Sunday, March 21, 2010

In the land of the Mountain Monarchs...

A Mountain Monarch surveys his territory near Chirwasa!

I paused for a moment on the steep hillside, gasping for breath. I had been resting in my tent after the long trek from Gangotri to Bhojwasa, fighting a mild sensation of nausea when Shivraj burst into the tent shouting "Bharal! Lots of them, come let's go..." In a trice I had (rather unwisely!) forgotten my weariness and my altitude sickness and raced out behind my mountaineer friend, who started up the 60-degree slope of the nearby mountain with an agility better suited to creatures that we were racing to see... I followed, more clumsily but steadily, my whole attention focused on the 90-odd tiny figures high up the hillside, till the rude jolt of reality that we were at altitude made me pause for a while. Looking back down the slope I'd just climbed, I felt a faint glow of achievement when I saw the tents of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) rest house tiny in the valley below.

The herd of bharal on the slopes above Bhojwasa

Shivraj on the slopes above the facilities at Bhojwasa (in the backdrop)

The bharal had spooked seeing us climb and had all stood up and were watching us keenly. One or two of them sneezed - a way of showing alarm. We let them calm down by remaining still, Shivraj even sitting down and moving sideways on the slope, pretending to be least interested in them. This suited me just fine, ample time to rest and catch my breath. Then we slowly approached them. I stopped at about 200m away, while Shivraj approached even closer. He even whistled to them, which somehow seemed to calm them! Soon, as light ebbed away, we reluctantly left the bharal to their evening engagements and climbed down to the rest house and dinner.

I had first read about bharal in the classic travel book "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthiessen, who had accompanied the celebrated field biologist George Schaller to the Shey Monastery in Nepal to study mountain ungulates and their predators (including the elusive snow leopard). Bharal (scientific name Pseudois nayaur), also called the blue sheep of the Himalaya are classified as sheep, though they exhibit many traits that belong to goats too. These "mountain monarchs" - as Schaller called the wild sheep and goats of the Himalaya, occupy a large swathe of Himalayan and trans-Himalayan ranges. The male are larger and have heavier, backward sweeping, horns than the females, which have small ones. Subsequently, I had devoured the books by Schaller - "Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya" and my all-time favourite - "Stones of Silence: Journeys in the Himalaya". My previous experience of wild mountain ungulates was with the Nilgiri Tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius) of Eravikulam - an enigmatic mountain goat of the Western Ghats and I spent many a happy hour watching and photographing these majestic animals whenever I visited Munnar. I was thrilled to meet George Schaller himself at the world conference on mountain ungulates held at Munnar in 2006.

George Schaller at Eravikulam in September 2006

Nilgiri tahr at Eravikulam: unlike the bharal, the tahr is more goat than sheep

I knew from travel accounts that I had a good chance to spot bharal when I set out on my trek to Gaumukh and Tapovan last year and sure enough, I spotted my first one from the trail near Chirwasa on day one. I was so excited and started clicking pictures of the tiny figure on a rock in the river bed from the high trail. Shivraj laughingly told me to spare my film (I was using a film-SLR), "You'll find plenty of them at Tapovan, Sirji!" I later got a few good shots of that first bharal when it climbed up and crossed the trail in front of me. Later that day was all the excitement about the herd on the slopes near the rest house.

My first bharal (can you spot it???)!

The same bharal ram as it crossed the trail near me

Early next morning, we set out for Gaumukh, and then crossed the glacier and climbed to Tapovan. One of the first things I saw was a small herd of around 14-16 bharal on the meadows of Tapovan. We put up at the shelter of the Bengali Mataji at Tapovan. The shelter itself built under a rock was a marvel of simplicity and ingenuity. And Mataji herself, dignified and simple, was really a mother to us there - cooking, cajoling our altitude-hassled selves to eat and scolding me especially when my bharal-watching kept me away from my meals!

Mataji and Shivraj in front of her kutiya.

A bharal ram silhouetted against the skyline near Tapovan

A bharal ewe and young

The 3 days I spent at Tapovan was a mix of climbing (Shivraj and I climbed to 4600m on the lateral moraine of the Meru glacier), bharal watching and suffering the effects of altitude on our sea level-accustomed bodies. The bharal were quite confident in the vicinity of Mataji's ashram and it was touching to see the trust they had in human beings here (aided, no doubt, by the salt that Mataji and others used to sprinkle on a flat rock near the ashram). They were quite wary of me initially, though and used to keep away till they realized that I probably was harmless and allowed me to approach within ten feet of them.

The hills are alive... with bharal and their young..!

A lick of salt...

... and a drink of water...!

Towards the end of my stay, the bharal let me approach quite close...

The breeding season seemed to be over and there were several tiny lambs among the herds that frequented the ashram. The large males were mostly together in a bachelor herd, though the odd male could be spotted occasionally among the females and young, too. They were beginning to shed their winter coat and it was common to see tiny clumps of their winter fur lying around. I had a lovely time observing these magnificent creatures and felt privileged when they allowed me a window into their lives. It was with an inexplicable sadness that I bid goodbye to Mataji and her bharal...

Rock 'n bharal: a bachelor herd

A ram scratches off winter fur with his horn

An adult ram watches warily while two younger rams lick salt and an ewe preens herself

On the way back to Bhojwasa, I stumbled upon the skull of a bharal off the trail next to the rest house. Later, Shivraj found the rest of its body some way up the slope. It seemed to have been killed by a leopard (I had found leopard scat near one of the pinnacles we had climbed on the slopes of Shivling Parvat near Tapovan), or maybe, a snow leopard. Shivraj claims to have seen snow leopard several times in this region.

A skull of a bharal spotted near Bhojwasa

This year, as I prepare for my next Himalayan trek, I feel excited. What new experiences may be in store for us??? We plan to scale Baby Shivling this time around, and who knows, maybe this June we will have a darshan of the snow leopard Itself...!

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