Nature "Silent Roar: Searching for the Snow Leopard" on WXXI-TV

Nature "Silent Roar: Searching for the Snow Leopard" on WXXI-TV

Sun, 08/08/2010 - 8:00pm
Living high in the Himalayas, the snow leopard is the most elusive of all the big cats.

Credit: Mitchell Kelly

Telling the story of this most elusive creature is one of the last great challenges in wildlife filmmaking.

How does one film an intimate study of a highly camouflaged animal that lives more than 15,000 feet above sea level, on the steep, rugged slopes of the Himalayas? 
 
The question itself explains why the feat wa accomplished only recently. NATURE presents the encore broadcast of “Silent Roar: Searching for the Snow Leopard, the first documentary to capture behavioral details, including mating and hunting, of the ghostly, exquisitely beautiful big cat of the Himalayas. The program airs Sunday, August 8 at 8 p.m.  on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 11/cable 1011).
 
The project required more than four years of perilous work by acclaimed natural history filmmakers Hugh Miles and Mitchell Kelly, and came very close to claiming Kelly’s life. Miles narrates the film.
 
“Their achievement is a milestone,” says Fred Kaufman, executive producer of NATURE. “Putting themselves at risk in a hostile environment for such a prolonged period, as mountain climbers as much as filmmakers, they have vastly expanded our knowledge of an animal so rare and elusive that it’s almost mythical in status.”
 
Many of the planet’s big cats do their best to remain hidden from human eyes. But none isuite as advantaged in this as the snow leopard, by virtue of its habitat. Leading largely solitary lives, snow leopards populate the mountains of Central Asia in small numbers, at altitudes that provide only about half the oxygen to which humans are accustomed. 
 
As Miles comments, “In finding snow leopards, it would help a lot to think like one, but even more so to breathe like one.”
 
A snow leopard’s coat is superb camouflage for stealthy hunting. It’s thick, muscular body and short, powerful legs are balanced by a long, thick tail, which helps it maintain balance during swift turns on steep slopes. Although it has no natural enemies, the snow leopard lives a life of extreme harshness because the climate is brutally cold for much of the year, food is scarce and wolves are formidable competitors. 
 
For their search, the filmmakers choose Hemis National Park in the Ladakh division of the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The reason: the villagers and livestock farmers who live at lower altitudes occasionally see snow leopards and sometimes even lose an animal to one of the cats. Because most of the population there is Buddhist and reveres all life, the loss to the predator is tolerated, despite the poverty of the farmers.
 
Miles and Kelly select a small team of native mountaineers and trackers who are knowledgeable about their quarry, and establish a base camp. They will climb as high as 15,000 feet, keep a close eye on the wild mountain sheep that are the snow leopard’s basic food source, watch for and record the scented urine that each cat uses to mark its territory and — perhaps the most critical step of all — place and conceal remote cameras with sensor beams to activate them and infrared light to illuminate night filming, if and when a snow leopard comes by.
 
Success comes slowly. In the first five weeks, there are no sightings at all, directly or by remote camera. But the team takes heart when finally a cat is spotted on a mountain ledge from a great distance. It’s a small victory, but one that reaffirms the purpose and value of the mission.
 
As the months progress through seasons, and the seasons become years, the filmmakers doggedly compile a growing body of film. In one remarkable stroke of good fortune, a male snow leopard approaches a remote camera and sticks his face smack into it, then paws it a few times before swaggering away. Eventually, the crew has close-ups of several cats and can identify individuals and, to some extent, follow their movements.
 
Miles and Kelly gradually learn to better anticipate their quarry’s behavior. In a bold stroke, Kelly suggests they follow the snow leopards’ example and scent their remote cameras, in the hope the cats will become accustomed to human presence. It’s a gamble because the action might produce the opposite result, making the snow leopards more guarded and wary. But Kelly’s hunch proves correct.
 
To further improve their understanding of the snow leopards’ complex behavior, the filmmakers turn to Rodney Jackson, director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy. His insights help them to succeed in filming snow leopards hunting, courting and even mating, none of which has been captured on film before. 
 
As they remain at very high altitudes to search for more snow leopards, the risk of altitude sickness increases. From time to time, Kelly experiences severe headaches. Eventually, his symptoms worsen. He becomes disoriented and twice loses consciousness. In danger of dying, Kelly is borne down the mountainside on a yak, given oxygen and transported to a hospital as quickly as possible. Fortunately, he recovers, although physically impaired by the ordeal and unable to work ever again at high altitude.
 
In the end, the filmmakers accomplished most of their goals, with only one significant disappointment: they did not find a litter of cubs. At one point, they do spot a female followed by a fluffy little youngster. But mother and child quickly vanish like ghosts into the snowy realm in which the snow leopard clearly reigns.  
This program is offered with Descriptive Video (DVi), which provides concise descriptions of the sets, scenery, costumes, action, and other important visual elements between the dialogue of the program.
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