All Is Not Well! At The Top Of The World
Once shy and receding, Ladakh’s marmots have undergone a personality change. Sujatha Padmanabhan explains why this is less than reassuring.
Photo: Pema G. Bhutia.
The first time I saw marmots was in 2003, near the Khardungla pass en route to Nubra valley. It was early May and the large rodents were just out of their winter hibernation. At the first sight of any danger, they would scuttle back to the safety of their burrows.
What a difference from what I witnessed when I revisited Ladakh in the summer of 2015!
Over the past few years, I had been hearing disconcerting reports of tourists feeding marmots near Pangong lake in Ladakh. The region apparently witnessed an astounding tourism boom post the 2009 release of Aamir Khan’s hit film, 3 Idiots. The climax scenes were shot with the spectacular lake in the background, and the summer after its release, tourism figures spiked to 1.5 lakhs, almost double of the previous year.
I had, of course, heard that much had changed since my pre-3 Idiots trip to the lake, with mini buses and taxis plying tourists there on a regular basis. But wild marmots turning tame? Not in my wildest dreams would I have believed that this would be a consequence of the popularity of the destination post the film.
Approaching the lake, beyond the Wildlife Department’s check post (which impressively exhorts people not to feed wildlife), I spotted the animals in moist grassy patches, right along the highway. I was horror-struck to see how close one could get to these creatures. It was a clear case of behavioural change brought about by a few summers of being fed by tourists, the same way they do with monkeys near temples and highway pit-stops across the subcontinent!
Observing the marmots I could see them approaching us without trepidation. They actually looked up to see if one of us would outstretch a hand. With them were a couple of baby marmots that were busy feeding, unconcerned by the proximity of tourists.
As I watched these hypnotic creatures, I saw an adult marmot pick up a biscuit lying near the entrance to its burrow. A gift of misplaced benevolence! Another marmot sighting elsewhere revealed two adult marmots scampering away from the road, pursued by two adult men, one with a large stone in hand. Panicked, we stopped the vehicle only to be “reassured” by the companions of the two men and their young Ladakhi mini-bus driver that no one was going to harm the marmots and that the stone was merely for self-protection in case the animals attacked them!
It was Daliesque. When, I wonder, will we humans learn to leave wild animals alone? Does common sense not tell us that a diet of bread, bananas and biscuits will harm the marmots? That offering wild animals foods that contain refined wheat, sugar, preservatives and what have you amounts to poisoning them?
At another level, some degree of unintentional feeding takes place because wildlife habitats are being impacted by expanding cities and agricultural lands. Intentional feeding just adds insult to injury!
Clearly the tourism explosion in Ladakh has begun to throw up serious consequences that are only getting worse by the year. Ladakh is in trouble. Virtually every local family in Leh town has built a guesthouse or hotel on land that once offered food crops. They have water-based toilets that are ruining the cold-desert ecosystem. The local Hill Council is now planning to install a sewage treatment plant at great cost and no one knows with what consequences. In effect, Ladakh could have learned from and avoided mistakes made by other Himalayan destinations including Shimla and Gangtok for example. But it has chosen not to.
It seems there are more than just ‘3 Idiots’ at work. All is NOT well.
SOCIAL MEDIA SPEAK
“All it needed were some bananas to win them over. Food made them romantic as they smooched each other and huddled together, and friendly too with two of them trying their best to snuggle up my legs. … adding variety to their diet comprising predominantly of grasses and herbs.”
Comments to the above post:
“… unfortunately didn’t know the banana trick. Otherwise would have used it. Now I know the marmot taming secret, thanks to you.”
“Try some slices of bread. They will just go crazy. You could even hold them in your hand.”
“Maybe I will take wholegrain or brown bread – healthier for them.”
“I got a picture of me scratching one of their bellies.”
“Biscuits were offered and it ate those happily and allowed us to take photographs and touch.”
“… our driver told us not to feed them, so I didn’t. Just picking up a stone and dropping it beside you will make them get close to you since they think it’s food.”
These are excerpts, and the ensuing comments, from the blog post (https://kunzum.com/2009/07/09/playing-with-the-himalayan-marmots-in-ladakh/) of a travel writer after he visited the spectacular Pangong lake in Ladakh.
Sujatha Padmanabhan works in the field of environment education. She has authored story books for children and has developed environment education handbooks and resource material. She has spent a lot of time in Ladakh where she has worked with three NGOs on education and environment issues.
Author: Sujatha Padmanabhan, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 10, October 2015.