An Indian photographer whose mind-boggling photos of camouflaged snow leopards became a viral sensation has shared a quiz, the all-important answers, and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life as a wildlife photographer.
Ismail Shariff, 41, from Hyderabad in southeastern India, has been clicking pictures of sunsets, sunrises, and wildlife since 2005. Snow leopards became his favorite subject when a world-famous image of the wild cat by photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee ignited his imagination, seven years later.
Garnering inspiration to shoot an image of the snow leopard himself, Shariff spent two years preparing equipment. His first-ever snow leopard sighting occurred in Hemis National Park, Ladakh, in 2014.
In spring 2021, four of Shariff’s most amazing photos of snow leopards—camouflaged in the mountains perfectly against the rugged, rocky landscape—were shared on Instagram, inviting readers to “spot the snow leopard.” Eight leopards across the four images are near-impossible to find, camouflaged perfectly against the rugged, rocky landscape.
Can you find all eight of them?
“They are the master camouflage artists of the mountains; they may be right in front of you, and you will not be able to see them,” Shariff explained to The Epoch Times. “That is why you need a very trained eye, a very experienced eye to actually go see them in the wild, which is what I do and what I have come to be known for.”
In the first of Shariff’s four images, all taken between 2018 and 2019 in the Spiti region of India’s Himachal Pradesh, a male snow leopard is stalking an ibex.
“One of [my crew members] spotted the snow leopard sitting,” Shariff recalled. “But it was so far away, and so amazingly camouflaged, that it took us quite a long time to even see where it was.
“It did its whole ritual of what it does before hunting,” he continued. “It gauges the wind and then goes downhill, tries to come around from below so that his smell is not noticed by the prey, goes for the hunt, but misses; this whole saga was like a drama Bollywood saga, it took about three and a half hours.”
In the second image, Shariff snapped a pair of leopards that had been mating over a five-day period. Cubs in tow, Shariff believes that the cubs must have been the male leopard’s own from a previous litter; otherwise, typically, a male would kill cubs in order to mate with their mother.
According to Shariff, this photo also represents the first known documentation of a leopard mating sequence in Spiti.
His third photo meanwhile depicts a mother and her cub.
The last image, of a lone male snow leopard preparing to hunt, was taken with a “spot the snow leopard” challenge in mind.
Shariff uses a Canon camera with a 600mm lens to obtain his incredible, long-distance shots. A “Canon loyalist,” he nonetheless claims any camera with inbuilt image stabilization, and a tripod, will help minimize the shaking caused by the wind and blizzards of the Spiti region.
A computer science engineer by trade, Shariff bought his first camera while studying and traveling in Europe in 2005 to show his friends what they were missing.
Shariff’s work has received rave reviews from around the world. He prints photos from his home in Hyderabad and has sold them to customers in every continent except Africa and Antarctica.
He has also commercially printed for over 42 exhibitions for other photographers, and one of his clients’ artwork is on permanent display in the UK and New York. Additionally, he has led wildcat photography expeditions in India, Mongolia, and Kyrgyzstan.
Tourists have typically avoided India’s Spiti region, said Shariff, put off by the cold weather and snowfall. Yet disseminating his photos has “triggered a whole era of snow leopard photography.” Shariff can also lay claim to the only photographic record of a snow leopard eating a golden eagle, a phenomenon he calls “a natural history moment.”
“It’s a very, very unique thing because the golden eagle is like the star predator of the avian force out there,” he explained. “The leopard is, of course, the top predator of the mountain, so when I saw it I was blown away.”
Shariff works often with Snow Leopard Trust, a Seattle-based nonprofit and leading authority on the species, and High Asia Habitat Fund, a group that helps segregate habitats by building fencing for cattle that live within the snow leopards’ hunting territory. Shariff encourages all budding wildlife tourists to ensure their own trips are wildlife-friendly and sustainable.
“You should go into the wild and see the natural behaviors of the beings that are among us,” he implored. “But whoever you’re going with, try to see if they give back to the environment as well.”
“That way, you’re not just going for your own pleasure or for your own knowledge, but you’re also becoming part of the chain of a whole line of conservation activities … always maintain your ethics.”