Wildlife in the Tso Moriri Wetlands: Ladakh
Tsomorori, one of the highest lakes in the word, lies in the Changthang region of Ladakh. This flat-land with wet, mineral studded meadows poses a sharp contrast to the barren, rocky crags that are characteristic to the rest of Ladakh. On an outset, this mountain-desert region does not look like one with thriving wild-life. Yet, it has been identified as a Ramsar site since 2002 owing to the unique, rare and even endemic species of plants, animals and birds. The eco-system is fragile and the tribes are solely dependant on its balance for survival. Just like most other pristine places on the planet, the Tsomoriri environment is increasingly threatened by human encroachment and booming tourism.
My stay was hosted by a family in Korzok village and to my delight (and relief) they were pretty decent with Hindi. It is difficult to fish out details with a linguistic barrier standing in between. Ladhakis are inherently a gentle lot who detest violence and killing in any form- this has perhaps something to do with the prevalence of Buddhism in the area. It was an absolute delight chatting up with the people over Thukpa (a locally made noodle-vegetable-broth) and candle-light. Though the younger generation of the Ladakhi’s have found a sumptuous source of income from the tourism, the elders do not seem very pleased with the intrusion and exploitation of their surroundings. Fortunately, TsoMoriri is one of those destinations that conventional travelers avoid due to its remote location and lack of basic comforts. The thought of Tsomoriri being flocked by summer-vacationers like the more popular hill-stations in India, made me uncomfortable. On the other hand, I was one myself.
One elder tells me about the dwindling population of Himalayan Marmots although to me, they seemed quite abundant. Some species of hares and voles also co-exist with the marmots. Himalayan Marmots, small mouse like herbivores the size of a big hare, throng the grassy plains especially around water sources. These are shy animals and quickly retreat into their burrows at the slightest hint of movement. One was however kind enough to pose for a picture; albeit, at a distance. Though most tourists are environmentally responsible, some do not think twice before tossing a packet of chips or a water bottle on the roadside. Very often camping waste is dumped down into marmot burrows which seem like an easy and convenient site for disposal.
Ever since roadways have reached the region, hundreds of these docile mammals are killed in road accidents. The more unfortunate ones become game for bored soldiers manning the border. Not so long ago, in 2005, truckloads of marmot skin were confiscated at the Indo-Nepal border. Stringent law-enforcement strategies and security checks thereafter have thankfully curbed the illegal trade practice and their rapid rate of reproduction has saved the Marmots from making it to the red list. Many other species endemic to the Tsomoriri region however, have not been half as fortunate.
The Ibex, though not endemic to Ladakh, is found in fairly large numbers along with the Blue Sheep. The locals told me that the Skin ( local name for Ibex) are a rare sighting now as they are not as many as they used to be. I was hoping to see one but all I got was a broken, discarded horn lying by the roadside which I kept as a fond memoir. The Tibetan Urial sheep, the Tibetan Gazelle and the Tibetan Argali sheep are quite rare and difficult to come across. Extreme climatic and geographical conditions do not permit rapid growth of grass and vegetation which is the only source of food for the herbivores. Roadways, trekking trails and camping areas have significantly reduced free grazing area for the wild herbivores. Moreover, the animals have to constantly compete with the domestic livestock for food which is anything but plenty.
Musk deer were once found in abundance but excessive hunting and illegal trade has nearly wiped them off the slopes. Another highly endangered species of deer is the Tibetan Antelope or the Tsos, as it is commonly called.
For centuries it has been hunted down for “shahtoosh” or the ultra-fine wool woven from its downy fur. The process of extraction is as cruel as can be and the pain almost always kills the animal. Efforts on part of wild-life activists and conservationists in India and abroad have curbed the trade and sale of “shahtoosh” shawls by strict law enforcement.
The expansive meadows of Tsomoriri are also home to the Tibetan Wild Ass. These shy and solitary ungulates are few in number but can often be seen prancing across the fields with a magnificent mane waving behind them. I was fortunate enough to witness the antics of a young male for a good fifteen minutes. The wild teenager that he was, he refused to entertain my camera (maybe he mistook it for a weapon). The group of yaks standing nearby however, was happy to be clicked.
As with any other ecosystem, the animals at the top of the food pyramid usually make it to the “rare” and “endangered” list first. Big cats, wolves and brown bears are present in sparse populations around Ladakh. The Snow Leopard, which at one time flourished across the Himalayan range, has dwindled to a couple of hundreds due to poaching and loss of habitat. Despite my prayers, I did not even manage to spot pug-marks. The other big cat- the Lynx can barely be counted on finger-tips- a WWF volunteer testifies. Infact, studying and saving the Snow Leopard in one of the prime focus areas of the WWF team at Korzok. Even the wolf population seems to be in danger- more so due to their growing proximity to human inhabitants. As pack animals, wolves need a larger territory for hunting and breeding. Human encroachment and expansion of agricultural land has forced wolves to hunt down livestock for food and survival. Stories of the Shangku (the wolf) are common over evening bonfires in the village. Since they are often attacked upon by the villagers in self-defence, their number now touted to be a meager 300. The common red fox and the Tibetan Sand Fox stand on fairly safe ground.
Species of endangered and rare water birds like the Barhead goose and the Blacknecked crane exclusively breed in and around the Tsomoriri Lake and wetlands. The need for conservation therefore becomes more urgent. This region also marks an important breeding and feeding halt for many other species of migratory birds.
Since the remote region is now easily accessible to tourists and trekkers, the locals fear unwanted human interference and economic activities in the area that may disturb the wildlife, especially the breeding water-birds. The Buddhist locals regard the Tsomoriri region as a “Sacred Gift for a Living Planet” and have collaborated with World Wildlife Fund in conservation and preservation activities. The WWF –India office at Tsomoriri is run and managed by residents of the Korzok village.
The Tsomoriri and Tsokar wetlands have been designated as Wetland Preserves. Hunting and gaming in the region is illegal and security measures implemented by the State Department of Wildlife ensure enforcement of the same. Co-operation and help from the Korzok village residents has enabled WWF-India to establish a Tsomoriri Conservation Trust that is dedicated to the cause of conservation and sustainable development of the region.