Snow leopards are so well adapted to their harsh mountainous habitat that even spotting them against a rocky backdrop can be almost impossible. But a hair-raising clip filmed recently in the Himalayas shows that even the best climbers make the occasional misstep. 


Photographer Mike Birkhead was among the group that witnessed this intense moment. At the time of posting, however, the details of the encounter remain hazy.

"No one had seen anything like it," Birkhead wrote on Facebook. "We watched [the leopard] for another 20 minutes as it walked across a snow face and then disappeared into a cave."

Based on Birkhead's account, it sounds as if the cat lived to see out its remaining eight lives – but the immensity of the fall had us wondering if that was really possible. We checked in with The Snow Leopard Conservancy to find out just how rare such mishaps might be, but like the "ghost cats" themselves, the answer to that question is difficult to pin down.  

"The snow leopard is an elusive species, very hard to find, very hard to film," says the team. "To our knowledge there are no recorded statistics about frequency of falls. However, logic would say that they probably do fall from time to time, given the ruggedness of the environment."

Here in the Himalayas, snow leopards are usually found between 3,000 and 5,400 metres above sea level. The rugged outcrops at this altitude provide good cover and a clear field of vision for the cats, but they are also notoriously difficult to navigate. Very few human inhabitants ever venture into this harsh habitat.  

Without knowing the exact location of the video, it's difficult to determine why the leopard was on this particular rock face or what caused the fall. And assessing any potential injuries is equally difficult without on-the-ground intel. That said, similar cases (albeit very few) have been documented.

"There have been other videos capturing falls when a snow leopard was pursuing a prey animal like a blue sheep, and both animals would walk away from the event apparently unscathed," says the conservancy. "But again, we would have no way of knowing the result of this particular fall."

Photographer Inger Vandyke was lucky enough to witness one of these predations back in 2015, when a male snow leopard stalked a group of grazing bharal. 

"When he finally decided he might catch one [of the sheep], he burst out of that spot to chase them," she told us at the time. "The speed at which he moved was unbelievable!"

Thanks to their short front limbs and longer hind ones, snow leopards can bound up to ten metres (30ft) in a single leap. And that long tail makes them master balancers, even at top speeds and over rough terrain. 

We've reached out to Birkhead for more information about his encounter – including whether or not the group had any secondary sightings during their expedition. We'll be updating you as the story unfolds, so watch this space.



Top header image: Mark Dumont/Flickr