Dodging through the crowded high street of Leh, we frantically looked for camera battery and good quality film rolls as we were to leave for Hanle to look for the Tibetan gazelle, a small antelope. We rushed towards the Moti market with makeshift shops selling trinkets. The shoppers and the shopkeepers seemed to be enjoying the blaring Bollywood songs. A winter trip to Hanle in Changthang meant we needed to carry lots of woolens, and we generously bought bundles of woolen socks and mittens. One music store, selling cheap audio tapes, was playing from a latest Ladakhi soundtrack, which was nice, and I bought it for the road.
The next day was sunny but the chilly wind was not very encouraging. The surrounding mountains of Leh were still under heavy snow from the previous week. Our spirits were however high, and we stuffed the back of my all-terrain vehicle with provisions and clothing. Soon we squashed into the car, but the machine seemed to have surrendered to the elements and came to life very reluctantly. After filling up the fuel tank, we rolled down towards Changthang. The Indus river had turned turquoise-blue, and glaring floes gyrated down its serene surface.
I always enjoy driving up the Indus valley in winter. It is quite usual to see wild animals near the road during this season as they descend to avoid the heavy snow in the higher reaches. But since the valley is rich in wild animals, we also see lots of animals like blue sheep during summer, too. In the afternoon we arrived at the spot where we had seen three snow leopards the previous summer. A mother and her two cubs had descended to drink from the river, and were returning when we crossed paths with them. After crossing the tarmac road, the mother jumped over the fence to the left, but the cubs took a detour after flimsy attempts to follow their mother over the fence. They were the cutest of creatures I had seen in my life. We quickly scanned the area to find out if that was their favourite drinking spot!
We arrived in Hanle in the evening, and I indulged in a hot shower. Unlike the frequent power cuts in Leh, there is 24×7 power supply in Hanle, thanks to the Indian Institute of Astrophysics that operates a high altitude observatory there. Once at Astrophysics campus, one can do an array of activities: browse the internet, play ping-pong, watch television, play cricket, etc. I usually end up partying with the engineers who were my classmates in school. Summer also provides the opportunity to go for a picnic in the lush meadows on the banks of Hanle river.
I woke up to a grand scenery the next morning. The high peaks on the distant horizon were bathed in a golden light of the sun. Smoke billowed from the one room structures spilled over the left bank of the Hanle river. After a heavy breakfast of unleavened flat-bread and scrambled eggs, my assistant Paljor and I drove towards the Kalak Tartar Plateau to look for the small remnant population of gazelles. I was told by some villagers that the carapace of ice on the Hanle river is strong enough to support our vehicle, so we decided to avoid the longer summer-route. Once at Kalak Tartar, Paljor and I scanned the tawny slopes that were stripped bare by the fierce wind.
Everything seemed lifeless until a lone Kiang or Tibetan wild ass plodded across a slope partially covered with snow. A few choughs displaying their acrobatics in the horizon asserted the avifaunal presence. As we scanned the area further, more kiangs came into view; some were basking in the sun, some fighting and some loitering. But the gazelles were nowhere to be seen. We drove to the northern edge of the plateau and searched the slopes facing Hanle village, but to no avail. But before long, five elegant gazelles walked gracefully in a file over a ridgeline to the south. ‘One sighting in a couple of hours is encouraging, given the very small population’, thought I.
Herds of sheep and goats grazed the slopes afar to the southeast. These domestic animals are similar to gazelles in most of their ecological requirements, and thus compete with gazelles for common resources like small nutritious herbs that help them survive through the harsh winter. The goat population of the Hanle valley increased almost twofold in the last couple of decades, as demand for Pashmina, the fine fibre produced by these goats increased. Therefore the future of gazelle in Hanle is precarious due to pasture degradation associated with burgeoning livestock population.
As the day progressed, we decided to make hot lunch. The only shelter on this wind swept plateau was my all-purpose-car. We folded its seats and melted snow on a kerosene stove. Instant noodles were served in a short while. As we sat inside the car, slurping on the hot noodles, the outside view got blocked by a fogged windshield. But we could easily trade-off temporarily the outside view for inside warmth. Paljor made tea quickly; having taken several such trips before, he had greatly honed his high altitude culinary skills. In the afternoon we went around once more looking for gazelle, but there was none and we headed back to the village.
In the evening I talked to Ishey Gyatso, an acquaintance, to see if he could accompany me on the survey in the mountains further up the valley. He readily agreed, and suggested that we do the survey on horseback. We left on horses early the next day. It took sometime for me to get used to the unique gait of the small horse. Soon we were on a saddle-shaped pass leading into the Giagra valley. We searched the slopes in this valley with binoculars and spotting scope, but we could see only kiangs. As the slope further-on was steep, Ishey dismounted and led the horse across, while he insisted that I continue riding.
Four hours of riding had gnawed on my body. Ishey offered to make butter tea and scampered around looking for dry yak dung and bushes to make a fire. I was impressed by his feat of collecting fuel enough to cook a meal for two people within no time. I pompously sat and scanned the area, while Ishey lit a fire and made tea. Soon, I spotted a group of five gazelles on a distant slope, but since it was located far-off, I couldn’t tell whether that was the same group that we had spotted the previous day or a new group.
We continued our journey, and in the afternoon arrived at a nomad camp. An old man was basking in the sun, twirling a small prayer wheel. His tanned and creased face spoke of the harsh elements of the region. A huge Tibetan mastiff stared at me, but accepted me as one of the nomads. But I wasn’t so lucky with some others which barked fiercely until we got into a Ribo or the nomad tent blackened with smoke and soot. All the men around squashed into the tent to greet Ishey, who I came to know was a popular figure in the area. There was an open hearth, which was stuffed with yak dung by the house-lady. Tea was served in plastic cups lined up on an improvised stone table. I told the credulous nomads about the plight of the gazelle, and they listened with rapt attention.
The small gazelle population in Hanle is the largest surviving population of the animal in India. Although, there is a sizable population in Sikkim, the animals there move back and forth between India and Tibet, China. The gazelle had a wider distribution in Ladakh in the past, but hunting and habitat degradation have led to its range contraction. If corrective measures are not taken well in time, the species may soon become extinct in India. This will be a major loss to the native people of Changthang in particular and Indians in general. I explained to Ishey’s friends how protecting this small population of gazelle will promote tourism in the region in the coming decades. All of them nodded in unison.
As the day wore down, we left the place. The horses galloped through a wide valley before climbing up a gravelly slope. We stopped on a high ridgeline, and a hard scan yielded six gazelles on a slope across the valley. Ishey told me that the animals graze around that area often during that time of the year. We left the place with firm resolution of returning back to find out why the animals haunt the place. Soon stars sprang forth in the sky. We rode in pitch dark, and only Ishey could tell how far we were from his camp. One hour ride against the biting cold wind brought us to Ishey’s Ribo, where his wife and children were waiting with tea and momos or steam-cooked stuffed dumplings ready to be served. We got inside the tent and savoured them. Ishey animatedly told his family about the day’s trip while I scribbled in my note book. Next morning I thanked Ishey and his family for all their help and hospitality and left them, entrusting them with the responsibility of keeping an eye on the gazelles until I next returned.
For more information visit Tsewang’s website http://www.reg.wur.nl/UK/Staff/Namgail/