Thursday, October 15, 2009

Day of the Shingu!

I reached Tashigang on an early December afternoon. The small hamlet of six houses was almost empty but for a stray dog that ran across the road. Cloud of dust followed me as I walked the street. All around me was dust and small patches of dry grass. It all felt like a scene from one of Clint Eastwood’s Wild West flicks. But the towering beacon of Cho-Cho Kang Nilda standing at 6300 meters above sea level with its snow cap glittering in the afternoon sun brought me back to reality. I was in a Trans-Himalayan village at 4350 meters above sea level in the Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary. Even at peak noon the temperature remained 15 degrees below freezing. Kibber Wildlife Sanctuary with a mean altitude of 4500 meters above sea level is one of the best the habitat for some of the rare high altitude wild animals like bharal, ibex, snow leopard and the Tibetan wolf.

I was in the Kibber wildlife sanctuary to start the field work for my masters, dissertation project on the winter foraging strategies of bharal (Pseudois nayaur). Kalzang Pulzor and Tenzin Takpa were to help me with my field work. We had set up our camp at Tashigang (4350 mts above sea level). Tashigang is well tucked inside the mountains and with only twenty permanent residents it feels especially remote during winters. Since the day I reached here I had been hearing about a pack of eight wolves (Tibetan wolves Canis lupus chanco) that had frequently been seen around the village. The boldness of this pack had made them the talk of most villages of the Kibber plateau but in-spite of their frequent visits relatively little livestock had been attacked. People were not despising the presence of the wolves very much but past memories of them killing as many as 20 sheep and goat in a night haunted many and kept them on their guards.

It was the seventh day since the field work started. We were well acclimatised and had taken to the field work with great enthusiasm. Today my thermometer read a minimum of twenty-one degree Celsius below zero. As soon as the sun came up Kalzang and I were out searching for the group of sixty bharal that we had seen the previous evening. This is also the rutting season of the bharal. We were quit interested in seeing the males clash their horn for the right over the females of the herd. Today the herd split in two, the larger herd numbering thirty-four and the smaller one with twenty-six bharal. So we also decided to split, Kalzang went towards the smaller group while I followed the larger.

By mid afternoon the bharal settled down at around a hundred meters higher from the cliffs. I also settled down in the middle of some boulders so as to have the bharal in sight but protect myself from the cold wind that had picked up by now. I was at a height same as the bharal but perfectly concealed from any observer lower down by the boulders. An hour went by and the bharal were still resting. I suddenly spotted some movement in the cliffs and rocks below…Wolves!!! Eight of them. The bharal had not seen them yet, they could hardly see in that direction from their lying position. The bharal had been focusing mainly on the side away from the cliffs. The wolves then spread out and charged up the gentle surge of the hill that connected the bharal to the cliff. The charge was being led by two adult wolves, followed by four more, and followed by two that were barely staggering behind. Before I could turn my attention to the bharal I heard the thunder of their hooves. They were charging towards… The CLIFFS!!!!... The direction of the wolf charge and their positioning had placed them between the cliffs and the bharal. The wolves were actually trying to cut the bharal from the cliffs. The bharal ran at a slight angle to the wolves but still towards the cliffs. The task for the wolves was to isolate a single bharal and course it down before the herd could make it to the cliffs. The thundering hooves whooooshed past the two leading wolves and down on the cliffs in a blink. The bharal were so tightly clustered that they felt as one body. The wolves never had a chance to focus on any single individual. The wolves had to give up their chase. Everything happened in a flash; only at the end did I realise that I had a camera in my back pack. The bharal stood wide eyed watching the wolves from the safety of the cliffs. The wolves gave up and soon left towards a nearby rangeland. That’s where kalzang had gone following the smaller group of bharal so I was sure he would get to see the wolves.

Although the charge failed, the well-organised attack of the wolves impressed me out of my wits. But what was even more impressive was the escape behaviour of bharal. After all, a herd of wild goats, without a leader, had organised a group escape plan against a fairly large, well organised, well commanded, pack of one of the fiercest hunters. The bharal did not have a second’s time to communicate. The decision of the bharal, to head for the cliffs was risky enough, as they were not running away from the wolves but, in a way, towards them, although at a slight angle. The key to the escape had been in their cohesion. Any straggler, or some individual that would have dared run away from the cliff would definitely have been chased down. Any chaos in the initial moment would have given the wolves enough time to cut the escape to the cliffs completely.

No single individual could have led the bharal to the escape terrain. Many might not have had the opportunity to even know what they were running from. There was not enough time for any decision making on part of the bharal group. The leaderless bharal clearly followed a few simple rules of thumb, which characterise their herding behaviour. On an alarm signal, stay close to your neighbour and run for the nearest cliff, could have been the protocol. The wolves never had a chance to focus on a single individual in the mass of the thundering hooves as the bharal kept together. The simple thumb rules also avoided any form of chaos that could have happened had different individuals decided on different direction to run to for escape. Simple rules at the level of an individual that have evolved over thousands of years have led to a significant level of group intelligence.

Kalzang came running to where I was. Breathing hard in the thin air of the high altitude his face had turned red. “Shingu, eight shingu” (eight wolves) is all that he could say. I told him about every thing I saw. He told me that the wolves did not attack the smaller group of bharal as they had seen the wolves from far. We decided to follow the fresh spoors of the wolves. Soon we again saw a wolf. A lone sentry was sitting high up on a ridge. The pack must have been resting somewhere behind on the ridge while the sentry kept a look out. We then turned back towards camp.
Back at home we were anxious to narrate our experiences to Takpa who we thought was enjoying his rest day. But, Takpa had his own story to tell. Soon after we had left camp early morning he heard loud honking of the donkeys that were grazing in the nearby pasture. Takpa quickly made a dash for the place. A pack of eight wolves had brought down a donkey. It was Takpa’s donkey. The wolves did not get enough time to eat it as they fled on Takpas’ approach. Takpa was not all that disappointed as he knew he would receive compensation from the Livestock insurance scheme. This scheme was started in the region by Dr. Charudutt Mishra and the Nature Conservation Foundation along with the Kibber Youth Council. The program helped safeguard the interests of the local people against livestock depredation by wild carnivores and protect the wild carnivore from any form of retaliatory hunting.
Today the populations of ibex, bharal, wolves, snow leopard and many other small fauna have recovered in the sanctuary. Thanks to the many conservation programs started in the region by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) along with the Kibber Youth Council. Programs like creation of village reserves and the livestock insurance scheme have helped both, the wildlife of the region and the local communities. The livestock free reserve has led to an increase in wild ungulate population thus widening the prey base for carnivores like the wolf and the snow leopard. Thanks to all these measures sighting a snow leopard or a wolf in the sanctuary is not as rare an event as in the past.
Takpa although having lost a donkey to the wolves ended his story saying “Aaj to shingu ka din nahi tha” ‘it was not the day of the wolves’ they will have to sleep on empty stomachs. But yes, the days of carnivores have now coming back to the sanctuary. The days of the shingu are back!!!