Increased tourist influx in the Leh-Ladakh region is taking a toll on the natural habitat and way of life of Himalayan marmots

There are no trees, no telephones and no rain. Only barren rock faces and jagged mountains piercing the sky are seen all round. The higher you travel into the mountains, the colder it gets — taking your breath away both by its brashness and magnificence. Even though the slanting sun stabs your facial skin with its warmth, it is the chilly winds that gnaw at your bones even at high noon in the barren landscapes of Ladakh.

While the azure skies were alluring, the high mountains are intimidating and the vertigo giving valleys seemed life-threatening. The air is dry with little oxygen. Last month, while wandering in these remote hills and dales, we came across a furry creature that looks like a cross between a fat cat and a small bear. They are called marmots; these are ground squirrels living in a treeless harsh terrain.

As its name suggests, the Himalayan marmot is found in the cold Himalayan regions of Jammu and Kashmir. It is one of the highest elevation-dwelling mammals in the world and is well adapted to life in dry alpine meadows that receive very little rainfall. Being a social species, the Himalayan marmot lives in colonies of varying sizes from four to forty in deep burrows that can keep them warm even in subzero temperatures. They hibernate during the winter months when the terrain is covered in deep snow and sunlight is scanty.

According to Dr. Indu, a scientist at the high-altitude field station of Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) situated in Solan, marmots are large ground squirrels belonging to the rodent family. While there are 14 species of marmots in the world, only two species are found in India in the Leh-Ladakh stretch, one is the long-tailed marmot and the other is the Himalayan marmot.

But in recent years their numbers are dwindling due to adverse environmental impact and human interference. Even global climatic changes add to unpredictable weather patterns, receding glaciers and reduction in grasslands, hampering the marmots’ peaceful life.

During a study conducted a few years ago with two of her ZSI colleagues, Dr. Indu located a rich spot near Kyaghar Lake at an altitude of 15,337 feet on either side of a small tributary of the Indus River. A total of 33 marmots were observed living in colonies, mostly foraging or basking in the sun’s warmth. However, due to tourism activities along the route, they are constantly being disturbed by a large tourist influx who either feed the creatures, play pranks, leave litter behind or even pose for photographs.

This year due to frequent face-offs between India and China along the border in Ladakh, the region’s tourism industry has taken a hit and according to the Leh tourism department, there is a dip of 30 per cent in tourist footfall this year, which augurs a peaceful season for the marmots.

Driving out of Leh, marmots can be seen close to the Khardung-La Pass at 17, 582 feet or near the Chang-La Pass at 17,500 feet on the way to the Pangong Lake. They can also be sighted in the vast flatlands around Tso Moriri Lake, in the Zanskar range and other locations that are conducive for the marmots to hibernate in burrows and also have ample food. In other significant studies by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and international ecological organisations, it has been established that the diet of the magnificent and elusive snow leopard includes marmots. This clearly indicates the importance of marmots as prey base for the endangered and rare snow leopard in the Himalayan food chain.

Also known as Tibetan snow pigs, marmots burrow deep under the rocks and live mostly on ground vegetation, roots, shoots and berries. Above 17,000 feet, plant life almost disappears, making it virtually impossible for any mammalian life to survive yet the marmots survive this tough life with élan. Very little is known about these creatures, which have been seen mostly above 14,000 feet above sea level and their habitat tends to lie between the upper limits of trees and the lower limits of the snow line.

The traditional people of Ladakh leave them alone but some nomads kill marmots for easy meat and use the fur for winter wear. Although there are no specific plans regarding the conservation of marmots, it is listed on Appendix III of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which prevents it being killed and traded to an extent that would negatively affect its survival.

“The impact of more tourist traffic over the years appears to have scared off Ladakh’s wildlife to its remote interiors. Marmots and many bird species are seen no more. We could only sight a few marmots and the Bactrian magpies this August,” says Sheila Kumar, an Army officer’s wife who had lived in this region 25 years ago and is now a journalist residing in Bangalore. That increased tourism will tarnish the tranquil terrain of Ladakh and disturb the unique and endemic wildlife in the region is a forgone conclusion.

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