The Hanle River glittered in the morning sun, and freshly sprouting grasses imparted an emerald sheen to the sedge meadow along its shore. Herds of kiang, or Tibetan wild ass, enjoying this green boon, set against a splendid mountainous background. Our team from the Nature Conservation Foundation was assessing the conservation status of the Tibetan gazelle, locally known as gowa, on the high altitude rangelands of Ladakh, aka little Tibet.
After a pleasant though jerky drive, we saw a pair of black-necked cranes, one of the most endangered birds in the world, ambling around a small lagoon close to the road-perhaps scouting a suitable breeding site. Struggling to contain our excitement, we took some pictures before they moved away.
The sun rose higher, and shimmering heat waves blurred the distant slopes. A wayfarer told us that a few of the gazelles had been observed recently on the desiccated plateau to the left of the road. Across the river, smoke billowed fromrebos, makeshift black tents of nomads, Changpa, whomove from pasture to pasture with their livestock.
Four hours later, we drive by Khaldu village, small mud-houses scattered on an ostensibly marshy area. Kids tarry on the dirt road and wave at us. It is a beautiful day, and we relax at the guesthouse of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, which operates the world’s highest astronomical observatory, at Hanle. In the afternoon, I climb up the tawny slope above the guesthouse, and see a man chasing off some kiang. Certainly things are not as hunky-dory as they appear.
The following day, I saunter around looking for gowa, but no luck. I am overwhelmed by the vast expanse of barren land. After a simple dinner of rice and vegetable curry, I squash into my canvas tent. Soon, a fierce wind batters the tent, sending it into a fluttering frenzy. The golden light of the morning sun illuminates the crown of the distant mountains. No gowa, but kiang are everywhere. As the day progresses, a flock of Tibetan sand grouse gathers near the spring to drink. In mid-morning, I cross the low ridge next to our camp, and there they are-three male Tibetan gazelles nibbling on some herbs. As I watch them through the spotting scope, something disturbs them and they bounce away like ping-pong balls.
Gowa are small and lithe, weighing about 50 pounds. Grayish brown with a short, black-tipped tail in the center of a heart-shaped white rump-patch, these gazelles have long, thin legs that enable them to outrun predators, such as wolves. I had been told that it is very difficult to spot them, but after my first sighting I am confident that I can locate them frequently to unravel their secrets.
As I sit at the camp sipping a steaming tea, a military truck drones across the plateau. A cloud of dust stretches across the horizon. The local people are increasingly replacing their traditional means of transport- yaks and horses-with trucks and motorbikes. But off-road driving has become a major cause of concern to the conservationists; it disturbs the gowa, and might affect their reproductive success.
The most recent estimate suggests that there are fewer than 100 Tibetan gazelles left in India, mostly around the Kalak Tartar plateau in the Hanle valley. If protective measures are not taken soon, the species may soon become extinct here.
Hunting is thought to be the most important factor pushing the gazelles to the brink of extinction. I learned that during the 1962 war between India and China, military personnel with the help of local people hunted gowa indiscriminately in this border area. The kiang survived the onslaught, probably because they are not an attractive source of meat.
According to the Changpas, the kiangpopulation is on the rise, competing with their livestock for forage. However, there is no data from earlier times. I think the animals were once more dispersed in the mountains, but with the degradation of pastures in the higher reaches, they tend to concentrate on the lush meadows along the Hanle River, giving a false impression to the local people of abundance.
The nomads look more favorably upon the gowa, partly because they are found in very low numbers and do not pose an immediate threat to livestock. But there is an adverse effect of livestock on the gazelles. Our data indicated that, apart from other factors, pasture degradation associated with excessive livestock grazing contributed toward a decline in the gowa population.
The growing market for pashmina has also led to an increase in livestock. Pashmina or cashmere wool is an internationally marketed fiber produced from a local breed of goat. The wool is taken to Kashmir to be woven into exquisite shawls. Until recently, Changpas sold raw pashmina only to middlemen for a minimal price ($10 US per pound), who then sold it to traders from Kashmir. But a pashmina processing plant was established recently in Ladakh. The plant requires a constant supply of bulk pashmina to remain in operation, thereby increasing the demand for the fiber.
One day, we visit some nomads in an obscure valley. Tashi, a wizened herder, informs us that the low numbers of gowa are the result of high mortality during a heavy snowfall in the winter of 1998. “The animals cannot dig snow to uncover small herbs,” he says. Even the hardiest animals, like yaks, are tested by the severe Changthang weather. The fissures on Tashi’s sun-tanned face are testimony to the harsh elements.
Supplementary feeding is an option to reduce gowa mortality during severe winters, but an earlier effort by the local wildlife authority was not successful because the gazelles did not take advantage of the food. Thus, the only solution is to protect their natural habitat.
During our stay, I also learn that Changpas resorted to agriculture over the past 20 years, due largely to pasture degradation that made livestock production less profitable. There were only a few agricultural fields in the valley in the 1960s, but today they sprawl over the entire area.
However, agriculture gave rise to new conflicts between nomads and wildlife, especially the kiang, which tend to damage crops. Unlike ruminants such as the gowa, the kiang has an inefficient digestive system and food passes quickly through its digestive tract. Therefore, the animal eats more to obtain the necessary nutrients, which agitates the pastoralists. “Our livestock eat only for a few hours during the day, but the voracious kiang eat day and night without resting,” laments the village headman.
Under such a scenario, gaining public support for wildlife conservation seems a formidable task. Conservation initiatives in the region are further discouraged by administrative apathy. Wildlife management is slow and piecemeal, if at all-understandable given the low economic return.
Obviously, the value of wildlife must be enhanced, largely by promoting ecotourism. However, the wildlife, nomads, livestock, and the vital dynamics must be integrated and conserved for a successful ecotourism program. This can be achieved only with the support of the local people.
Before leaving Hanle, I visit the rebo of Ishey, a local leader, one last time. In the middle of the rebo, a stew simmers on an open hearth, and the smoke pierces my eyes. His wife offers us butter tea, and as we converse, a gust of wind puts a thin layer of dust over the tea. Life here appears tough, but they seem to get along with ease.
I ask Ishey if the villagers would help us conserve the gazelles. He promises to put the proposal before the people and let us know during our next visit. As we drove back, two tiny specks appear on the horizon. Later they turn out to be two men on horseback traversing the infinite space. I visualize hundreds of gowas moving across this great plateau and hope that our work with the locals will soon carve out a way for the Tibetan gazelle from this grim situation.