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.