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In weasel land

Text and pictures by SUJATHA PADMANABHAN

"The fabulous sight of a herd of blue sheep scaling the steep and rugged cliffs left me speechless... "

Blue sheep atop the cliff...

"Whistle! Whistle!" shrieked young Thinlas, as I looked up from my desk. "Acheley, come quickly! It's in Phuntsog's room." I dropped my pen and sprang to my feet. I realised that Thinlas had got her vowel sound incorrect, and her `whistle' was indeed a `weasel'. I dashed into Phuntsog's room only to see the slim-bodied animal scurry across the wooden floor and exit through the window. I made an equally hasty exit through the door, and picking up my camera, managed to catch up with the animal just before it disappeared into a small grove of poplar trees.

The weasel...

My excitement knew no bounds. This was my last week of a five-month working stint with a non-governmental organisation in Ladakh. I lived in their campus about 18 kilometres outside Leh town. I had already felt blessed by the sightings of wild fauna around the campus and on the long trips that we did. I had least expected to encounter one more animal, and that too at the fag end of my stay.

In Ladakh you can travel for long stretches and not see any wildlife. Even during our three-day trek to the Hemis National Park, India's largest national park, we did not spot any of the ungulates found in Ladakh except the blue sheep (or the bharal). On the last day we were greeted by the fabulous sight of a herd of blue sheep scaling the steep and rugged cliffs above us with great ease. The name "blue sheep" is a misnomer, as they are definitely not blue in colour, and exhibit some characteristics of goats as well. I sat down to watch the sure-footed young lambs follow their mothers to the highest peaks. No faltering steps, no accidental falls! I was speechless.

The Himalayan marmot...

Of the other ungulates that are found in Ladakh, the urial, the ibex, and the Tibetan argali, we had to be content with seeing only their horns! Ladakhi people believe that it is auspicious to possess the horns of these animals, and so we often saw them on rooftops, at the entrance to villages or homes, and at the base of chortens (stupas of ancient Indian Buddhism). The animals are never killed for their horns; rather the horns are picked up only after an animal has died due to natural circumstances.

A trip to Changthang in Eastern Ladakh, an extension of the Tibetan plateau, saw us driving through the home of the Tibetan wild ass or the kiang. These are handsome animals, with reddish brown bodies and pure white underbellies. As you approach them, they shy away, and if you persist, they break into a gallop. Their natural predator is the wolf. The wild ass, however, is not wholly welcomed by the Changpas, the people of Changthang. One of the herders described how they sometimes have to drive away herds of wild ass across the border into Tibet (occupied by China) to reduce the grazing pressure on their pasturelands!

A herd of kiang in Changthang...

The Himalayan marmots, though a sheer delight to watch, were an amateur photographer's nightmare! Whenever I approached one, a shrill whistle would rent the air, and in a jiffy, all the marmots would disappear into the burrow nearest to them. The high-pitched call was a warning of my presence that one marmot would issue to all its fellow beings. Their burrows are an amazing underground network, into which they hibernate for the winter months.

Back in the "downs" as the rest of India is referred to by many of the Ladakhis, I think of my time in the cold desert, in the land of the weasel, the marmot, the kiang, and the fox. And feel compelled to tell you that India is much more than the land of the tiger, the lion, and the peacock.

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