Wild Weasel Chase
A high-altitude dweller of the Himalayan and Central Asian ranges, the shy, endearing and endangered Mountain weasel makes a special appearance before our photographer in Sikkim.
As part of the team from Sikkim Ornithological Society, we were on a mission to document the fauna diversity on the Sikkim Plateau, a part of the Trans-Himalayan range, in North Sikkim. It was November 12, the second day of our quest, and we were in Thangu village, the last speck of civilization beyond which lies the Sikkim or the Tso Lhamo plateau. Incidentally, it happened to be the auspicious day of Lhabab Deuchen (a Buddhist festival observed to celebrate the descent of Buddha from heaven to Earth). It was freezing in the morning with temperatures below zero, when we started our hike towards Thangu monastery, situated on a hilltop to offer our prayers. The other motive was to get some much need morning exercise, to help us acclimatize to the thinning air. As we slowly ascended, taking breaks after ever 10 steps, we took about an hour to cover the mere distance of hundred meters to reach the hilltop. Eurasian Wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes) kept popping in front of us every now and then, allowing us to use our cameras and making our journey seem not so harsh.
I think we were the only crazy people to have ever reached the monastery so early in the morning in the freezing cold. After offering our prayers, some team members went on to hang prayer flags and light incense while others, including me, made themselves comfortable inside the monastery to keep away from the biting cold. Immediately, I started day dreaming about the birds we might see through the day, when suddenly Urgen, a team member, shouted ‘Lottherkay!’(squirrel in Nepali). Initially I did not pay much attention; I was reluctant to venture outside into the cold. However, a squirrel at such high altitude evoked some curiosity in me and I ran outside. I could only get a glimpse of the ‘squirrel’ before it disappeared into a clump of boulders piled in a wall next to a small house. It did not take long for the animal to notice my presence. It was the Mountain weasel—smaller than I had imagined, but a lot cuter than what I had in my mind. The weasel descended down the wall, into a meadow, and rolled in the wet grass to clean itself and then climbed back on the wall. Now we could all observe the curious nature of the animal, as it kept on moving towards us, stopping frequently and inspecting us, while we were busy clicking. My entire day was made early in the morning, because of this blessing from the deities of Sikkim Himalayas, I thought to myself.
The Mountain or the Pale weasel (Mustela altaica) is probably the most common weasel in India, but still scarcely recorded. Typical of a weasel, it has a small skull, long and cylindrical body and short ears and legs. It is listed as Near Threatened as its population is in decline due to habitat loss. The species is found in the mountain meadows of the Himalayan and Hindukush mountains in south-central Asia and the mountains of Mongolia and Russia in north-central Asia. In the Himalayas, they are found up to an altitude of 5,000m from Jammu and Kashmir to Sikkim.
This article first appeared in the January 2015 edition of Saevus magazine.