Fighting for survival in higher plains
Palaearctic mammals in the higher ranges of Himachal Pradesh, whose plight is a precarious one, need our serious attention and action. Overgrazing and the widespread presence of non-native predators, continue to be persistent threats against their survival.
As the SUV rolled beyond the chorten atop the Kunzum La (pass), the picturesque winding gorge of the mighty Chandra River unfolded. I was travelling from Spiti to Lahaul Valley across the Kunzum La, over vast expanses of nothingness, characterised by the bleak rugged mountains and their sparsely vegetated scree slopes. The stunning landscape inevitably hints at its native wild denizens. Who else, other than the Palaearctic mammals, are built to inhabit the toughest of terrains, amidst such climatic extremes?
My companion, Lobzang, and I were surveying the high altitude areas of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, to understand the occurrences of the endangered Snow leopard (Panthera uncia), Bharal or Blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) and Asiatic ibex (Capra sibirica). The Snow leopard, a secretive and fascinating big cat, is the apex predator and an important ecological and socio-cultural symbol of the Central and South Asian mountain system. Bharal and Ibex are its primary prey throughout the Himalayas.
Lahaul offers an extensive system of lush alpine pastures. I expected to come across good numbers of Bharal and Ibex, and also smaller mammals like Himalayan Marmot (Marmota himalayana), Pika (Ochotona spp.), and Himalayan Woolly hare (Lepus oiostolus). These are further expected to support the ghost of the snow world; the elusive Snow leopard. The same pastures, however, also attract hundreds of herders with thousands of domestic sheep and goat every summer from June to August. These herders are called Gaddis, and they hail from neighbouring Chamba and Kangra districts of Himachal.
We had camped about 1 km below the famous Chandra Tal, a high-altitude wetland, and a conservation site of international significance. At daybreak, we started our trek to explore the inner areas of the Upper Chandra Valley. Soon after leaving our camp, we were awestruck by the divine milieu of the captivating Chandra Tal; the serene crystal-blue water which reflected the surrounding mountains just like a mirror.
We walked steadily up the Chandra Valley along the left bank, often stopping to scan the slopes on both sides of the gushing river through binoculars, hoping to spot Bharal or Ibex. Instead, we repeatedly found large herds of livestock, grazing high up the slopes. Even after walking 10 km we could not see any wild animal, in spite of thoroughly scanning the slopes of both the banks. We finally decided to halt and soothe our starving bellies with some food. There was a Gaddi camp nearby, but we could not see the owner. Just when we had finished our lunch and were thinking of heading back after a not-so-fruitful day, we saw a small human figure running down the slope beside the camp. When the figure closed in, we recognised him. It was Dharam Singh, a Gaddi from Palampur town of Kangra District, whom we had met the day before, near Chandra Tal. He welcomed us warmly into his small yet very neat camp and offered a bowl of milk. Dharam Singh was followed by one of his three dogs. Almost every Gaddi is accompanied by dogs, to protect livestock from predators like Snow leopard and wolf (Canis lupus).
Dharam Singh seemed exceptionally happy to receive us in his camp, and more so as we were sharing food with him. We talked for a while, and he told us about his family back home, about the hardships a Gaddi has to face, yet how they respect their age-old culture. I was lost in the narrations of his unique experiences when Lobzang reminded me that it was getting late.
As we came out to leave for our camp, I offered Dharam Singh two packs of ‘instant noodles’. He had no idea what they were. Lobzang gave him a detailed account of how to make the best use of it. He then told us to wait and came back quickly with a bowl filled with something and offered it to me. He said, “Sahab ji this is the best thing I can offer you. Please accept it.” It looked like a smoked fat and appeared charred. I hesitated and politely attempted to refuse. What he said next took me completely aback. “Yeh phia ka charbi hae. Ghutne ka daard Bhaga de ta hae.” (This is Marmot’s fat. It cures knee pain). He then went to the back of the camp and dragged out a carcass of Marmot (local name phia), with its blood-stained head still intact. He informed that his dogs bring out Marmots quite often from the burrows in the surroundings, and he would scrape out the fat and leave the rest for the dogs. He further added that this is a fairly common matter in the Chandra Valley, with the guard dogs actively hunting down Marmot, Pika and occasionally Hare. While talking, I could suddenly hear the sound of bones cracking. We looked behind to see that the dog was relishing a limb of Marmot! After trying to get some more information on this matter and taking a few photographs, we thanked Dharam Singh and scampered our long way back. While we did manage a sighting of a wild species, I thought, it turned out to be a sadly unpleasant one.
The Upper Chandra Valley appeared to be a very good habitat for Snow leopard, Bharal, Ibex, and other high-altitude mammals, e.g. Pika, Marmot and Hare. However, very intense livestock grazing, in Lahaul during summer (ca. 400,000 livestock in 2012), for centuries, appears to have decimated the wild ungulates of the area. The Ibex, a natural prey species of the endangered Snow leopard is the lone large herbivore persisting precariously here. While exploring, we did get a sighting of the Ibex, but not a single glimpse of Bharal, and nor did the local people report having seen any. Intense livestock grazing could perhaps be one of the primary reasons why the Bharal is absent from Lahaul Valley, although it is found in the neighbouring Spiti Valley in relatively large numbers. This is possible because livestock and Bharal use gentle undulating areas for foraging, whereas Ibex can persist, probably at much low density, in very steep areas, which are rarely accessed by livestock. To add fuel to this already aggravated problem, the guard dogs of Gaddis seem to be feasting on Marmot, Oika and Hare, which serve as the secondary prey species for the endangered Snow leopard. The combination of continued widespread intensive livestock grazing and disturbance from guard dogs throw up serious ecological and conservation concerns. How long can the Palaearctic mammals of the Trans-Himalayan Lahaul hold out?
Acknowledgement: I sincerely thank the Gaddi herders of Lahaul and the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department for aiding me in my research for this article.
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