The sheep that isn’t

One often hears the phrase ‘What’s in a name?’. For the Blue sheep of the Himalayas, the question is particularly apt! It is neither blue, nor a true sheep and despite having a common name Bharal (in Hindi), it’s called Blue sheep!

Its scientific name Pseudois nayaur ( Pseudois = false sheep) also conveys this confusion. The Blue sheep is one of the most common wild ungulates (hoofed animals) of the high Himalayas and the vast Tibetan plateau. It remained an enigma for long till techniques of molecular biology helped scientists put it in its rightful place in evolutionary terms.

Evolutionary perch

Wildlife scientist Dr. George Schaller called it “an aberrant sheep with goat-like affinities!” But that too is only half the truth, because it is not a true goat or sheep (see box).

There’s a slightly smaller species of Blue sheep called the Dwarf Bharal in the Batang region of China. This species is separated by a stretch of just one km of forest from the ‘normal’ Bharal population. Scientists who studied the chromosome numbers of these two ‘neighbours’ found that the former had 54 chromosomes, and the latter 56. They believe that some blue sheep populations can have 58 chromosomes too! Variation in chromosome numbers, caused by fusion or fission, could have led to the evolution of new species.

During my college days (twenty years ago!), I was fascinated by the wild goats and sheep of the Himalayas and secretly nurtured a hope of some day studying them. I even wrote a term paper on the Bharal. And now, many years later, my work has brought me to their mountainous home in Spiti and Ladakh.

While this majestic animal evokes wonder in many people, some local youngsters aren’t too happy with it. This is because of recent changes in agriculture and people’s lifestyles in these mountains. Bharal cause damage to the green pea crop which brings local people a good income, and, in recent years, people’s tolerance has been declining.

In an attempt to recreate the harmony that once existed, some local youth work as guards to protect crops and have been conducting nature education camps for local students. Perhaps one day in the future the Bharal and its people will be proud neighbours.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 20 June 2012.

Picture: A Bharal herd grazing.
Credit: High Altitude Programme/NCF