Earth abounds in fascinating locales, some of which are easily accessible, while others require sojourns to rather remote corners. In the summer of 2017, I chanced upon a trip to one such location, Leh. The opportunity helped me explore the mysteries of a cold desert and I was particularly excited about experiencing the windy heights of Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary.
We reached in the evening and suitably acclimatized after a peaceful overnight rest, began our ascent to the 134 km long Pangong Lake. Located at a height of 4350 m, and flanking both India and China, the Lake’s chromatic appeal holds enormous attraction for visitors. The Lake, we were informed, was in the process of being identified as a wetland under the Ramsar Convention – an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. Also, Pangong is expected to be the first trans-boundary wetland in South-Asia under this Convention. Despite the appeal, given the limited time available to me, I reluctantly declined the offer to visit the Lake. Waving a goodbye to my travel mates, I chose instead to detour to Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary.
On the way, I stopped for tea at the Changla Pass, located at a height of 5,360 m. As I enjoyed the thick, hot, and sweet broth, I conversed with the stall owner who proudly showed me the effort he is taking to dispose non-biodegradable trash—a pit where he empties out all the garbage on a daily basis. Once this pit is full, it is covered and a fresh pit is dug. It was difficult for me to convince him that this may not be the best practice, as it can turn the soil toxic and with erosion the waste stood the risk of being carried off to the lower slopes or into the river in the valley. I felt there was an urgent need to design an environment-friendly waste disposal system for the region.
Established in 1987, the Sanctuary is situated at a height that varies from 3,905 to 5,100 m with a topography that consists of vast plateaus, scoured intermittently by deep gorges. There are around 11 lakes and 10 marshes in the Sanctuary and the majestic Indus flows through it.
The sparse vegetation and low oxygen have fashioned unique creatures that are endemic to the region such as the kiang, Tibetan gazelle, Tibetan argali, Tibetan wolf, black necked crane, Tibetan lark, pierid butterfly, agamid lizard and Tibetan snow trout. Otto Pfister provides a full list of mammals and birds in cold deserts in India in his book ‘Birds and mammals of Ladakh’, 2014.
I set off with a companion well versed about the resident wildlife that adorns the landscape. The weather, characteristic of high altitude areas, was occasionally sunny, windy, cloudy, interspersed with flurry snowflakes blown about by strong gusts. Although I felt the cold intensely, my camera worked unhesitatingly in the harsh conditions. As I captured the first few frames of birds, fluffing and preening themselves against the icy wind, I couldn’t help but wonder how these tiny wonders live in such hostile environs.
Our vehicle essayed its way through the Desert, as herds of pashmina goats and yaks peacefully grazed. Interestingly, most of the shepherds were women with each group protected by a couple of large ‘herd dogs’. Their temporary white tents, with one side fortified by a high rock face, looked inviting and warm in the chill that was slowly seeping into my bones.
I was enveloped in pretty snowflakes, as I patiently waited to capture visuals of a black redstart perched perilously on a protruding rock. A small passerine bird in the redstart genus Phoenicurus, the species originally inhabited stony ground in mountains, particularly cliffs. Soon I was rewarded with sightings of a pair of Himalayan marmots, upright on their legs, surveying the landscape. The Himalayan marmots are about the size of a large housecat and belong to the squirrel family. The woolly creatures swiftly retreated into their burrows as they sensed my presence in the distance. We turned back from Lukum, at about 2 in the afternoon, on a different trail. Apart from the usual species I had sighted little else and was a bit despondent. My elation knew no bounds when I found a small group of the elusive kiang–wild ass, engrossedly grazing. From the bridge over the Pagal Nullah, I dazedly captured shots of kiangs leisurely walking on the white sand, just a few kilometres away. They were in our full view for several minutes, galloping past the bridge and jumping over the road and soon vanishing into their unknown abode.
Further ahead, my perseverance was rewarded with myriad sightings of birds in quick succession. I found a pair of ruddy shelducks dabbling in the shallows. Buddhists regard these birds sacred and extend protection to them in central and eastern Asia where the population is thought to be steady or even rising. Then came along a solitary chukar partridge—the national bird of Iraq and Pakistan, bobbing in happiness, whom I contentedly captured in frame. As I surveyed the desert against the failing light, an exquisite in-flight Eurasian magpie—one of the most intelligent of all non-human creatures flew into view. It left me thrilled to the core. Just then, a distinctive-looking horned lark with brown-grey shoulders and pale chest, and striking black and yellow pattern on the face, hopped into sight. Soon, the light faded and I was left with silhouettes of dark mountains against an inky and starry sky.
Back at the hotel, my fellow travellers perceived how happiness shone through me. Stupefied by the amazing biodiversity of the rare and hidden treasures of the region, I pined to eke out more time. As I researched about these rare species, I found that the rarest species—both plants and animals—contribute significantly to the ecosystems where they reside. Scientists believe that rare species, many of which are on the brink of extinction, are irreplaceable when it comes to providing ecosystem services. Ladakh is home to rare, endangered animals that have adapted to the climate and topography of a cold desert (Goyal and Arora, 2009). Such species, they believe, help buffer ecological disturbances. The increase in human populations, per-capita consumption and the development of technologies are working towards the detriment of ecosystems (Ehrlich and Ehrlich, 2009).
Despite being mere observers of this nature’s bounty we can help too. Building knowledge amongst the common people, we can do our bit for conservation and help sustain the ecosystem for these rare and beautiful creatures.