours
of a leopard nirvana appearing greatly exaggerated,
Nisar hunts for any clue he can find.
It's not even a needle
in a haystack because we don't even know if there is a needle.
The haystack's big.
Two weeks on and it's clear there are no snow leopards in the area.
Mark's frustration at only having marmots to film
is finally beginning to show.
I hate the marmots.
They're just lazy layabouts that sit around all day in the sun
and occasionally stand up and alarm loudly...
-RAPID, SHRILL CHIRPING
-..usually at my hide,
which as far as I can see is perfectly all right,
but they don't seem to think so.
The alarm call is so piercing,
it physically hurts your ears and when they get really fed up
they run down their burrows and they alarm in their burrows,
so hopefully they'll be deafening themselves down in the burrows.
With nothing to focus snow leopard activity,
the difficulty of even seeing one becomes all too apparent.
Now you can see why it is so impossible to see this animal.
Where do you begin?
Where do you begin?
I'd love people to see this image of Pakistan.
It's not made up. It's real.
Sadly, very few people spend their time trying to project this.
Their eight week slog comes to an end and proves fruitless.
But Nisar remains philosophical.
We had to go out and see for ourselves,
because we just had stories and rumours,
and if we'd just ignored them, you
never know what we would have missed.
So we had to go out and see and,
in a way, it was essential to put the story together,
to piece everything together.
It's not necessary that you will see her in that habitat in summer,
but the fact is you have to try so
that you have a better understanding.
With the onset of winter, heavy snows threaten.
Mark and Nisar return, desperate to catch up with their female leopard.
The signs are good. Markhor have begun their retreat into the valleys
and the team think the leopard will follow.
Reports of an increase in leopard sightings
have also brought a team of scientists to Chitral.
By laying traps higher up at the head of the valley,
they hope to catch and collar a snow leopard as it begins its descent.
But Mark and Nisar's instinct is to target the lower slopes.
It's been a year since they saw the female
and, now that her cub is independent,
she is no longer be tied to one area and is free to follow her prey.
Once more, the markhor are entering
a busy period in their social calendar,
one that will make them far more vulnerable to attack.
It's the start of the mating season.
Competition between males is fierce.
With the biggest males preoccupied,
the younger males might have a chance to sneak off with a female.
All in all, the markhor are thoroughly distracted.
It's a great opportunity for their snow leopard.
Surely she will come.
Well, I dunno, this time of the afternoon,
the markhor should be just starting to come down, to the river...
Quick, quick, get the legs and the bag.
Where is she?
Up there on that rock.
-Just sitting up there.
Ah, she's got a collar on.
She's been tagged.
As the snow leopard study was far from the filming site,
Mark and Nisar had not considered the possibility
that THEIR cat would be the first to be captured.
You can see the leopard just up there
and she's just gone into hunting mode
and it's blatantly obvious - she's just started to move now -
blatantly obvious, you can see the collar as she moves.
I don't know how she's gonna catch anything because that's SO obvious.
This could be Mark's chance to film a hunt,
but would the collar handicap a predator that relies on camouflage?
Well, the leopard has seen a small group of markhor below her
and she's trying to work out the best way to get to them.
It's exactly where we filmed her before.
This is the point where she either blows it, which she usually does,
or she actually makes the kill.
Is this amazing or what?
Yeah, it's incredible.
What I really need is for you to
tell me how close the markhor are to her.
They're about 50 metres or less.
-The markhor is coming running here.
About to go. She's moving.
She's moving, getting ready.
There's about 25 metres, 20 metres.
-Four or five of the markhor coming the same way.
Not more than 15 metres. Coming closer...
Now that one's right below her.
Now she's five metres, not more.
Here she comes. She's coming up the rise.
She's three or four metres from her, here we go.
Oh, God, damn you.
-She blew it.
-She blew it.
-She seemed really slow.
-She's off again.
-The markhor haven't really gone very far.
But is there still one there?
She's looking at something.
There's a markhor down between the trees.
This time she's got a better perch.
Here she goes.
Oh, this is deja-vu, my friend.
Another markhor has gone in the water.
What is going on? This is mad.
Collaring a wild snow leopard is a remarkable breakthrough for science,
but it leaves Nisar with mixed feelings.
Doesn't make me feel good.
Not a good feeling.
I'm ecstatic to see her, but I'm sad to see her this way.
News of the first sighting since her capture
brings the head scientist Tom McCarthy down to the filming site.
He needs to gather information for his study first-hand.
Big tree, above that there's that rock.
The first time we saw her with her collar,
she was just sitting there, beautiful backdrop.
His visit is a chance for Nisar to
understand why Tom is using such an intrusive method to study his cat.
So this study will give us an
unprecedented amount of information on snow leopards.
We try to get a better idea about some of the basic questions
like how big is their home range,
how do they react when people enter their habitat,
how do they relate to livestock in their habitats?
The only way to really answer these questions is to use telemetry.
Tom hopes that, over the next year,
data will be uploaded from the collar to orbiting satellites
so that he can track the cat's movements remotely.
So limited is our knowledge of snow leopards
that any data from the collar will be invaluable.
When I see her now with a collar on,
I see a wild snow leopard doing what a wild snow leopard does
but sharing that information with us
so that we can do a better job of conserving wild snow leopards.
Only recent developments in satellite technology
have made this study possible
but, like many pioneering projects, things don't go exactly to plan.
News arrives that Nisar's leopard has been accidentally recaptured.
A dart containing anaesthetic
will be needed to remove her from the snare with the minimum of harm.
It was a real shock to see her struggling like this.
Even though it was for science, part of me just wanted to set her free.
At close quarters, her presence is bewitching.
One of the most amazing parts of the trapping
was the reaction of the locals towards her.
You could see them gently brushing the snow off her fur, patting her.
The surprise capture is a chance for the locals to see her up close,
and for researchers to change her collar for one with a fresh battery.
The cuts are cleaned with
antiseptic swabs to lessen the chance of infection,
and she's kept warm when at her most vulnerable.
Every remaining snow leopard is precious.
Here was this mystical creature, a legend,
surrounded by humans who were trying to pin her down and shackle her
and yet there's a magic that this beast gives off.
It was strange to see humans trying to tame nature,
trying to tame this animal.
After she had been asleep in the cage for eight hours,
the researchers were confident the tranquilliser had worn off.
She seemed to have made a full recovery,
but the recapture had sown fresh doubts in Nisar's mind.
Tom, are you afraid of the risks that are involved,
does it justify it?
If I didn't feel that it justified what we're doing, I wouldn't do it.
You've become emotionally attached to this animal.
As a biologist, I know very few
people in my position that aren't very emotional
about the animals that we have spent our lives trying to protect.
For me to go out there and put a collar on a cat
is probably as rough on me as it is that cat.
I don't do it lightly. I think of nothing but her safety.
I know that, yes, she's sacrificing a little bit
and she's wearing an ugly radio-collar
and she's gonna carry it for a year, maybe two or three years,
but she's doing this for the betterment of the species,
for the betterment of snow leopards in Pakistan and across the range,
and I know that if we do this,
we have a much better chance of saving all of these cats.
But the project will only be a success
if the female behaves naturally, unhampered by the collar.
If not, the data will be worthless.
A few days later, Mark begins to recognise behaviours in her
that he had seen prior to the collaring.
At about 2.30pm, she went off to a cliff and waited there.
There was no markhor around at all,
and then suddenly you could start to see a few boulders rolling down,
and this one markhor was coming down the cliff.
And she heard the boulders and she moved around this cliff and took up
this position slightly higher up
and the markhor went down away from her and down towards this gulley.
And as she came down this scree slope, she did this rolling thing,
she'll roll right over on her back like a domestic cat.
When she does this rolling, you know that she's into a serious hunt.
Maybe it's to mask the scent or change the colour.
So she went further down and she got to this point,
and she was looking down at the markhor,
and the markhor just went over the lip of the gulley
and she charged down the hill, a really long run.
She got to this bush and hid in this bush.
I was following her down and I got to this point
and because it's a black and white viewfinder on the camera,
I couldn't really see what was going on.
In fact, the markhor was right in the middle of the frame.
And I couldn't see it at all and so I was like,
"Where's she gone?"
And at that moment, she came
charging out of the bush and took him out, jumped right on top of
him and they disappeared down to the bottom of this gully.
She had made a successful kill. So, even with this white collar on,
she was obviously still able
to survive, so that was quite a relief to see she could do that.
For the longest time I was really upset,
I just couldn't see the justification of all of this.
But having seen her hunt with a collar on, it's like she's happy.
She seems OK, and it almost seems worthwhile.
The successful hunt is a turning point for Mark and Nisar.
It becomes clear their photographic record
will be more important than they had ever imagined.
The researchers will be able to use these images
alongside the data from the collar.
They are far more informative together than either is alone.
Using this combination of science and film,
we're finally starting to understand this most enigmatic of creatures.
A window on the life of the snow leopard has finally been opened.
Over the next few weeks, another benefit of the collar becomes clear.
In the past, the team had to rely on instinct or rumours
to find the leopard.
Now they can use hard data from the collar.
For the first time, the team can actually follow her.
The information from the researchers leads them back to the local village
where Mark films her sleeping next to a fresh kill.
But the camera reveals her prey to be a wild markhor, not a goat.
What is learnt from studying snow leopards now
may help to save them in the future.
But Nisar knows his leopard faces an immediate risk from local villagers.
He decides to visit the herdsman whose goats were killed last winter.
People like this need the support,
they need to understand that there is a bigger picture.
These people exist day to day. They have nothing.
As a Pakistani, I can empathise with them, I can see their dilemma.
You have to take these people into the fold
if the snow leopard and the rest of these animals are to survive here.
By showing the villagers images and explaining the scientific study,
Nisar hopes to make people aware of the value of their feline neighbour.
He says, "Actually, this is my enemy." Then he looked at it again
and he said, "Well, no, actually, that's my friend now."
This is their heritage,
it's their natural world, it's their natural wildlife out here.
If they're not involved, nothing will work.
We must give ownership of their heritage back to these people.
By filming such remarkable images,
Mark and Nisar have begun to lift the veil
from this almost mythical creature.
They set out to tell the story of an individual snow leopard,
but, in the event, achieved far more than that.
The first snow leopard collaring project in 20 years
has come here and collared OUR snow leopard.
The issues involved in that are far more interesting
than just trying to take a pretty picture of a snow leopard.
We're all now involved in a much
more profound kind of understanding of the conservation issues.
If you want to create awareness, if you want these people to feel that
they belong and the animal belongs to them, they must share in that.
So, whether you show it to them in
the form of a photograph or whatever,
it's essential that that be shared with them.
My wish and hope is that they see
the snow leopard for real rather than on a mobile phone.
That's what all the work should translate into.
That should be something that they look forward to in their future,
not just this image, but the real thing.
I'm aware of the fact that our snow leopard will be used and exploited -
for science, or tourism, or to promote Pakistan's image,
but if I'm honest with you,
for me, personally, she's touched me on a much deeper personal level.
That's something that demands that
I come back and look after her the way she's looked after me.
Northern Pakistan is the setting for this heartwarming tale of one man's quest to find and film the snow leopard. In 2004, a team from the Planet Earth series came to these remote mountains near the Afghan border and filmed the first ever intimate images of a wild snow leopard. For Nisar Malik, the Pakistani journalist who led the expedition, this shoot marked a turning point in his life: the images were not enough, he felt compelled to return and really get to know this creature of legend. Together with cameraman Mark Smith, he spent two years documenting the snow leopard's daily life, finally lifting the veil on the most elusive of all cats.