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!