(First published in Sanctuary Asia, February 2021, Volume 41, Issue 02)
An orchestrated sound of galloping hooves drew my attention to the river bank. It was dusk and a herd of Kiang was challenging the flow of Shyok river. I was on my way from Darbuk to Nubra and I decided to take this uncharted route through Shyok and Agham. While other tourist destinations of Ladakh are connected with well maintained black top roads, this region is devoid of such luxury. Traces of the road have merely reduced to navigational aids and demand considerable off-roading. This desolate but quaint part of Ladakh remains shrouded from tourists and bikers and are devoid of any homestays. The purity of the region offers greater possibilities of finding and photographing high altitude fauna which are otherwise uncommon in other parts of Ladakh.
A LANDSCAPE LIKE NO OTHER
Shyok and Agham are tiny settlements on the banks of Shyok river which are hardly exposed to the modern trends of civilization. While Shyok can still boast of the highest suspension bridge (Karakoram Dwar) in the world, Agham remains almost invisible in the map. Shyok valley can be considered to be an extension of the Chang Chenmo valley and displays extraordinary vistas. The skyscraping peaks are devoid of significant vegetation. These high inaccessible ridges are sporadically interspersed with barren table-top features. The upper reaches of the mountains are covered with scattered patches of snow. Oxygen is scanty and temperature plummets below zero in most parts of the year. Even though such lifeless, barren and inhospitable landscape apparently raises concern about presence of life, it is actually an abode to an unmatched biodiversity. These rocky outcrops have observed minimal footfall of researchers and photographers because of the remoteness, inaccessibility and lack of infrastructure. My expedition across the length and breadth of Ladakh was not aimed for any particular species, but to photograph the exotic wildlife that are designed to survive in such severe terrain and weather.
GLIMPSE OF THE UNICORNS
It was the nest of a Golden Eagle on the wall of a spiking ridge which made me camp in the banks of Shyok river. I kept a constant vigil on the nest on the next day, but the raptor decided to evade me. However, shy herds of Kiang, foraging colonies of Blue Sheep, peeping Pikas and encircling Lammergeiers kept me occupied. On the second day, I approached the cliff through a different alley in a last desperate attempt to photograph those mighty talons. The bird still deceived me but the venture reaped something unexpected. When I was gazing towards what appeared to be another nest, something moved on top of a high ground on my right. I quickly turned and saw a silhouette of marching swords. A chill of adrenaline surged down my spine.
Few ancient travelers have narrated experiences of witnessing Unicorns in their Tibetan travelogues. In modern days it is well established that Unicorns are mythical and their stories are most probably evolved out of Chiru sightings. Chiru or Tibetan Antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), are found mainly in the Chinese part of Tibetan plateau. However a very small population of them is known to stroll in Daulat Beg Oldie and Chang Chenmo valley of Ladakh. In this part of India they are extremely rare and their population dwindles between 250 and 300. They are more elusive owing to the fact that they hardly settle at a particular place for prolonged period of time. They are mostly migratory in nature where males and females form part of different migratory herds.
The marching swords soon came out of darkness, just to reveal that the greatest surprises remain hidden in the weirdest corners. My excitement came out in the form of a whisper - “Chiru”, even if there was no audience to hear me. It was a herd of males which made a brief appearance in the skyline and disappeared in the thin air on reverse side of the ridge. I was left with four more days of ration to survive. I pitched my tent inside the untrodden defile with a hope to track these incredible and elusive mountain goats.
ADAPTED TO THE MOUNTAINS
Chirus are the largest mammals which are endemic to Tibetan Plateau. With fewer than 1,50,000 matured individuals left in the wild, the major population is found exclusively in Changtang Nature Reserve. These even toed ungulates are extremely shy and are least tolerant to humans. They usually inhabit high mountain treeless steppes and semi arid deserts above 16,000 feet where temperature dips down to as low as -40 degrees. They can survive harshest weather conditions. They sport a reddish brown or pale fawn coat with white under fur. The woolly under fur is formed of long guard hairs over short lustrous fibers. It is the thickest in the world and is the sole reason of bringing catastrophe to their entire population. The males have long and slender horns with ring like ridges and pointed tips.
Chirus are specially designed to maneuver cliffs with great precision. Even a newborn can outrun ponies on the very first day of its life. A full grown Chiru can attain a maximum speed of 80 kmph. The main predators of Chiru are Tibetan Wolves, Lynx, Brown Bears, Snow Leopards and at times dogs of nomads. The calves are particularly vulnerable to Red Foxes, Sand Foxes, Golden Eagles and Lammergeiers. However when it comes to escaping them, Chirus give their predators the toughest time. Such remarkable fleeting skills at extremely rarified atmosphere require specialized adaptations. Their light and agile bodies are aptly fuelled with specially designed air sacs within their nostrils. These sacs facilitate increased breathing capacity and greater endurance. Chiru is the only species on earth which exhibits an extraordinary adaptation of the adults retaining their fetal version of hemoglobin. This helps them to hold greater amount of oxygen in their blood. It is estimated that average lifespan of Chiru is approximately 10-12 years. Because of their inaccessible habitat, very little is known about them. Few animals were radio-collared with lot of difficulty but the efforts did not reap dividends. The signals lasted for a maximum of three days due to the peculiar terrain and tempestuous weather.
On the following days, I saw two herds and a solitary female. She was engrossed in grazing and was oblivious of my presence. When I approached her, she saw me, gave a neglectful look and continued foraging. Chirus inhabit regions where vegetations are unbelievably devoid of adequate nutrients. But these wonder herbivores can survive on graminoids and are capable of drawing moistures from those shriveled shrubs. They even dig through snow to reach out to those edibles in the winters.
AN ENIGMATIC MIGRATION
The Chirus of Shyok lived up to my aspirations in the subsequent days. But tracking them was a test of patience and fortitude. It was the summer month of July, yet the temperature touched the freezing point in most times of the day. I often found myself moving on four limbs, clambering breathlessly on the spines of formidable ridges.
Since little is known about the stray population of Chiru at Ladakh, I had to rely on the research analyses of the migrating pattern of their Tibetan brethren. Chirus require large swathes of land for migration. They are nomadic in nature and travels large distances from its autumn habitats to breed in a completely different and even more inhospitable terrain. During autumn, Chirus mainly inhabit high altitude desert steppe which has got 30% vegetation cover. It is the same ground where mating takes place in the winter months of November-December. The males challenge each other for mates. However they hardly use their horns to injure. Mostly a head down posture or chasing away is sufficient enough to establish supremacy. After six months of gestation, calving occurs between late May and early July. With fetus in their wombs, the Chirus take on an epic journey towards a more remote pasture. It is probably the most mysterious migration on earth. Unlike any other ungulate-migration, only the females team up for a 700 km round trip journey. On their way, they negotiate incessant snowfall, hailstorms, sandstorms and prolonged starvations. Moreover traveling such vast distances during gestation puts them under immense physical stress. They grow weak, thin and at times breathe their last during the expedition.
In spite of such fatal losses, Chirus continue to follow the same route to reach the same calving ground which is etched deep in their genes since centuries. The effects of such painstaking journey on the newborns are even more devastating. About 40% of the newborns die immediately just after seeing the light of the planet and half of the remaining die before they are two months old. The unforgiving temperature dips down to -20 degrees. Most of the newborns are unable to survive the bitter cold, thick snow cover, icy gales and inadequacy of oxygen. The calving grounds have lesser vegetation cover with even inferior nutrient content. It remains a mystery why the Chirus undertake such a suicidal journey which reaps no visible benefits. One reason may be for safeguarding the newborns from predation. The calving grounds are devoid of Brown Bears, Lynx, Snow Leopards, insects and feral dogs. After completing the toughest marathon on earth, Chirus give birth to a single offspring. The young ones weigh 3-4 kilograms and stand up on their unconfident limbs within 15 minutes of their birth. In next 1 hour they are ready to follow their mothers. The calves remain weaned to their mothers for at least 12 months by when the horns of the males begin to grow. They are fully grown by the end of 15 months. Female calves shadow their mothers up to 2-3 years till they reach their sexual maturity.
Calving months vary every year, depending on the environmental conditions like weather, snowfall etc. Moreover the climatic conditions of Ladakh differ marginally from that of Changtang Nature Reserve. All these minor but significant deviations made me unsure about the herds which I witnessed. It could have been a movement towards the calving ground or may be a return journey after the offspring were born. However, on the last day I saw a month old calf following its mother along a frozen glaciated slope. Possibly the calving has taken place by May-June. The herds that I witnessed are most likely one of those lesser known sedentary population which travels less and gives birth within a short expanse. It was pointless to search a calving ground as the same would have been abandoned by the mothers by then. Moreover I was running out of logistics in a valley with practically zero natural resources for humans to survive.
In the beginning of 20th century, Chirus numbered in millions. But by the 90s, almost 95% of its global population was wiped out, bringing it down drastically to a staggering 75,000. As mentioned by the distinguished conservationist George Schaller, approximately 3,00,000 Chirus were massacred in the last decade of the century. To survive in frigid and harsh weather conditions, Chirus are gifted with the finest under fur in the world. Unfortunately it is this under fur which is the source of the most expensive fabric in the world called Shahtoosh (meaning King of Wools in Persian). It is unbelievably soft and light but provides warmth akin to a down feather jacket. Shahtoosh can be weaved to form warps of different sizes ranging from Scarfs to Shawls and can cost up to $ 20,000.
Earlier Shahtoosh, was considered to be a prestigious dowry item in India. In the present days, the Shahtoosh industry thrives due to its demand in the Western World. Since the wool cannot be stripped out of a live animal, it can only be obtained from a carcass. Depending on the size, each Shahtoosh claims lives of 3-5 Chirus. Their well predicted migrating pattern, provide ample opportunities to poachers. The wool is then sneaked to Jammu & Kashmir where a particular clan of weavers takes pride in manufacturing Shahtoosh. To proliferate this business, a myth was once rumored that Chirus shed their wool naturally and the hair tufts are gathered by nomads. Manufacturing of Shahtoosh has not only remained restricted to money making but also has deep rooted within the culture of the weavers. A Shahtoosh weaver is revered with high respect in his society as the art involves a lot of skills acquired through years of learning. It is very difficult to handle the delicate and brittle fur. Each Shatoosh is meticulously handmade and crafted with such fineness that it may take years for production of one single piece.
It was the plight of Schaller that drew attention of the world towards Shahtoosh trade. The alarming rate of decline in population of Chirus forced it to be categorized as endangered. A ban on trade of Shahtoosh was enforced by CITES in 1979. It is not only illegal to manufacture Shahtoosh but it is equally unlawful to possess one. With the turn of the century situation appeared to improve. By 2016 it was estimated that the population has increased to 1,00,000 – 1,50,000 and hence the status was again promoted to Near Threatened category.
AN UNCERTAIN ESTIMATE
Even though it is apparently evident that the population of Tibatan Antelopes is increasing after the enforcement of ban on trade of Shahtoosh, an ambiguous account may be lurking beneath. It is extremely difficult to ascertain the population of Chirus in the wild. No proper census was ever carried out owing to the unforgiving terrain and severe weather. The bizarre migration adds on to the unpredictability. The estimates are made depending on the known migratory and sedentary herds in Tibetan plateau. However the nature of these herds, in terms of density and population, varies every year depending on the weather conditions and snowfall. Hence the reduction of few thousands can easily go unnoticed unless studied consistently for more than 2-3 decades.
Under such circumstances, officials from various countries confirmed that they have confiscated lot of Shahtoosh recently. The embroideries confirm that they are newly made. Switzerland alone has recorded confiscation of 295 Shahtoosh wraps between 2010-2018, which may have costed lives of at least 1180 Chirus. Other countries have recorded confiscation of Shahtoosh worth 800 Chirus between 2015-2018. 35 Shahtoosh were seized in India in 2018 which confirms killing of minimum 140 animals. Moreover these are mere statistics. With every passing day, identification of Shahtoosh is getting more difficult. The quantities which escape the vigilant officials are far more than what are seized.
Earlier a Shatoosh was identified by the presence of few guard hairs which are extremely cumbersome for the weavers to remove. However in recent days, the weavers are mixing Shahtoosh with Pashmina, which are making them free from noticeable guard hairs. Another identifying procedure was to pass it through a wedding ring. Earlier only a Shahtoosh would have passed this test. But nowadays Pashmina and many other fabrics can be softened with chemicals and can pass the test. It is also difficult to trace the weavers as most of them remain hidden under the pretext of manufacturing Pashmina. Conventional anti-poaching patrols in those unforgiving terrain is also a farfetched reality. Going by these facts, it appears that the stagnation or increase in Chiru population may be a misinterpretation and hence raises serious concern.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Chirus not only form part of a very different ecosystem, but their struggle for survival is an epic in itself. They have hurdled through the ages to make their mark in the Karakoram ranges. But their unparalleled adaptation is suffering a major setback due to the onslaught of anthropogenic activities. Illegal manufacturing of Shahtoosh is taking a heavy toll on the last population of these mountain dwellers. Construction and development of roads in prime habitats of Chiru is also threatening them. Their competition for digging out forages from a parched landscape is not only limited to their own herds but also extends with the domesticated livestock of the pastorals. George Schaller’s single handed effort was able to draw attention of Governments of China and India which ultimately fructified with the creation of Changtang Nature Reserve in 1993. Subsequently Wildlife Conservation Society made efforts to give rise to West Kunlun and Shorkul Tibet Antelope Nature Reserve. In India the newly developed Karakoram Wildlife Sanctuary and Changtang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary is expected to provide a safe haven to these mountain survivors.
Chirus of Ladakh are integral to a landscape which has managed to live without witnessing much human interference. This silver lining is most probably because of the fact that their prime habitats, which include the areas of DBO, Depsang plains and Chang Chenmo valley, remain within restricted military zones thus keeping the poachers at bay. Stoppage of poaching and subsequently reduction in influx of the Golden Fleece is ought to divert the weavers towards alternate means of livelihood. Though the present situation raises hope for the Ladakhi population of Chirus, there is no scope of contentment till the manufacture of Shahtoosh is curbed completely. Pashmina can be an excellent alternative, only if the consumers can be encouraged to settle with it. It is made out of the wool of domesticated Changthangi goats without causing any loss of life to them.
When I packed my camp after four days of tracking the near mythical goats and was on my way back, a sweeping sound drew my attention to the sky. It is the Golden Eagle for whom I actually ventured into this untraveled wilderness. I aimed my camera and was able to capture few frames of the bird which eluded me in the last four days only to make me meet a far more intriguing anecdote of my journey.