Beautiful people Environment

A hundred Tibetan gazelles

A female Tibetan gazelle. Photo: Udayan Rao Pawar  

The beautiful big black eyes of the Tibetan gazelles captivated Yash Veer Bhatnagar. He had seen photos before catching his first glimpse of them, but he had been unprepared for their doe-eyed beauty. In the next instant, he was left staring at their large heart-shaped white rumps as the group of five receded in the distance. That moment in September 2000 at Lal Pahadi, 20 km north of Hanle Gompa, Ladakh, lasted only 10 seconds. Their skittishness, an unusual trait for mountain ungulates in Indian Trans-Himalaya, surprised and saddened the researcher. Other wild herbivores were bolder, watching him approach on foot. Why were the antelopes so afraid?

Tibetan gazelles were unlike them in another respect: they lived in a few valleys avoiding most others. Why were they so fussy? This enigma lodged like a thorn in his mind.

Sparse forage

Bhatnagar thinks the answer may lie in the antelope’s 20-kg weight class. Too small to put away enough body stores to last through the subzero winters, it would have to dig through snow to find nutrient-rich herbs, an uncommon diet in the Ladakh desert. With the wide array of other herbivores living off the more common but less nutritious grasses, the gazelle settled for this sparse forage. The species would stick around areas with its favourite food, explaining its uneven presence across the landscape.

Could the answer to the gazelle’s nervous behaviour lie in the geopolitical turmoil that affected this region in the early 1960s? Impoverished refugees from Tibet arrived after the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. While the Changpa pastoralists sheltered the recent arrivals, they couldn’t provide for them indefinitely. Many immigrants turned to wildlife for sustenance, and the gazelles frequenting the rolling terrain were easy to fell.

During the 1962 Indo-China War, ill-prepared Indian troops sent up to the 4,000-metre-high cold desert had to fend for themselves. With poor supply lines to feed them, the personnel also hunted the antelopes for meat, elderly herders told Bhatnagar. Instead of hightailing it to the surrounding hills, the naïve animals had stood watching curiously before being gunned down. Entire herds were wiped out.

“The main target of two desperate parties through the 1960s was the Tibetan gazelle,” says the researcher. Did this wave of killing make them nervous of people? “It happened a long time ago,” replied Bhatnagar. “While hunting isn’t prevalent anymore, perhaps it continues at a lower level.”

Blocked routes

Livestock numbers doubled but land for grazing wasn’t adequate. The war closed the international border with China, blocking the routes to many traditional pastures. Pastoralists brought their animals to available meadows, turfing out the Tibetan gazelles.

No one realised these events had brought the ungulates’ to their knees. Researchers estimated their range in Ladakh had been 20,000 in the early 20th century. By the 1980s, it had shrunk by 95% to 1,000 The devastating winter of 1998-1999 killed most of the surviving gazelles. In 2006, Bhatnagar and his colleagues estimated approximately 50 animals survived in about 100 across Ladakh.

The group Bhatnagar saw in Lal Pahadi had disappeared by then. When he’s pessimistic, he thinks the animals have been killed. When he’s not, he feels they may have walked to Kalak Tartar, about 30 km away, to join a group of about 30, the largest population in India.

Kalak Tartar resembles an African savanna but without the trees. Herders largely left the waterless valley to the wild ungulates. The researcher saw red foxes and pikas, while argali, Tibetan gazelles and kiangs grazed the rich 40 expanse. Since 2006, gazelles have rebounded to roughly 60, but other populations in Ladakh number only two or three each. Another group of about 50 survives in Sikkim, edging the total Indian population past a hundred. The dark-eyed beauties ensured the survival of soldiers during a period of war and want. Isn’t it time the Indian government returned the favour?

Janaki Lenin is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 1:26:14 PM |

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