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”.


Kibber

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.

video

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.

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