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Hanle’s Endangered Gazelles

Dodging down Leh’s busy main street, we desperately searched for camera battery and good quality film rolls as we drove to Hanle to search for the Tibetan gazelle, a small antelope. We ran to the Moti market with makeshift shops selling trinkets. Shoppers and merchants seemed to enjoy the raucous Bollywood songs. A winter trip to Hanle in Changthang meant that we needed to bring a lot of woolen clothes, and we generously bought packs of woolen socks and mittens. A music store, selling cheap audiotapes, was playing a latest Ladakhi soundtrack, which was nice, and I bought it for the trip.

The next day was sunny but the cold wind was not very encouraging. The surrounding mountains of Leh were still under heavy snow from the previous week. However, our spirits were high and we packed the back of my ATV with supplies and clothing. We soon got into the car, but the machine seemed to have given in to the elements and reluctantly came to life. After filling up the fuel tank, we taxi towards Changthang. The Indus River had turned turquoise blue and dazzling icebergs swirled across its serene surface.

I always enjoy driving through the Indus Valley in winter. It is quite common to see wild animals near the road during this season as they descend to avoid heavy snowfall on the higher sections. But since the valley is rich in wild animals, we also see many animals like the blue sheep during the summer. In the afternoon we reached the place where we had seen three snow leopards the previous summer. A mother and her two cubs had come down to drink from the river and were returning when we passed them. After crossing the asphalt road, the mother jumped the fence on the left, but the cubs wandered off after weak attempts to follow their mother over the fence. They were the cutest creatures I had ever seen. We quickly scanned the area to find out if that was his favorite drinking spot!

We got to Hanle in the evening and I treated myself to a hot shower. Unlike the frequent power outages in Leh, there is 24×7 power supply in Hanle, thanks to the Indian Institute of Astrophysics that operates a high-altitude observatory there. Once at the Astrophysics campus, various activities can be carried out: surfing the Internet, playing table tennis, watching television, playing cricket, etc. Usually, I end up partying with the engineers who were my classmates at school. Summer also provides the opportunity to have a picnic in the lush meadows on the banks of the Hanle River.

I woke up to great scenery the next morning. The high peaks of the distant horizon were bathed in golden sunlight. Smoke billowed out of the structures in a room and spilled onto the left bank of the Hanle River. After a hearty breakfast of flatbread without yeast and scrambled eggs, my assistant Paljor and I drove to the Kalak Tartar plateau to search for the small remaining population of gazelles. Some villagers told me that the ice shell on the Hanle River is strong enough to support our vehicle, so we decided to avoid the longer summer route. Once in Kalak Tartar, Paljor and I scanned the reddish slopes that were bare by the fierce wind.

Everything seemed lifeless until a loner Kiang or the Tibetan wild ass trudged down a partially snow-covered slope. Some choughs showing their acrobatics on the horizon confirmed the avifaunal presence. As we scanned the area further, more kiangs appeared; some were sunbathing, some fighting and some lounging. But the gazelles were nowhere to be seen. We drove to the northern edge of the plateau and searched the slopes that overlooked the village of Hanle, but to no avail. But before long, five graceful gazelles walked gracefully in a file over a ridge to the south. ‘A sighting in a couple of hours is encouraging, given the small population,’ I thought.

Herds of sheep and goats grazed on the far southeast slopes. These domestic animals are similar to gazelles in most of their ecological requirements and therefore compete with gazelles for common resources like small nutritious herbs that help them survive the harsh winter. The Hanle Valley goat population nearly doubled in the past two decades as demand for Pashmina the fine fiber produced by these goats increased. Therefore, the future of the gazelles in Hanle is precarious due to the degradation of the pastures associated with the increasing population of cattle.

As the day progressed, we decided to pack a hot lunch. The only refuge on this windswept plateau was my ATV. We fold their seats and melt snow on a kerosene stove. Instant noodles were served in no time. As we sat inside the car, sipping hot noodles, the outside view was blocked by a foggy windshield. But we could easily temporarily trade the outside view for inside heat. Paljor made the tea quickly; Having gone on several such trips before, he had greatly honed his culinary skills at high altitude. In the afternoon we went around again looking for gazelles, but there were none and we headed back to town.

In the evening I spoke with Ishey Gyatso, an acquaintance, to see if he could join me in the survey in the mountains above the valley. He agreed and suggested that we do the survey on horseback. We went out on horseback early the next day. It took me some time to get used to the unique gait of the little horse. Soon we were on a saddle-shaped pass that led to the Giagra Valley. We searched the slopes of this valley with binoculars and telescope, but could only see kiangs. As the slope ahead was steep, Ishey dismounted and led the horse, insisting that I continue riding.

Four hours of driving had gnawed at my body. Ishey volunteered to make butter tea and scampered around in search of dried yak dung and bushes to make a fire. I was impressed by their feat of collecting enough fuel to cook a meal for two in a short time. I sat up pompously and scanned the area, while Ishey built a fire and made tea. Soon, I saw a group of five gazelles on a distant slope, but since it was located far away, I couldn’t tell if it was the same group that we had seen the day before or a new group.

We continue our journey and in the afternoon we arrive at a nomad camp. An old man was sunbathing, spinning a small prayer wheel. His tanned and wrinkled face spoke of the harsh elements of the region. A huge Tibetan Mastiff stared at me, but accepted me as one of the nomads. But I wasn’t so lucky with a few others who barked fiercely until we entered a Ribo or the nomadic tent blackened by smoke and soot. All the surrounding men crowded into the store to greet Ishey, who I got to know was a popular figure in the area. There was an open hearth, which the mistress of the house filled with yak dung. Tea was served in plastic cups lined up on a makeshift stone table. I told the gullible nomads about the plight of the gazelle and they listened with great attention.

The small gazelle population at Hanle is the largest surviving population of the animal in India. Although there is a sizeable population in Sikkim, the animals move back and forth between India and Tibet, China. The gazelle had a wider distribution in Ladakh in the past, but hunting and habitat degradation have resulted in a reduction in its range. If corrective measures are not taken in time, the species may soon become extinct in India. This will be a major loss for the natives of Changthang in particular and for the Indians in general. I explained to Ishey’s friends how protecting this small population of gazelles will promote tourism in the region for decades to come. They all nodded in unison.

As the day progressed, we left the place. The horses galloped through a wide valley before climbing up a gravel slope. We stopped on a high ridge, and a rigorous scan turned up six gazelles on a slope on the other side of the valley. Ishey told me that the animals graze in that area often during this time of year. We left the place with the firm resolution to return to find out why the animals stalk the place. Soon, the stars sprouted in the sky. We rode in the dark, and only Ishey could tell how far we were from his camp. An hour’s drive against the biting cold wind took us to the Ribo de Ishey, where his wife and children waited with tea and momos or steamed stuffed meatballs ready to be served. We went into the store and savored them. Ishey animatedly told his family about the day’s trip as I wrote in my notebook. The next morning, I thanked Ishey and his family for all their help and hospitality and left them, entrusting them with the responsibility of watching over the gazelles until I returned.

For more information, visit the Tsewang website

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