The Fall Of A Serow
Munib Khanyari investigates why a rare Himalayan serow tumbled down, dead, in the outskirts of the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.
Photo: Ramki Sreenivasan.
Field work is full of unexpected occurrences. But nothing quite prepared me for what happened on June 28, 2016, at the end of my first stint in the Rudranath area in Uttarakhand, where I was working to understand the potential impact of livestock grazing on the Himalayan tahr Hemitragus jemlahicus and Himalayan serow Capricornis thar. We had already trekked over 350 km. of thick rhododendron and oak forests, riverine landscapes and rocky cliffs. Tahr herd sightings had become frequent and highly productive for the project, but the serow had still remained elusive.
That fateful morning, around 7 a.m., I was ambling towards my field assistant’s home in Siroli village, near the entrance of Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary. The end of the first field session warranted a hot cup of tea and some conversation. Suddenly, from the top of the cliff facing the village, I saw a dark figure tumbling down, in a rather unorthodox and intoxicated manner. It came to rest barely 100 m. in front of my awestruck eyes, legs sprawled, still... dead. It took me a moment to grasp what had happened. There it was, my first visual of a serow, but ironically lifeless. What was even more shocking than the death was probably what had caused it. Unusual cracks on the skin, dryness, and hair fall characterised the corpse. Something had been seriously wrong with this individual. After recovering my wits, I took photographs of the deceased specimen to investigate the cause of death.
Several conversations followed with locals, forest officials and livestock herders in the area, and the plot thickened. The symptoms were of a disease locally known as mukkhu, which curiously seems to occur in sheep but not goats of the region. The herders said it occurred in waves of every four to five years, but it wasn’t a particularly serious threat. The sheep would shed hair and feel intensely itchy, but the herders used a medicine that would treat it. Death only occurred if the individual wasn’t treated within a month or two.
However, I learnt that that particular year had been especially devastating for the region’s serow population. Since March 2016, around 10 anecdotal deaths had occurred in the Mandal-Siroli valley, just outside the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary. Each deceased animal had the same symptoms and peculiarly died near the village, sometimes even drowning in the local river. Supposedly, in the very recent past, large numbers of Himalayan goral Naemorhedus goral had also contracted this disease in the region and the villagers were unanimous in suggesting that their current population was drastically lower than before. Upon my return to Mumbai, I sent emails to experienced wildlife veterinarians and parasitologists, looking for an explanation. Conversations with them and more research revealed the cause of death to be Sarcoptic mange. Intriguingly, this disease has been recorded for over four decades in the ungulates of the Himalayan region. A wide ranging, epizootic disease, it is found in 10 orders, 27 families and 104 species of domestic and free-ranging/wild animals. In most studied cases, short-term mortality of species is high, but doesn’t generally have an affect on long-term population dynamics. Nevertheless, it can have tragic consequences in fragmented populations, where the loss of even a few individuals can be devastating. The complete wipe-out of the red fox Vulpes vulpes, on Borrnhold Island in Denmark due to this disease, is a case in point.
The disease is caused by highly infectious mites, generally Sarcoptes scabiei, though many vagrants do occur and are yet to be identified. Called scabies in humans, symptoms and reaction to this disease depend on the immunity of individual animals and species. Symptoms generally include the abnormal thickening of the outer layer of skin, usually without marked hair loss, but with an underlying chronic dermal inflammation and an abundance of mites in the skin.
The mites consume living cells and tissue fluid. As yet, there is no taxonomic means to distinguish the various strains that manifest a high degree of host-specificity. Interestingly, it is believed to have arisen in humans, who then spread it to their domestic animals, from where wild animals picked it up.
The magnitude of the impact of this disease on the serow or other species across their range, is still barely understood, leave alone being acted upon. From the little we do know of this rare and Near Threatened (IUCN Red List) ungulate, human-led impacts including habitat loss from deforestation is fragmenting their populations, causing genetic exchange across populations to be reduced. Additionally, proximity to livestock in Kedarnath and across its range, increases the potential for cross-transmission of diseases. This has also been one of the main causes of population decline in southern Europe for the chamois Rupicapra rupicapra and the Iberian ibex Capra pyrenaica, both ecologically and taxonomically close to the serow.
Photo: Munib Khanyari.
The Kedarnath region is losing its serows rapidly. It’s vital that this disease and its impact on species’ populations and potential intervention measures by studied effectively to avoid a larger catastrophe. The serow might not be among the most charismatic species, but its ecological role is crucial to its mountain home. Perhaps the next steps might be to try and understand the underlying environmental causes for the presence and preference of the disease-causing organisms and to establish the rate of cross-transmission between wild populations and livestock.
Author: Munib Khanyari, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 12, December 2016.