Sunday, June 17, 2012

Grey Ghost of the Himalaya

An edited version of this article appeared in the 2nd issue of Saevus

As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, a golden glow covered the sky. Soon darkness rolled-in from the east and even the last light was lost. Only after it was dark, did he walk out of his den. ‘Shadow’ was a young male Snow leopard. He could see his surroundings perfectly well even in the pitch dark. He was on the prowl. He had to find and hunt a bharal or an ibex before dawn. Neither the fifteen degree below zero biting cold of the night, nor the sheer cliffs of the mountain sides was any threat to him. In fact, he would use them to his advantage when moving closer to his quarry. The hardest part of the night was to find a herd of unwary bharal or ibex. He would then crouch through the maze of rocks and cliffs in the mountain until he was close enough for the final dash. The last 25 meters, he would break cover and charge for the nearest prey. The final blow would be delivered with his canines on the jugular of its victim’s throat.

But today was to be different! The search proved in vain. Shadow searched for the entire night but did not find any bharal or ibex. He was a young male and his territory was a little away from the best bharal and ibex areas. He could visit the village nearby and steal a goat but the risks were very high. He could get caught in one of the traps set out for the wolves. And if the village dogs smelled his presence, they could chase him for miles before he found refuge in the cliffs. Although he was stronger than even the biggest dog, the risk of injuring himself while fighting an army of dogs was very serious. It could disable him from hunting for a few weeks. A few weeks of hunger could also mean death. And even if he was successful in killing one of the goats, if the herder found out, he would be scared away from his kill and all the efforts would go in vain.

It was dawn and he was still hungry. He continued to search for his preferred bharal or ibex. Then, around mid-day, Shadow encountered a herd of bharal in a small valley. As he was crouching to gain ground on the bharal there was a loud noise. It was the honking of a donkey. All the livestock from the village had come to the mountains for grazing. Hunting bharal in broad daylight was difficult but hunting in front of herders was even more difficult as the resulting din could attract their attention. At the same time, the option of killing one of the herders’ livestock in the mountain was a lucrative one. Slipping away with one of the herders’ goats would draw much less attention. Hundreds of goats were spread over a large area and it was difficult for the herder to keep an eye everywhere. And anyway, the herder was only a young boy, who did not have any guard dogs either! Shadow had the choice of attacking the bharal or sneaking away with a goat. The decision would weigh heavily on the risks involved. Even though the chance of success when attacking a bharal is low, the risk involved is much lower. The risk of persecution when attacking livestock is much higher. Persecution by the herder would also mean giving up on his position. The herders would then chase him, sometimes for days. Unlike dogs, people even climbed onto the cliffs in pursuit. Shadow decided to try his luck with the bharal once again. He kept an eye on the herd of bharal while waiting for the herder and his livestock to pass. With his perfect camouflage, Shadow was nearly invisible when hiding in the rocks. As long as he kept still and stayed away from the ridge lines where his silhouette may give away his position, he was perfectly safe from detection by the herder.

He would wait until dusk before making his move. Shadow was careful in choosing the location such that the herders could not see him. Hidden behind boulders, Shadow moved closer until he was only a few meters from the nearest bharal. He had to be careful in focusing only on the nearest animal. There would be chaos in the herd when he made his dash and if he lost his focus from one animal to another then that could result in another another night of hunger. Shadow broke cover and dashed for the nearest bharal. He had his quarry in his grasp even before the first alarm was raised. A success! A bharal kill meant a week of peaceful meals without the fear of being disturbed by people, but that was only if he managed to hide his kill well enough.

Yes, Shadow lives to see another day. But, what does tomorrow hold for him? If Shadow has to live long and mate then he will have to find the right territory with enough density of ibex and bharal, not just for himself, but also for other females to have territories around his. Once females are with cubs they need to hunt more often to feed the cubs. Such territories are prized estates and Shadow will have to grow much stronger to win a territory like that. Every successful bharal and ibex kill will take Shadow towards establishing himself as a dominant male in the region but if he succumbs to hunger and despair and kills livestock, then risks of retaliation from the herders are serious.

One of the biggest differences between conservation of Snow leopards and other large carnivores is in terms of the place for their conservation. While a protected area approach is the most trusted approach for the conservation of large cats such as tigers, lions and leopards, Snow leopards are known to utilise landscapes much larger than what can be protected under the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. India took the lead in conservation of Snow leopards on a landscape scale when it launched Project Snow leopard in 2009. The project identified the need for protecting large landscapes with healthy prey populations. These landscapes could include regions outside the protected areas where herders with their livestock could share the land with wild herbivores. A series of smaller refuges across this landscape would help the viability of wild herbivores. But with sharing comes conflict. Cohabitation of the Snow leopard with the herders also means conflict between the herder and the Snow leopard. Livestock killing by Snow leopards inflict heavy economic losses on herders, who in turn persecute the Snow leopard to protect their livestock. Recent research using camera traps shows that although Snow leopards and people have been sharing the landscape, Snow leopards avoid using areas closer to villages. Repeated contact between the Snow leopard and people encourages them to kill livestock.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Great wall of China

I sat there at the Ulaanbataar airport solving the puzzle of my PhD. Next to me was a Mongolian lady having a 0.5L Chinggis beer at 8:00 am in the morning. I have been working in the Gobi desert for the last three and half months. I have gathered information on the population of ibex, the most important prey of the snow leopard, the feeding preferences of the snow leopard and the population of livestock in the region and through a colleague's work, the population of snow leopard in the region. The puzzle is to fit all this information together and predict the number of livestock (sheep, goat and horses) that the snow leopard will kill. I am trying this experiment at seven different sites across the snow leopard distribution in Central Asia. The lady sitting next to me timed her beer to the boarding call of our flight to Beijing.

As the flight rose, the vast open steppe took my attention away from the puzzle for the next half an hour. Just the endless steppe only intercepted by small ridges of snow covered sand dunes and small hills. There is something about the open steppe and the savannah, that inspite of being monotonous, I don't ever get bored of looking into the distance. The landscape slowly changed. Snow got shallower and the scares of mining were more visible. Slowly the snow disappeared altogether. The flight path almost traced the rail track between Ulaanbataar and Beijing – an offshoot of the Trans-Siberian railway.

Slowly the valleys between the ridges grew deeper. Mist filled many of them. There were also a lot more trees. My thoughts drifted away from my puzzle to my experiences in Mongolia. Visiting Mongolia had been a childhood dream. A dream that I have nurtured since the first time I rode a horse. In Monolia I met some of the most amazing people. A lot of frustration with the red tape and inefficiency but sweet and cooperative people slowly shrugging away the soviet ways.

The more I tried to focus on my puzzle the more I would get distracted. So I just chose to ignore all my thoughts and just stare and the steppe below. And just then, the Great Wall of China emerged from the mist below, snaking along the ridgelines of the mountains. After having spent all my life in India, I see the Great wall before I could see the Taj Mahal!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Cat Call

The Base Camp
Aloud siren tore through the frozen night, waking us. It was not the alarm clock, but was louder than that and piercing! Only after Orjan had switched off the siren did we realise what it was.
It was 11 in the night and we were in the midst of the Tost Mountains of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, cooped in a Ger (a Mongolian nomadic tent), braving the temperature hovering between -10 degree celsius at night and 4 degree celsius during the day. The mountains here are not very high; the highest summit rises only a little above 2,500 m. The terrain is rugged in a few parts and gentle and rolling at others.

Orjan Johansson, our project head, a fellow PhD student from Sweden and I had laid out snares to catch snow leopards and put satellite collars on them in an effort to study them. The siren indicated that one of the snares had caught something. Very likely, a snow leopard!
Orjan and I searching for a snow leopard kill site!

Having so far collared 14 cats over the last three years in this region, Orjan has become a veteran of sorts. The third member of our team is Carol, a vet from Australia, volunteering with Orjan. The last three years saw me studying the snow leopard in India and now I am here to pick up tricks on collaring the cats and working on a collaborative project on the Ibex – the primary prey of the snow leopard here.
It took us an entire day to drive here from Dalanzadgad, the nearest town with a sizeable population. We did not come across a single vehicle on the way: just the never ending desert peppered with rocky hills. Stocked-up to last a few months, the three of us shared the circular interiors of the Ger with a fireplace, a stove and a whole bunch of technical equipment like binoculars, cameras, GPS, computers, etc.
Ibex, the primary prey of the snow leopard

This was to be our home for the next three and half months. I wondered how long we could last. This self-imposed confinement in wilderness has a way of making people cranky and grumpy. Except the snow leopard collaring, which is the most exciting and adventurous activity, life in the desert threatens to get very boring and mundane. Life here revolves in cycles of three days. Every third day one of us drives 3 kms to an old and abandoned Soviet well to fill up our water canisters. We make sure everything in the Ger and around are alright, check thesolar panels/batteries and indulge in shooting darts at times, while all along waiting for the fire-truck siren!
I am ready to find out which one of the 14 snares has triggered. Visiting every individual snare and physically checking them would be time consuming. It would disturb the surroundings and could scare away any cats that we could potentially collar. While Orjan readies the dart, drugs and the dart gun, Carol fills up the thermos with hot water and readies the vet supplies.
Soon we are riding two All-Terrain Vehicles on our way to the snare that has been triggered. Stopping 200 mts. away from the snare we cut out the engines while Orjan barks the instructions at us. As we cautiously approach the snare we can see two eyes shining in the light of my headlamp. A snow leopard indeed! Noticing us, it tries to hide behind a rock but the snare cable forces him back. Giving up the struggle, the animal sits down with its side towards us. We can see that it is a largish animal with a collar around its neck. Of the 14 leopards that Orjan has collared so far, five still carry the collars. Of them three frequent this area often. Two of them are females: Khasha (Jade in English) and Tengger (Sky). Both have two cubs each.

Orjan having darted the animal in the thigh, we quietly move away. Minutes later, it is fast asleep. It is Aztai or the Lucky One – it is the eighth time that he has stepped into a snare.
Freeing the animal from the snare and getting him to flat open ground is our first task. Carol very skillfully pulls out a syringe of blood sample from Aztai. This will provide us with vital information on the prevalence of diseases and allow us to build a genetic tree of snow leopards in the region. The collar still has six months of battery left but we decide to put a new one, unwilling to lose the opportunity! While he sleeps, we monitor his body temperature, heart rate, pulse, breathing, blood oxygen levels, etc.

Collaring our first snow leopard of the season

The duration the animal is to stay immobilised has to be carefully checked, for the sub-zero temperature of the surroundings could be fatal. A drugged animal’s body temperature could easily drop and it could suffer from hypothermia!
Snow leopards are one of the least known and studied large cats of the world. It was first photographed in the seventies by George Schaller. In fact, so scanty is the information about them that that they are, often, aptly referred to as ‘the ghosts of the mountains’. Our research is a maiden attempt to provide insights into this elusive predator’s life and help manage the few remaining natural habitats left in the mountain ranges of Central Asia, which are opening up for mining activities. The satellite collars are now telling us how much space these animals need, how far they go in search of mates, where the cubs go when they are old enough, etc. If the cats spend unusually long hours at any one of the places it’s understood that they had made a kill, like in Aztai’s case. He was at one location for three days gorging on a large ibex, we learnt later.
Though this area has been designated a Local Protected Area, it is increasingly threatened by the activities of mining companies that have procured licenses in mineral exploration. Ninja mining, the illegal, open-cast mining for gold, is also another activity that plagues the area. The border with China, the sink for all the minerals of Mongolia, is barely 40 kms away from here.
Signs of poaching

With the last screw bolted tight on Aztai's new collar we are ready to wake him up. Orjan loads a new drug in the syringe and administers two shots; one on the shoulder and the other on the thigh. We move away, leaving it to shake off its dizziness and disappear into the depths of the mountains!
Now, every weekend, we will be privy to the information of Aztai’s movement, like the other four collared ones. The collar sends the exact geographical coordinates of every five hours to a satellite circling the earth. The satellite relays data to our office in the USA which a staff member compiles and emails to us on our satellite phone.
A few days after Aztai, we are again woken up by the fire-truck siren! This time it is early dawn. It is Khasha's one-and-a half year old cub! Although young and still dependant on its mother, he is almost as big as any other adult snow leopard. Another smooth operation for 40 minutes and he walks off into the rising sun! Within two days that satellite confirms that he is back with his mother Khasha. Quite an engaging assignment this is!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Winters day on the Mongolian Steppe: Hustai National Park

I find it hard to describe what the word endless really means. Its the feeling that you have when you lie down on you back and look at the dark sky and start feeling like you are actually falling into the sky. And I find the word endless very apt to describe the Mongolian steppe. It just goes on and on for ever! If you tried to keep looking at the horizon you will probably feel some kind of horizontal vertigo! 
This trip changed my perception of the Steppe. It went from being a sea of grass to a sea of snow
 Hustai National park is about two hours drive away from Ulaan Baatar. The famous attraction is the Prezwalski's Horse, the last remaining wild horse of the planet. Locally called the Takhi. It is in fact incorrect to call it the last remaining wild horse because it actually went extinct from the wild in the 60's. In 1992, 16 takhi were returned to the Khustain Nuruu National Park, and a captive breeding and re-introduction program was started. Such experiments are now being carried out for many species. Zoo's around the world claim such programs as their contribution to Wildlife Conservation. Current a similar mega project is underway in India where we are trying to bring back the cheetah that Went extinct in India in the 40's. 

A takhi! Image by Jeff Kubina from Wikimedia commons
The day began well for us. I was accompanied by Natsuko, a Japanese anthropology student and her two friends. After a nice two hours drive which felt like sailing in the snow we were welcomed in the park by two Golden Eagles at the park entrance. immediately followed by two Saker Facons. The park has a very good information center and restaurant. The showed a movie about the entire program. After paying an small entry fees we were accompanied by a guide inside the park. A few minutes drive and we spotter our first Takhi!
The Takhi grazing in the Hustai National Park

Seeing a wild horse in Mongolia has been my childhood dream. The fulling of this dream was very calming for me. Domestication of the horse is an important chapter in the history of civilization and to see that the ancestors of the horse was a very touching experience. This is the place where we are actually acting on our mistakes and re-wilding what was lost. I was also surprised to know that Mongolia welcomed this project and declared the Takhi as their national animal. Mongolia has a whole suit of charismatic species such as the Marco Polo Sheep, snow leopard, ibex but they chose to have the takhi as their symbol.
The endangered black vukture
The other surprise of the day was seeing the red deer in the in the middle of the steppe. I have always associated deer with forests but here the red deer were occupying the exact same landscape that I would have expected an argali or a blue sheep to occupy in the Himalaya. The day came to close with some brillient sightings of the black vulture, a globally endangered vulture. Also I did not fail to notice the large amount of livestock around and inside the park. It is not yet clear to me as to the impact of the livestock on the wild ungulates but clearly with over 270 takhi, the project is a success.

About 500 goat and sheep grazing just on the edge of the park


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Nostalic on New Years Morning!

Only for the second time I find myself in the field on the first day of the new year. January 1st 2008 I was in Spiti doing my Master's thesis in Spiti Valley in the Himalaya! January 1st 2012 I find myself in Ulaan Baatar doing research for my PhD! But unfortunately, the only similarity between four years ago and today is the freezing temperature; -31C as if today morning! But the cold temperature has brought back a flurry of memories from 4 years ago.
January 1st 2008, Takpa climbing up towards Kanamo

Four years ago on this very day Takpa and I were attempting to climb Mt. Kanamo. The summit of this peak stands tall at 5994m. The climb itself was easy but the temperature was excruciatingly cold. Today in Ulaan Baatar, although it is equally cold outside I am sitting in the cozy comfort of my centrally heated room with Internet, chatting with my folks back home. Have I lost the will to step out in the cold and do something adventures? may be not! I recently climbed the highest peak of the Tost mountains in the Gobi Desert region of Mongolia. A small spike of a little over 2500m, this peak is a easy hike. But the remoteness and the cold together makes it hard to get out of your tent and get going. Once you are out climbing up it is much easier.

Me on the summit of the highest peak in the Tost mountains in the Gobi region of Mongolia
Four years ago, Takpa and I were convinced that the cold was going to kill us both. This year I was convinced that I was going to fall to my death when I tried to descend through a dried up waterfall. In retrospect, I think none of the two times were so dangerous to bring us close to our deaths. But mountains have a way of cascading dangers. You make on false move and like a cascade your problems just keep on increasing. Sometimes, the fear of death even before the first mistake saves you the trouble of fighting the cascade.