Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Fortress of Gya

Gya, the highest peak in Himachal Pradesh, a towering 6794 m tall giant, but as elusive as the snow leopard. The peak is hidden so deep in a maze of other smaller mountain peaks that it remained unknown till the late 1980′s. Gya is located at the tri-junction of Himachal (Spiti), Ladakh and Tibet. Approaching it from Spiti is an extremely difficult task. Gya sits at head of fortress carved out by the Lingti river. Lingti “an instrument that cuts rocks” as it literally translates from Spitian, has carved a maze of deep gorges, high plateaus and over 20 sentinel peaks rising over an altitude of 6000 m.

Shijibang peak, one of the sentinels of Gya, it bears striking resemblance with the famous Matterhorn of the Alps just that its 1500m taller!

I have been into this maze before. Mainly in search of the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and the blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur). This time was my forth expedition. The primary aim was to estimate the population of blue sheep in this region using a new technique called the ‘Double observer survey’. Unlike our previous attempts this time we decided to do the task with a small team of just 5 members. We had to cover an enormous area of about 300 sq km. Most of this has to be approached through high passes and torrent rivers coming from glacier snouts.

The expedition began in the village of Lalung. Takpa and I moved to the next camp called Kibri on day one; Chunnit Kesang, Lama and Pandan were to join us the next day with two donkeys loaded with expedition equipment. Day 3 was our first major hurdle of the Shijibang pass (5100 m) a vertical climb of 1300 m from the Kibri camp.

Lalung village and Chokula in the background

Among the many defences of Gya, the first is a row of fairly high but relatively easy peaks such as Kanamo (6974 m), Cho-cho kang nilda (6380 m), Tserip (5890 m), Kawu (5910 m) and Shijibang (c. 5900 m). Across the Shijbang pass (5100 m) we were across the first hurdle. But it also meant that if the weather took a turn we could be caged inside. We camped in Shijibang ‘Grassy medow’. The next day across the pastures of Sheru; we camped here for a few days of field work in this region. This region has a very good density of blue sheep. This is also where we saw our first blue sheep kid born in this year.

Our next hurdle was the Lingti river itself. This river is bone freezing cold and has an extremely strong current. But we had a unique solution to this problem. The Yaks! The ship of the cold desert. We were literally going to use them as ships.

Yak! The 'ship' of the cold desert!

We camp by this river for the next few days at a place called Phiphuk. Our next hurdle was the Kuli pass (4800 m). The climb up to Kuli la is gentle and scenic. We decided to ride the yaks up to the pass and across to Saktichen.

Caragana meadow of Saktichen

We camped at Saktichen for the next few days. The next defence of Gya is the 5300 m high pass called the Chaksachen la. Chaksachen la lies along the ridge formed by Lakhang (6250 m), Shilla (6132 m) and Labrang (5900 m). By now we were low on supplies and we decided that only Pandan and I will go up to chaksachen la and see if there are any more pastures across where there could be more blue sheep. The climb was gentle and we made it to the top without much difficulty.

Chunnit Kesang looking for blue sheep; Labrang (5900 m) in the back ground.

Across the valley on the other side was the last line of Gya’s defences. The trio of Geling (6100 m), Runse (6175 m) and Gyaghar (6400 m). The lowest point of this ridge is at 5900 m. Nobody has actually crossed this ridge to reach Gya. Across the Chaksachen pass the gorge was too narrow for any pastures or meadows. We traversed the entire ridge and could not see any more pasture. We decided to wrap up our expedition from here.

Gyaghar (6400 m); meaning Indian!

On the way back I was a little disappointed. I was going back from my fourth expedition without even being able to see Gya. My last opportunity was the crossing of the Shijibang pass. If the weather remained clear then I had a chance. After seven hours of climbing to the top of Shijibang pass I turned around and there was Gya!

Gya (6794 m); The highest peak of Himachal Pradesh

From the Himachal side Gya looks like a single monolith rock wall of 1200 m. Getting to the base of this wall is a challenge of itself.

A herd of blue sheep in Lingti valley

Snow leopard

Only after this fourth expedition do I feel truly successful. The expedition was scientifically successful as we had achieved the objective of estimating blue sheep abundance in this entire maze. We had been able to see all the animal species present here. And we had managed to penetrate deep enough inside the fortress of Gya to get a sight of the King!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

In which the rocks came alive!

“I am sure, that rock wasn't there in the morning” I confidently told Takpa. He had a notorious smile on his face, and sarcastically said “Ya, now you can identify rocks too”. But this rock had too peculiar a shape for anyone to have missed.
I was in the village of Kibber in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh working on human-snow leopard conflicts. Today I was scheduled to leave for a remote place in the mountains to try and collect snow leopard faeces samples for molecular analysis. Our team composing of six field staff, two Guides and myself managed to squeeze into our Maruti gypsy and were ready to head off for our poop collection expedition. Just as we were about to leave I got a call from my co-supervisor Yash Veer. He was submitting a funding proposal on my behalf and the deadline was next day. The proposal was far from complete; thanks to me. I hadn't been able to send the completed draft due to lack of Internet access. Yash Veer was filling in the blanks for me but requested me to stay around the phone for the next 24 hours until he submits the proposal; in case he needed some clarification. That was a disappointing news for all as we were all set for our poop collection expedition. I tried to console them by telling them that such is the life of a researcher “Sometimes you spend more time writing for grants than the actual research itself”.


Disappointed all of us got out of the vehicle and headed back home. I sat by the phone working on my computer. Our base camp is on the southern edge of the kibber Village. The southern most room of the camp gets brilliant sunlight in the afternoon. With large glass windows, and a splendid view of the mountains, this room stays warm even in the the cold march days. I spend all my free afternoons sitting here and reading. I sat there with the phone by my side, thinking of how it would have been had we been out in the field. What all could we have seen? By now I was very familiar with the entire snow-scape in front of this window. I sat there staring out for a long time. I don't remember how long but soon it was evening. Takpa came in with two cups of tea and started updating me on Spiti gossip. I was listening to him with one ear, the other had a earphone playing music, an eye on the computer screen where I had a paper open for the last few hours and one eye on the mountain slopes outside the window. There was a peculiarly shaped rock protruding out of the snow. I ignored it at first but then I knew I hadn't seen this one before. I told this to Takpa. After an initial reaction of sarcasm even he got suspicious. Suddenly I felt the rush of Adrenaline. Both of us rushed and grabbed two pairs binoculars. Confirmed! The rock was a snow leopard!! Actually two snow leopards!!!

The snow leopards seemed to be getting ready for their evening prowl. They were about 300 metres from the village, across a deep gorge. The gorge must have assured the snow leopards of their safety from the humans and dogs of the Kibber village. Hidden from the snow leopard's view we sneaked up to the edge of the gorge. We made ourself comfortable in a rock crevice and started observing the snow leopards. They were still sitting, cuddled together, in the same place. The first question that popped up in my head was 'what was the relation between them? Mother and cub? A courting pair? Siblings just weaned off?' The behavioural interaction between them could provide a cue. Suddenly there was a loud scream. More like honking than a scream. It was like an alarm call of the Jackal. Takpa pointed to a red fox that had almost bumped into the leopards. The fox seemed to have had an heart attack. It just froze there for over a minute. Only a few tens of feet from the snow leopards (by the way, even a few hundred feet is a very small distance for the open trans-Himalayan region where things can be seen from at least a few kilometres). The fox started running with loud honking calls and never looked back until it was out of sight (yes a few kilometres!). The loud screaming of the fox alerted something else. there was a herd of 25 ibex sitting right next to us (a few hundred feet). We had missed them in our excitement of seeing the snow leopards but I felt proud of us to have sneaked up so close without letting them know or may be they knew of our presence but recognised us as the same harmless Homo sapiens who spy on them during their rutting season.

I had seen multiple snow leopards roaming together on one more occasion. It was around two years ago. Even then the toughest thing was to identify the relationship between them. I had also heard many accounts of the local people sighting multiple snow leopards together. While most of these were about two or three leopards, some people claimed to have seen four and five animals together. One account claimed to have seen seven together and another claims that a bus load of people saw 11 snow leopards cross the road. I could only find one passenger of the bus; the person who told me this account. I am interested in this question of the social behaviour of solitary cat because some of the radio telemetry studies have shown that snow leopards are not as territorial as other large cats. Even males, at times, show a 100% overlap in their home ranges. Even NCF's own camera trapping exercise shows that about 5 adult snow leopards simultaneously use the area around Kibber. What is interesting to know is, are these overlapping individuals related to each other or is it just a random mix of 'everybody's welcome'. NCF's camera trapping exercise has captured photos of two animals who have lost their tails to some accident. Most likely, in fights with other snow leopards. Over what? Still remains an unanswered question. This is some evidence of violent conflict between snow leopards suggesting that territory overlapping might not be as random as a coin-flip model would predict.

One of the two snow leopards got up, stretched and started walking. The other one followed. I was waiting for some interaction between them that might hint at their relationship with each other. Without a warning the leading snow leopard broke into a run then turned around and challenged the second one. They got into a playful fight and started tumbling down the snow slope. Seeing this display the ibex got into a fright and started frantically whistling in alarm. This interrupted the snow leopards' play. This repeated a few times. The leopards would get into a play fight and the ibex would whistle in alarm and the leopards would sit staring at the ibex. This went on till it was too dark to see any thing. Lucky for the ibex, them and the leopards were on different sides of the gorge. Once darkness fell upon the us there was a pin drop silence. Just the hush of the wind. Although we could not see the cats, we were waiting for them to move and hoped to pick up their moving silhouette on the snow lit up by the bleak light of the stars.

Snow leopards are nocturnal and sooner or later they would make their move. We picked up two ghostly shadows moving across the snow but soon disappear in to mosaic of snow and rock of the cliffs. Once in the cliffs it is difficult to spot a snow leopard even in the bright light of the day. Now at eight thirty at night their was no hope of seeing them again before dawn. The mercury had also fallen below freezing. It was time to head back home.

We were back at the same spot early next day. We scanned the entire valley for their signs. Looked for some ibex carcass that they might have been killed; some place where the vultures could be hovering. But no trace of the snow leopards. The wind had even cleared their pugmarks from the cliffs.

That night, on my way back, all I was thinking of was the leopards playing. I was trying to understand their relationship with each other. Were they a mother and cub? a courting pair? or siblings who have weaned of only recently? I will never know. But I hope to see them again and understand as much about their world as I can.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Another day in Paradise

It was a warm day with early morning temperature around –16º C. I was in Spiti the Trans-Himalayan region of Himalchal pradesh. The Spiti valley cuts a wide gorge between the greater Himalayas and the Zanskar range. Climate and geography of the valley is similar to the Tibetan plateau. With temperature dropping as low as -35º C and wind lashing the valley throughout, winter in Spiti are harsh.

Early morning start

I was here to study the winter foraging behaviour of blue sheep. As the famous wildlife biologist Dr. George Schaller describes in his book 'Mountain Monarchs', the blue sheep is species of wild goat with sheep like traits. They are found all across the Tibetan plateau and greater Himalayas. I was to spend the winter in Spiti following the blue sheep and meticulously recording its foraging behaviour and food plants.

That day I left camp at 6 am in the morning. By half past seven I was at the spot where I had last seen the blue sheep the day before. I was disappointed not to find them there. I thought they would have gone beyond the next roll of the hill but I was disappointed again. After spending over two hours looking for my study herd I was tired and decided to rest for a while before resuming my search.
I noticed an unfamiliar bird hovering high up over me; it turned out to be the upland buzzard. There was also a golden eagle flying below me in the Shilla gorge. It was a good opportunity to photograph the king of the Himalayan birds. I pulled out my camera but it refused to start, I guess I had used up all the battery and the remaining had been drained by the cold.
I started scanning the huge pasture in front of me for signs of the blue sheep when suddenly the cliffs below me came alive. A huge chunk fell to deep gorge below. By now I was used to seeing rock falls but I had never imagined anything of this scale. A deep silence followed the thunder of the rock fall.

Two Adult male blue sheep

A chirpy whistle broke the silence of the mountains. This is the blue sheep alarm whistle, it rang from somewhere very close but I could not see the animal that made it. Then some thing moved; a group of twelve blue sheep. I could now start the systematic data collection.
Over an hour passed without much activity in the blue sheep herd. The sky turned grey and feathery flakes of powder snow filled the air. My body was stiffened by just sitting there in the cold. Not even a trickle flowed in the gorge below. The whole canyon was frozen. Boulders covered with snow, leafless trees, nothing but some rocks that occasionally fall to the gorge below.

This time the silence was broken by a movement. This was not a falling rock; it did not make any sound. I was carefully looking at the slope where, I thought, I saw the movement. It moved again and I saw it this time… The Ghost of the mountains, a snow leopard!!! It was so well camouflaged that I would have never noticed its presence had it not moved. The blue sheep were still unaware of the snow leopard but even the snow leopard was unaware of the blue sheep. It was on a ledge at about 400 feet below me and below the blue sheep.
He must have been there all the while but I had not noticed it until the movement. The snow leopard seemed young; a little small in size to be an adult. I was trying to pick out any peculiarities that I might find so as to identify the particular individual but it was almost impossible to pick out any details. It then got up and started walking along the cliff. I knew exactly where that ledge would lead him to.

The Snow leopard peeping from his hideout

Now the quest for me was to reach the starting point of the ledge before the snow leopard and hide there to get a better look at it. I dashed at a full speed. I was struggling due to the thin air of the altitude. The start of the ledge is slightly broad and has a little grass on it so it was no surprise to find a herd of bharal grazing there. Seeing the blue sheep in the path of the approaching snow leopard two things I was certain about; the snow leopard has not turned up yet and when it gets here there is going to be scene. A while passed which seemed like hours but there was no sign of the snow leopard. The weather had now turned windy and with the sun behind the clouds the cold started to freeze my sweat on my cloths. I was considering the thought that the leopard might have turned and gone. But suddenly another alarm whistle; the snow leopard was close by. I could not see it but guessing from the blue sheep’s reactions I knew he was very close. The blue sheep all ran away and I still had not managed to see the leopard. After a bit of scanning the ledge with my binocular I found him sitting under an over hanging rock; perfectly camouflaged. He was indeed a little young. On many occasions I had seen two sets of pug marks in this area. Pug marks of a mother and her cub. I wondered if this snow leopard was one of them and also if it was him then where was his mother.
Soon, Takpa my friend and assistant, turned up. He had a hard time finding me in these cliffs but he jumped with excitement when he saw the snow leopard. Just then without warning the leopard got up and started walking towards the river below. We lost the snow leopard in the boulders and snow at the bottom of the valley.

Takpa sitting in the cold collecting information on blue sheep behaviour

Suddenly I became concious of my surroundings. Over six inches of snow had accumulated; quit remarkable for one day in the Trans-Himalaya. Temperature had further dropped and only when I tried to move did I realise that my feet had frozen solid. We had been sitting there in the cold for a long time. Takpa quickly gathered some twigs and lit a small fire under a over hanging rock. I left a gasp as the warm blood rushed to my feet causing intense pain. It was getting dark and we had to leave soon. Others at the camp would start worrying if we didn't get back soon. We headed for camp after one last look at the bedding site chosen for the day by the blue sheep. We knew where to find them tomorrow.