The vast, deep blue sky stretches as far as my eyes can see; so does the infinite, rolling landscape dotted with herbs and other small plants.
There is no movement anywhere, not even a shadow of a being in this part of the Himalayas. I stand in awe and admiration of this gift of nature that can be best described in two words – solitude and freedom!
Suddenly, out of nowhere, as if by magic seven shapes appear in the distance. Soon, five more join these. As I focus, the shapes take form and turn into four-legged creatures with horns. “Gowa,” I whisper under my breath.
Known to the world as the Tibetan Gazelle and to science as Procapra picticaudata , these shy, small creatures trot off at a gentle pace displaying their conspicuous, white rumps, before dissolving into the distance.
Inhabiting the cold desert region at altitudes of 3,500 to 5,500 metres, the Tibetan Gazelle shares its home with other threatened species such as Tibetan wild ass or Kiang. The region is also home to the endangered Black-necked crane and the Tibetan argali – the largest wild sheep of the world.
The male Tibetan gazelles have beautiful, backward curving horns that reveal their identity from afar, females lack these. These gazelles are on the brink of extinction, with less than 200 individuals left in the wild in India. They move seasonally across the India-China border in both Ladakh and Sikkim.
The species is so rare and it is now confined to the rolling mountain slopes of Hanle in Changthang plateau and the Chan Chenmo Valley in eastern Ladakh; as well as a small pocket in northern Sikkim along the international border with China. Scientists involved in wildlife conservation have adopted several measures to save such species from extinction. It is strictly protected from hunting and poaching. Captive breeding is also done and then the animals are introduced to the wild.
Sometimes, the gazelles are translocated (moved) from the Tibetan Changthang (in China where this species still occurs in good numbers) to places with suitable habitat where the gazelle are few.
All these approaches can also be tried simultaneously help the species come back from the brink, but it will need co-operation between the governments of two of the most populous countries of the world.
In the meanwhile, the Nature Conservation Foundation has been working with local pastoral communities ( Changpas and Tibetan refugees) to conserve this species in the Hanle region of Ladakh. We have set up a small 1.5 sq km “grazing-free” reserve and protected it for the past five years. No livestock enters this little sanctuary and two local community members along with our field staff regularly monitor the reserve. In the last 2 to 3 years we have recorded the birth of fawns. About 30 gazelles live in and around the reserve.
But for a population so low, located in this fragile zone at the international border with China, recovery can be very slow. Road construction in the area, the presence of labourers and machinery and several other disturbances to the ecosystem keep posing question marks over this unique animal’s future.
Illustration: Procapra picticaudata or the Tibetan gazelle. Also called gowa locally.
Credit: Pearson Scott Foresman