I occasionally keep scribbling, here and there, about my field sojourns while being in the wilderness. Sometimes turning over the pages of diaries, bring to memory, in flitting flashes, many hues and shades of observations and encounters made over the time about wild denizens and their conservation issues. Recalling and sharing, sometimes, such experiences enliven and rejuvenate our purpose and course of planning and action towards their conservation with much vigour.
I firmly believe that the landscape of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh or erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir state, is bestowed with a rich diversity of unique wild forms . From high altitude cold desert to Western Himalayn range, alpine meadows, Shivaliks and plains, one finds amazing manifestation of animal and bird life.
Although the much fancied tigers, lions or elephants are missing in this landscape, the presence of snow leopard, brown bear, Asiatic black bear, Tibetan gazelle, Tibetan antelope or chiru, Kashmir stag or hangul, Pirpanja markhor, Himalayan Tahr, musk dear and many other species spread across this climatically and physio-geographically diverse ecological niche is quite illustrious and significant.
Privileged to have tread a range of diverse wilderness landscapes in quest of sighting ,observing and studying many such elusive and agile species in the far flung and remotest terrains I adequately learnt and broadened my vision towards understanding the conservation issues in better perspective.
For instance trekking miles and miles along Indo-China border in high altitude and harsh climes of cold desert experiencing lashing and chilly winds, in search of wild yaks and Tibetan antelopes, known by locals as chiru, has always been an exhilarating experience. Sighting of a chiru, once fancied for much sought after wool, the shahtoosh and the rarely sighted wild yak always gives a tantalizing feeling and excitement.
A very small population of chiru resides within our territory near ‘hot spring’ and ‘Daulati Beigh’ in Chang thang high altitude cold desert, the western extension of Tibetan plateau, in Ladakh .The main population, in China, has reportedly dwindled alarmingly due to its persecution for much valued wool, the shahtoosh. About six to seven animals were to be killed for getting the amount of wool enough for making one shahtoosh shawl. However, the trade in shahtoosh and hunting of chiru is prohibited and is an offence in our country.
While travelling in vast expanses of Changthang one may frequently come across a beautiful animal, mostly in herds, galloping swiftly and crossing your path in extreme speed. However, sometime you may observe a pair or so calmly engaged in court ship or dancing spree, caressing necks and faces against each other. This species of wild ass, in this part of the country, is known as Tibetan wild ass or kiang. The counterpart of Kiang in other part of the country, Rann of Kutch , in Gujrat, is known as Khurr and is altogether different species of wild ass. Kiang is facing tough competition on account of sharing resources like grazing grounds and space with domestic live stock of locals and Changpas, the native nomadic tribe.
Kashmir stag or hangul, a beautiful red deer species, and state animal of erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir state, roams in Dachigam National park ,in Kashmir’s Western Himalayas with uncertain posterity. A very small or relic population is left in lts last bastion, Dachigam, and a few adjoining pockets outside the park. Except a few reports from Kishtwar the hangul is found nowhere else in the world. Burgeoning anthropogenic pressure on its habitat and presence of a large number of mining units and cement factories close to the fringes of Dachigam, on western flank and Khrew and Khanmoh conservation reserves, is deleteriously impacting the remaining relic population of hangul.
The marsh lands and areas along the banks of river Indus in Changthang, Ladakh, are the only breeding grounds, within Indian limits, for another endangered species, the black-necked crane, the state bird of erstwhile Jammu & Kashmir state. Black -necked cranes, bar-headed geese and many other migratory avian species breed in the region during summers. These species are facing severe threat as their eggs are trampled by the live stock of nomads and damaged by feral dogs apart from damage inflicted by wild predators like foxes and wolves. Sometimes dogs chasing black-necked cranes, damaging eggs and even killing chicks may be a common observation.
The big cat or the top carnivore of the trans-Himalays, the snow leopard or Shan, known as grey ghost for its highly camouflaging appearance is a magical creature of immense survival skills and adaptability. Sixty percent of the total Indian population of snow leopard is assessed to have distribution in Ladakh region. During winter season when snow leopard descends to lower altitudes some incidents of killing of live stock by snow leopard causes resentment in local population and retaliatory actions sometimes cause harm to this endangered species. However, construction of coral pens for live stock by Wildlife Protection Department since at couple of years has reduced, to some extent, such incidents. The highest number of sheep killed by a snow leopard which I, as the then Wildlife Warden Leh, noticed at Nemo, a hamlet about 40 kilometers from Leh headquarters, in 2009,was about thirty . We rescued the seriously injured snow leopard, which killed the sheep in a house, after tranquilization. After rigorous care and medical treatment, for about three months at Leh, we released it back into wild in good health condition.
A lot many species in various other parts of our wilderness landscape and habitat need our timely attention and intervention so that they are not pushed into a no return situation.
(The author, recently posted as Joint Director, J&K Forest Research Institute, is former Regional Wildlife Warden Jammu)