Phantom Quest – Into The Lair Of The Grey Ghost
Few people have the legs and lungs to walk where the author walked in the Eastern Himalaya. Supported by the Department of Environment and Forest, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Rajarshi Chakraborty and his team went out in search of the snow leopard, in tough, but stunningly beautiful terrain. Possibly the most climate-threatened of all the large cats, its survival could well be dependent on how well the authorities and locals protect the Tsangyang Gyatso Biosphere Reserve through which they walked.
Photo: Lham Tsering
“You have just one objective. Find me the snow leopard!” remarked Dr. Pijush Dutta, my then-coordinator of the WWF-India Western Arunachal Landscape Programme office, where I had shifted, after a stint in WWF-Sikkim, in 2012.
We were to hike, climb and crawl through a desolate mountain highland area in western Arunachal Pradesh measuring at least 50-60 sq. km., where little information existed regarding anything, including the terrain, wildlife and even approach routes. Even if we succeeded in zoning in on the most likely snow leopard habitat, there were no assurances that we would have sightings of the grey ghost. Still, frenzied planning, gathering of equipment and obtaining permits left little time for speculation. As I looked at the approaching mountains from our vehicle, speeding away from the Assam foothills, I knew that snow leopard or not, it was going to be an expedition of a lifetime.
Our team relied on the experience of Aishwarya Maheswari, from our Delhi office, a snow leopard expert on his second trip to this landscape. While he provided the core knowledge, I was to observe the overall habitat, the presence and absence of wildlife. The actual energy and momentum for our adventure came from my other colleague Lham Tsering, a resident of the highlands who, with Pema Wange, another colleague, chalked out our trip plan. It was early June of 2012 and the highland snows had just begun to melt, signaling the start of the upward summer migration of the traditional yak herders and grazers. Our trip began by camping in Jang (Tawang district), the last town before the start of our trek, where we gathered information, hired horsemen, guides and porters.
Photo: Rajarshi Chakraborty
We chose to follow the Mago Chu river upstream to the large settlement of Mago and then hike to higher elevations in the proposed Tsangyang Gyatso Biosphere Reserve. This area was first scientifically surveyed by a team of scientists comprising Aparajita Dutta, Charudutt Mishra and M. D. Madhusudan some years ago (Mishra et al, 2006). They reached Mago and reported indirect evidences of snow leopard presence including a skin. We wanted to explore further north and document the cat’s actual range and hotspots in the Mago basin. The Western Arunachal Landscape, a WWF-India priority landscape, comprising two districts, Tawang and West Kameng, is rich in flora and fauna and falls under the Eastern Himalayan Global Biodiversity Hotspot. The survey we were on was a part of our overall programme to involve the local community to conserve the region’s spectacular biodiversity.
Our journey began with a hike upstream of the Mago Chu river, along trails used by the villagers and yak herders. The paths were cut into the walls of the deep, narrow gorges with occasional drops of a hundred feet, that offered dizzying views of the rushing Mago chu below. We walked very carefully, gingerly placing one foot ahead of the other. The forests we passed through were rich and dense, and reportedly harboured species including the red panda, Himalayan serow and Satyr Tragopan.
Slowly the gorges began to widen and, two days later, we reached Mago, situated close to the tree line, on the confluence of two rivers. All the settlements were inhabited by the hardy and cheerful Monpa tribe, the dominant ethnic group of Western Arunachal Pradesh. Buddhists by religion, they have a close bond with the environment and have grazed their livestock in these highlands for generations.
We interviewed many herders or Brokpas and spoke with the village elders. We also luxuriated by immersing ourselves at natural hotsprings where a bathing area had been created. Although a large settlement of the Indian Army existed nearby, Mago had no road connections in 2012 and the villagers were therefore occasionally cut off from the rest of the world in winter. After spending two days in Mago, we shifted to a meadow called Zithang, a day’s hike upstream, where several herders were camped. Encouragingly, they reported the presence of blue sheep, the main prey of the snow leopard, beyond Zithang. We chose to follow the prey, hoping to sight the elusive predator.
Photo: Rajarshi Chakraborty
WHERE ARE THE SNOW LEOPARDS?
Zithang is a spectacular alpine meadow situated at the confluence of two streams, dotted with stone huts used by summer herders. After speaking with them, we decided to explore the two valleys radiating out from Zithang. The first was difficult to survey on account of its narrow high gorge walls and loose scree slopes. The only place where we could set up tents was a depression in the Tserchey slope at 3,962 m. Here we were literally battered by chilly winds every evening. And with no firewood and occasional rain, we were often forced to cook inside our tent using portable LPG cylinders.
Over the next few days our surveys yielded no signs of the snow leopard, but they gave us the first taste of what to look for and where. We found evidences of blue sheep high near the ridge tops and it became clear that that was where the snow leopard would be… at the top of the valley slopes, near the most inaccessible trails used by predator and prey. We set up camera traps near some of those trails for short periods, but apart from an occasional blue sheep, nothing turned up. Overall, biodiversity-wise this was nevertheless a spectacular region. The valleys were clothed with dense sub-alpine shrub, rhododendron blooms and the occasional meadows aglow with floral carpets of all hues, including blooming potentillas, primulas, saxifragas and sundry medicinal and aromatic herbs. Large-eared pikas scurried across the scree-slopes while Himalayan marmots kept close watch from their hide-outs. Redstarts, Tibetan Blackbirds and wagtails were friendly and gathered around our tents every morning.
After four days in the area, we returned to Zithang empty-handed, but wiser in the ways of the grey ghost. The next valley took us to the end of the yak-grazing route, near a fabled meadow called Merathang. Short of time, this had to be our best chance to make Pijush-da happy. The youngish village headman or ‘Gaonburah’ of Mago, the wily Gyamtsho kept us company as we trekked the heights. Along the way we came to admire and wonder at the abilities of Gyamtsho, including his capacity to consume endless quantities of liquor at any time of day, despite his thin frame. Once he famously failed to show up at our campsite after starting from the village together. We later found him passed out and sleeping under a boulder!
The Merathang hike was longer than our previous one and our first halt was a day’s hike away at Lipu, a picturesque meadow by the river. Here we were delighted to see more evidences of blue sheep than we had earlier. We reached the spectacular meadow of Merathang at 4,876 m. on the second day. It was a magical place that literally and figuratively took our breath away with its wide grassy meadows, abloom with herbs, and a river rushing through the centre. Above us we could see high fortress-like walls with the northern aspect blocked by a steep scree slope that led to a glacier that was plainly visible.
Our arrival could not have been more dramatic, as minutes after setting camp, we stumbled upon a carcass of blue sheep just three metres from our tents! Although very little remained in the carcass to warrant the return of a predator, Aishwarya also agreed that this was potentially a snow leopard kill! Spirits lifted, we spent the next five days scouring every imaginable corner of the valley, placing camera traps where we were able to find animal spoor.
Photo: Rajarshi Chakraborty
A HABITAT WORTH PROTECTING
It took us very little time to establish that we were indeed in the home of the grey ghost. We found pugmarks atop the scree slope leading to the glacier. And still more pugmarks and scats near the ridgetop behind camp. But an actual sighting proved too good to be true and we left with only indirect evidences of its presence. Nevertheless, we were happy. We had met our objective and had enough evidence to prove that the entire stretch more than deserved to be categorised as a Biosphere Reserve.
As for the snow leopards, clearly their distribution in the region is driven by presence of blue sheep above all else… and by the same standard, logically, the entire stretch of highlands had to be accepted as a vital habitat for the cats. Lham Tsering and I took a slight detour on the way back to Zithang and hiked up to a jewel-like alpine lake called Tso-key at 4,419 m. As we were about to descend to join the main trail, a couple of Ruddy Shelduck flew out of the lake, honking noisily, and flying very close to us before disappearing over the edge of the hill, as if to say, “better luck next time!”
As of now, snow leopards are definitely present in western Arunachal Pradesh and hopefully they will continue to roam these desolate highlands in the company of the region’s astounding high-altitude biodiversity. But all is not well in paradise. Apart from fact that climate change is causing habitat modifications, we could see that pheasants and ungulates including blue sheep were hunted by locals. Clearly, once in a while a snow leopard might unintentionally be caught in a trap and its skin displayed as a trophy. Admittedly non-commercial in nature, we know there is but a thin line between proud display and full-blown poaching. Human-animal conflict predictably plays a threatening role though most herders we interviewed said the Asiatic wild dog was a greater danger to their livestock than the snow leopard. Mago is now connected with a fair-weather road with Jang. The impact of such development on wildlife has to be ascertained in a scientific manner to safeguard the fragile alpine habitat, not just for its biodiversity values but because the biodiversity plays a vital role in the water security of both districts, what with its innumerable glaciers, high altitude lakes and swift-flowing streams.
After the survey in 2012, we wanted to undertake a longer, more thorough assessment to cover the adjoining river valleys, using systematic camera trapping. But this was unfortunately not possible. That said, we were able to establish the importance of the Mago Chu basin for snow leopards again in 2016, by way of a landscape-wide questionnaire-survey of both herders and hunters. Assisting us were different teams of trained community members from both districts.
Photo: Rajarshi Chakraborty
When we compiled the data and analysed the results, not surprisingly, the maximum number of recent snow leopard sightings and positive records in the landscape came from the Mago Chu basin area. We can only hope that the habitat continues to remain a snow leopard stronghold and that this and other highlands are afforded the importance they deserve from planners and from the locals in whose hands their future lies.
Author: Rajarshi Chakraborty, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 12, December 2018.