I was in 7th grade when I attended Murree Christian School (MCS) in hills outside of Islamabad, Pakistan. It was a British boarding school, and the boy’s boarding facility was located a short drive away from the school itself. Every morning we would load up on a bus and head over to the school compound, to return back after school. The boarding facility was located on top of a large, steep hill surrounded by a forest. A lot of us kids would run out and explore the woods in our free time — we’d play capture the flag, make forts or find other ways to pass the time.

Murree in winter.| By Maha murtaza [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
One day, we were no longer allowed to play out in those woods. The adults said that a snow leopard had moved in, and the forest was no longer safe. I had seen pictures of snow leopards in my large, three-ring binder wildlife factbook, but beyond that I didn’t know much about them. Some of us would still sneak outside when we could and explore some more, but nothing ever came of it.

One morning, we loaded the bus with backpacks on our backs, chattering away as 7th grade boys do. I’m not sure what we were talking about, but I’m sure it had something to do with soccer teams (excuse me, football) or local school drama.

I remember the bus pulling to a stop at the base of the hill, just as it was beginning to accelerate. I looked forward, and there it was: a snow leopard crossing the street.

It moved gracefully across the pavement, looking with confidence and poise to either side as it kept keen aware of its surroundings. The creature had a grayish white fur with spots all over, and its tail was long and thick. It wasn’t skinny, like the cheetahs I had seen in pictures, rather, it was thick and seemed quite muscular (though it may have just been thick fur). Still, it wasn’t enormous like a lion or a tiger, but it still moved with that deadly, powerful elegance of a big cat.

And like that, it was gone into the trees.

I didn’t know how rare they were at the time; the World Wildlife Fund estimates 4,080-6,590 of them are left. But the brief sighting left an impression on me — that picture of absolute, quiet power has lingered in the back of my mind ever since. By now I have seen all manner of big cats in zoos, to include snow leopards, but seeing it in the wild like that on pure happenstance was quite something.

Check out this featurette of snow leopards in Pakistan: