Updated: Mar 22
In 1987, I trekked from Gyantse over the high Tibetan plateau down to the Chumbi valley in the Yadong County, in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The valley is strategically important as it is situated on a small south-pointing protuberance of territory between Bhutan (east) and Sikkim state, India (west). Formed by the passage of the Amo (Torsa) River, which rises below Tang Pass and flows south into Bhutan, the valley has an average elevation of 9,500 feet (2,900 metres).
The valley supports Eastern Himalayan broadleaf cloud forests and transitions to the Eastern Himalayan alpine shrub and meadows in the north.
For a few nights, I camped out in the cloud forest. On my last morning, I found myself following a fresh trail that climbed up through the forest. I could see that an animal had been there not long before me. Blades of grass and flowers had been flattened recently. The ground was hard, so there were no prints, but at one point, the animal had jumped over an old log as it climbed up towards the top of the hill.
Claw marks were visible on the log, with a span as big as my hand. At the time, I assumed it had been a snow leopard, a reclusive mountain dwelling big cat. The claws were clearly very sharp, which made me think that the marks had been made by a cat, rather than a bear.
I lost the trail and eventually made my way back to Lhasa. That journey, as they say, is another story.
In 2010, I watched 'Lost Land of the Tiger', a three-part nature documentary series produced by the BBC Natural History Unit which followed a scientific expedition to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Their expedition had caught images of tigers and leopards on camera traps. The expedition was notable for claiming to obtain the first footage of tigers living at 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) in the high Himalayas.
I also discovered that the front paw size generally varies from 15 to 17.5 cm. (almost square), which is close to the size of my hand.
I now wonder if I had been tracking a tiger or leopard. Or had it been tracking me? The trail was very close to where I had spent the night. If there tigers in Bhutan, it would make sense to
think that they could also be found in the neighbouring Chumbi valley.