BIRDS & MAMMALS OF LADAKH: Otto Pfister; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Dellhi-110001. Rs. 795.
THE WORLD is divided by animal geographers into several areas called zoogeographic regions on the basis of their animal life. These areas, also known as faunal regions, roughly coincide with major continental land masses and are separated by geographical features such as oceans and mountain ranges.
Each of these regions has a distinct fauna on account of its habitat and isolation from the other regions. Almost all of India falls within the faunal region known as the Oriental or the Indomalayan region.
Ladakh, in contrast, with an extent of about 117,000 square kilometres and forming the western part of the Tibetan Plateau, belongs to the Palaearctic region, which includes Europe, Northern Africa and Northern Asia thus it has a fauna very different from that of the rest of India.
The appeal of Ladakh's wildlife lies not only in this uniqueness. It also derives from the remoteness and harshness of the land. Ladakh, consisting mainly of high plains, brackish lakes and deep valleys, is situated 2700 metres above the sea level. It is very sparsely populated and it is so cold in places like the Zanskar region that people and cattle remain indoors for much of the year. It gets less than 10 centimetres of rain on average annually. Its vegetation is stunted. It is the wildlife of this land that forms the compass of this book.
It deals with 276 bird species and 30 mammals of this land, nearly all the birds and larger mammals reported from Ladakh. The species accounts make up the major part of this well produced book. They are written in an easy, readable style. All the details normally expected in a field guide, such as a description of the animal, its habitat and the calls it makes are provided. The "typical areas of encounter" and "similar species" sections in each account will be particularly useful for location and identification in the field.
One finds among the birds many species that are not found in most other parts of India, the Tibetan Snowcock and the Blacknecked Crane for instance. Others, such as the Pintail and Redshank, that winter in the rest of India are passage migrants or summer visitors in Ladakh. Understandably, there are a number of birds, particularly among the passerines, that one associates more with Europe than with India the Linnet is an example.
Among the mammals of Ladakh, there are carnivores such as the elusive Snow Leopard, the Brown Bear and the Wolf. There is a diversity of ungulates, including the Tibetan Wild Ass and sheep species. Among the smaller mammals are hares, voles, pikas and marmots. The author does not describe any bats, smaller rodents or insectivores.
Wildlife hot spots
The illustrations that follow the species accounts are noteworthy. Every species has been illustrated with at least one colour photograph and most of these have been shot by the author. This sets a benchmark for future field guides in India.
The author writes that wildlife is not very wary of humans in Ladakh. Even so, given the difficulties that fieldwork in this inaccessible and bleak region must have entailed, this is very impressive. Even birds such as the Yellow Wagtail that visit the rest of India are interesting to look at in the photographs. The plumage they sport in Ladakh is normally not seen elsewhere in the country.
The introductory chapters on Ladakh are brief but are nevertheless informative. The sections on wildlife hot spots, protected areas of Ladakh and different ecosystems are helpful. The volume will be invaluable for the birdwatcher and the wildlife enthusiast.
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