A frozen world, hoofs and copious cups of tea

by Munib Khanyari

It is a surreal experience when you are nearly 6000m high, on top of a mountain pass, looking down at the blanket of white that envelopes the valleys around you. It’s peak winter and all but your will seems frozen. Then your eyes pass over the frozen river that you just traversed, taking one cautious step after another. The thick ice over the water gives it a rather ethereal blue tinge. The piercing frigid wind numbs your fingers and the mind feels a little subdued. As you sit down to catch your breath, the faint rays of the sun kiss your cheeks. In that moment you think, yet comprehension seizes… all that matters is that moment.

This was the exact feeling I encountered several times this past February, as I was conducting Double-observer surveys in the Rong valley and Gya-Miru region of a rather frigid Ladakh. Nature Conservation Foundation’s(NCF) High Altitude Program(HAP) has been conducting these surveys, with a purpose of enumerating wild ungulate populations in these regions for the past four years. Such surveys have a long-term vision of assessing populations of wild ungulates so one can understand their trends and its drivers. Ladakh is a unique place being both an extension of the Tibetan Plateau and a junction of several Himalayan ranges, such as the Zanskar and Karakoram. This unique geographic confluence provides Ladakh’s arid landscape with a surprisingly high animal diversity. Personally, I believe no other group of mammals are as diverse and fascinating here as this region’s ungulates.

Herders and their herds find pasture in the snow-covered valley of the Gya-Miru region even as winter is in full force. Livestock often grazes in areas that harbour populations of wild ungulates. [Munib Khanyari]
Counting exact numbers of different ungulate species in a near contiguous, highly rugged mountain area totalling roughly 400 km2 seem to be daunting prospect to accomplish in itself. Add to that the fact that majority of these areas (if not all) lie off the beaten track, away from commercial trekking routes with no predetermined paths. And if all that isn’t enough, add in wading through knee deep snow and having almost all our supplies be frozen. Sleeping bags, shoes, toothpaste, cooking oil, even our sunscreen wasn’t spared by the sub-zero temperatures.

Nonetheless, there is a rather peculiar sense of adventure and resilience Ladakh and its people instil in you. Across the many valleys we ventured, Tsaba was extremely intriguing.  Not more than 150 sq. km. this network of mountains was shrouded in snow, yet was called home by the rare Tibetan Argali, Bharal and one lone group of Ladakh Urial. Having three different large-bodied ungulates in a relatively small area was extremely interesting, especially considering that they share this space with around 12 different herders and there near 1500 domestic sheep and goat. As I found myself navigating a snow-laden scree slope, trying to get a better look at a majestic male Argali with his near 6 feet long horns and a body that is known to weigh up to 300 kg, I couldn’t help but think about the plight of this beautiful creature. Supposedly fewer than 400 individuals remain across Ladakh, and some insightful previous research has shown that even though they can co-exist with livestock, such pressures result in them shifting to steeper slopes and cliffs with lower vegetation cover. They abandon previously used plant-communities with a denser cover on relatively more rolling slopes, which their prefered habitat.

A group of Tibetan Argali comprising adult male, adult females and young flee to a nearby slope. [Munib Khanyari]
In the brooding silence and the deathly beauty of Nyelung valley, Tsaba’s deepest and remotest valley, I glanced upon of a mixed herd of Argali. As I watched them grazing, standing atop a cliff that was nearly 5500m, during a time of the year when forage is so limited, a realisation dawned upon me. We had counted upwards of 80 individual Argalis in this area, a high number for such a small region considering Ladakh is spread over 80,000km2. This perhaps is one of the largest extant populations of Argali in Ladakh. Therefore Tsaba seems to be an extremely important wintering area.

Understanding populations of species is important because if we lack this basic information, we can’t truly know which species is in danger of dying out. It also helps us determine if the ecosystem is healthy and give us insights into other aspects such as if a disease event has occurred. Such large-scale long-term population surveys are a proactive way of understanding the natural world and its species.

A male big Bharal looks down upon the research team from atop a ridge in Puyul Valley. Notice the lack of snow and presence of vegetation. Bharal are the most numerous species of ungulates in Ladakh. [Munib Khanyari]
In the vast space of Ladakh’s trans-Himalayan alpine steppe, with mountains continuously changing their colours and forms, from pale and rocky to almost magenta and rolling, it is easy to get lost in time. Ancient rock art in remote valleys depicting Ibex, Yaks, Snow Leopards and other creatures, confirm that this space has been shaped by centuries, if not millennia of changes and processes. As my team and I camped under a star-laden sky in Rulung, melting ice and snow to prepare a warm brew, we spoke about the few hundred Bharal we had counted in the Puyul valley and its adjacent areas beyond the Miru and Gya villages. Such high numbers in an area around 50 sq.km. seem fictional. Perhaps the snow-free zones with good amounts of vegetation are hard to find in winter, resulting in these species selectively gathering in favourable hotspots. Puyul seems to definitely be one.

Staring into the eyes of a male Bharal, whilst he seemingly tries to balance his rather over-grown looking horns, breeds a thrilling sensation into the heart. Bharal are the Snow Leopard’s primary source of wild prey and a healthy Bharal population is a good foundation for a healthy Snow Leopard population.  Alternatively, being able to find just a sole herd of the endemic Ladakh Urial, even after traversing a few hundred kilometres of potential habitat, I couldn’t help but stare at its constituent yearlings. Individuals that hold the potential to continue this remaining population. This species seems to have been outcompeted from its primary habitat of rolling river valleys, both by livestock and wild ungulates in this area due to resource-use overlap. The Shyam area of western Ladakh, however, is said to harbour healthy populations of them.

Finally, as my team and I sat for a farewell dinner at the end of February, next to a burning Bukhari (A Ladakhi wood-fired heater) in Leh, we reminisced about a month full of exploration. At their time of doing, trying to start a fire with a small clump of dry Caragana stems whilst the wind blazed through and produced a piercing pain in our bodies, or navigating a steep ice-packed river valley, with the ground literally cracking beneath our feet, seemed like a curse from some episode of bad karma in the past. Not to mention several endless hours of staring at rocks through our binocular, hoping they would be wildlife.

During the surveys the team encountered several interesting and rare species such as Eurasian Lynx, Snow Leopards, Tibetan Wolf and this curious canine, the Red Fox. [Munib Khanyari]
However, it is quite a humbling feeling when one realises that thousands of villagers and especially livestock herders are doing exactly that(and much more) day in day out, trying to eke out a living in the seeming bleakness of the alpine desert that is Ladakh. These hardy men and women (especially the herders) would stand atop ridges, nodding a joy-filled “Julley” every time we walked by or generously offered tea and a place to sleep in their Rebos (Ladakhi tents). If we are to truly conserve the beautiful creatures such as the Argali, Bharal and the Urial and give substance to the kind of surveys we did, it is these people that we need to understand and work with. Conservation, especially in the dry landscape of Ladakh is a community-endeavour.  Hence, NCF’s HAP has engaged in multiple villages both with its villagers and herders, setting up innovative conservation initiatives such as “Village Reserves”. Here important wild ungulate areas, where in the communities’ livestock previously grazed are agreed to be left alone by the communities so as to minimise conflict of resource use with livestock. By starting a conservation conversation, need for such compromises, especially in a world with growing human and livestock populations are highly imperative. These decisions are taking by the communities themselves, after months (sometimes years!) of engagement, bond-building and collaboration with members of HAP. It’s partnerships like these that truly make the kind of work I do, these Double-observer population surveys, an endeavour beyond mere numbers.

The Ladakhi slopes might be bleak and hostile, especially in the depth of winter. Whilst climbing them, surely one’s heart thumps and thuds for life. I believe that only when the heart beats so vehemently, does one come out of their comfort zone. And it is here that an unshakable determination and hope is bred…so climb on!

One of the many regions surveyed. The blanket of snow makes it easier to spot wildlife as tracks are more evident and animals stand out against the white background. [Munib Khanyari]