Maybe 10 years ago, it was a destination sought only by a few foreign nationals but today the streets of Leh are thronged by tourists. You can see bikes plying en route to Khardungla every minute. Monasteries and beautiful desert mountains and scenes are what comes to one’s mind when one thinks of this place. However, there is more to this place than just that. This year in Ladakh I got an upside-down view which was quite different from the tourist view I had last year.
There are lots of things that one can say about the people of Ladakh, their streets, their lifestyles, livelihoods, and belief systems. However, I am here to share another aspect of Ladakh’s complex ecosystem which forms an integral yet often ignored when we paint a picture – the wildlife.
The trans Himalayan region is home to some of the most unique creatures in India – the beauty of the Himalayas just doesn’t stop at the mountains. Wildlife is a very important part of this nature and characteristic of Ladakh. As a part of the India Fellow travel workshop, I got a chance to explore this aspect of Ladakh through an organisation working in the valley for wildlife conservation, called Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF).
Ladakh is home to the largest high altitude protected reserve in India – Hemis National Park and to several wildlife species, many of which are categorized as endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) like the Snow Leopard and Tibetan Antelope etc. With increasing livestock rearing and climate changes, the natural habitat of these wild animals is slowly shifting its pattern. Given the situation, wildlife conservation is a concern not just of the government but also of the people in general. Over the past couple of decades, various government and non-profit initiatives have looked at ways to resolve the man-animal conflict that prevails in the area. One can find innumerable tales of villagers having disdain for Snow Leopard for killing their livestock and cutting short their sources of income. Even though Snow Leopards never attack humans, nonetheless the conflict between the two has been raging for a long time. Through conservation projects of the recent past, these conflicts have seen some relief paving way to a more harmonious co-existence. Through awareness, understanding and better strategies conservation are becoming possible in these belts.
NCF is one such organization that works towards conservation of wildlife. Any conservation initiative starts by understanding the geography and occupancy in the area. This is part of the initial research which supports further intervention. Our fellows’ team was a part of this and was tasked with doing the occupancy survey in the valleys near the Rumtse village region.
Occupancy survey is a method which identifies the presence of wildlife in an area. Under this method, the given area is divided into segments and the presence of wildlife is marked as binary. The wildlife for the survey was broadly divided into wild ungulates (which are basically your hoofed animals) and the wild carnivores. On the basis of this survey, further research is done. For e.g. often the presence of Snow Leopard in various regions doesn’t necessarily mean that there are those many Leopards in these different valleys. It can so happen that the same Leopard roams each of these valleys. In such cases, secondary details such as the Leopard coat print (which is unique for each Leopard) confirms the distinctive presence of this creature. To summarize occupancy survey confirms the presence of species in a given particular area.
The expected wildlife of the region that was covered by the survey was Snow Leopard, Bharal or Blue Sheep, Ibex, Red Fox and the great Tibetan Sheep. In order to assess the presence, there are several indicators – physical spotting of the animal is just one of them. Apart from this, animal marks such as pug marks and scrapes, their scat and urine smell are other ways. Our team covered 5 valleys over 2 days, with the survey area of 5 km each divided into segments of 1 km. With a very enthusiastic young lead, we slowly covered the segments learning how to use our coordinates and GPS markings and record our findings. Through the two days of the survey, we covered rocky and undulated valleys learning more and more about the specifics of survey and wildlife in general.
Scat or poop of different animal varies, for example for carnivores they are tapering at the end and often consist of bones and the size and quantity also varies for them. The scrape marks for leopards and foxes varies in the sense they are from cat and dog families respectively. For Leopards, the pug marks are blunt as the claws are retracted whereas for foxes one can see sharp claw marks. Urine smell is yet another unique marker for snow leopards by which they mark their territory. Blue Sheep which are hybrid of sheep and goat were spotted through binoculars as well as naked eyes. The scene of them crossing streams is indeed breathtaking while at other times we sat for longer duration spotting them through the binoculars as brown spots moving across the landscape.
Besides these, we also saw the presence of various other wildlife species which would be worth mentioning, like the Pica which essentially gives away the fact of the presence of wild carnivores that prey on then, Marmots, Lynx, Wolly Hare, birds like Chukar, Redstart as well as wild shrubs indigenous to the area.
The experience of working with this organization was quite different and gave me the opportunity to explore Ladakh’s ecosystem in quite a different way. The trans Himalayan region of Ladakh has been undergoing unending changes with increasing human habitation and changes in farming and animal husbandry practices. The fragile ecosystem of this has been under constant pressure for various species competing for the natural resources. Under these circumstances, the need of the hour is to work towards conservation and spread more and more awareness. I hope this article will inspire the readers to further read about this topic and now growing issue.