Author: Ravi Kailas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Tso Kar; Hanle; Nubra Valley; Dras
A visit to Ladakh this summer, primarily exploring the Chanthang Plains of Eastern Ladakh, but also parts of Central and Western Ladakh produced a number of Tibetan Plateau mammalian specialities including multiple sightings of Tibetan Sand Fox, Tibetan Gazelle and Tibetan Wolf as well as mammals largely seen in the Central Asian region, including species like Pallas’s Cat, Ladakh Urial, Mountain Weasel and Long-tailed Marmot. This impressive list also included 2 species of hares, 2 (maybe 3-4) species of pikas, and at least 1 species of vole (seen both active around their burrows and expertly excavated by Pallas’s Cat and the foxes), apart from Blue Sheep, Red fox and innumerable Himalayan Marmot. While we did not focus on the rich summer birdlife of this region, sightings included species like Black-necked Crane, Tibetan Snowcock, Hume’s Groundpecker, Golden Eagle, Lammergeier, Tibetan Lark, Brandt’s Mountainfinch, Red-fronted Serin and Blandford’s Snowfinch. A handful of lizards and butterflies added to the faunal riches on show, underlining the surprising abundance of wildlife that make this stark, cold desert landscape their (brief) summer (often breeding) home. All this richness is supported by moisture (mostly from snow and glacial meltwater, forming a network of streams, rivulets and marshes), that become available in the relative warmth of the season. This, year, was hot though, and, worryingly, Ladhakis are seeing rapidly disappearing glaciers, significantly lower snowfall and uncharacteristically intense summer rains, over the last few years…..
Tso Kar (13th, 14th and 18th July 2022)
This Eastern Ladakh location, at a balmily breezy 4400m, is better known for its rich summer birdlife around wetlands, than for mammals. Among the mammals, we did observe a distant Tibetan Fox, actively foraging in the morning hours (between 7 and 8. There is light by 5am and is bright and sunny not soon after), on the fringes of the freshwater lake. We also tried for Argali, close to the Tso Moriri trekking path (southwest of Tso Kar), unsuccessfully – a species, reputedly, easier to see in winter in these parts (following a general tendency of Ladakh’s mountain ungulates, to stick to an elevational range, where they are barely discernible through spotting scopes, at this time of the year.). We did see two herds of Blue Sheep, high up in the mountains, reiterating the aforementioned seasonal tendency of their ilk. Kiang were common, albeit in small groups, and our sightings also included a solitary red fox, a handful of Large-eared Pika, a massive colony of Ladakh Pika, mostly, within a fenced off area close to a stupa (with, maybe some Plateau Pika in the mix), several small colonies of Himalayan Marmot and a solitary Wooly Hare. Tibetan Wolf and, rarely, Pallas’s Cat, are recorded from this area, but we did not have luck with either. While we were specifically looking for birds, we did see a number of local specialities, including Hume’s Groundpecker, Blanford’s Snowfinch, Brandt’s Mountainfinch, Great Rosefinch and several pairs of Black-necked Crane.
There is something about windy Tso Kar, which despite due acclimatisation, exacerbates any tendency (and I do) one has towards altitude sickness. As such, much of my time here, including on the return for one night, was spent nursing a headache and a general feeling of illness, that even the spectacular, amphitheatre like natural beauty of the location and several glasses of garlic water (local home remedy), failed to assuage. Talking of natural beauty though, sadly, we witnessed the effects of a road-expansion project here, that brought with it innumerable heavy vehicles and machinery, often crisscrossing hitherto untouched ground, likely destroying habitat for a host of ground nesting birds and burrowing mammals in the process.
We stayed at the well managed (they host birding groups regularly) and relatively comfortable (given the remoteness of the location) Tso Kar Eco Resort.
Hanle (15th to 18th July 2022)
This location (4200m) of marshes and small settlements in a valley, with easy access to the Changthang Plain Cold Desert Sanctuary, proved to be quite delightful, and not just for the fabulous mammals we saw here. Our star sighting here was of a female Pallas’s Cat, seen in and around the same location, in marshland bordering Hanle, whenever we visited (3 mornings and 2 evenings). We saw the animal just as it became active (at around 0645 or so) in the morning, almost comically cautious, peering out an abandoned building that it had made its den site, vanishing from plain view, into the rocky hills surrounding the marsh in the evening, sometimes expertly hunting for voles, its tail tip ‘wagging’, apparently as a lure, as it approached the rodents, and actively navigating the marshes, including jumping between islands of grassy clumps amidst the wetland. We later learnt that she had kittens in the building, that came out a couple of days after we left Hanle. We managed to see Tibetan Gazelle, another animal that is difficult to see in India, high up in the grassy, windswept plateaus, in the mountains (around 5000m at Photi La and Kalaktattar) surrounding Hanle. We also saw, albeit briefly (the individuals here were constantly on the move), three different Tibetan Fox, both foraging in the marsh, as well on the surrounding hills. A pack of 10 Tibetan Wolf were active around these marshes while we visited, and we had multiple sightings of the pack/some of its members, once, even in an attempted hunt of feral horses. The other mammals we saw here included large herds of Kiang, innumerable Himalayan Marmot, at least one species of vole and several Indian Fox and Woolly Hare. Birds of significance from here included several Tibetan Lark and Black-necked Crane (including a pair with a very young chick), but missed Eurasian Eagle Owl in a roosting area close to the Hanle Nunnery.
Hanle, despite being located at a similar elevation to Tso Kar, turned out far kinder on the body. I finally felt like eating – a good thing that, as it meant that I could enjoy some delicious home cooked meals (the landlady was an excellent cook) at Hanle House, a comfortable homestay (among several in these parts), with kind and hospitable hosts.
Nubra Valley (23rd to 26th July 2022)
We visited here primarily in the hope of finding Eurasian Lynx (a species reputedly, ‘more easily’ seen on the open slopes and ridges within the Hemis National Park, where we could not visit due to some logistical reasons). The seabuckthorn dominated, riverine scrub in the valley, reputedly holds a good population of the species, and we concentrated our efforts (early morning to mid-morning, late afternoon to nightfall and, briefly, post dinner) around the (very touristy) areas around Diskit (with one morning session to the village of Hunderdrop – a spectacular drive along a glacier fed torrent), based on some local intel of a recent, mid-day sighting here. Our efforts, somewhat as expected, were futile, the challenges being not just the dense scrub that provides cover to the Lynx, but also disturbance from feral dogs (an increasing threat to Ladakh’s wildlife everywhere, but particularly in places like Nubra Valley, where tourism has boomed) and movement of tourists. There were, however, several sightings of Cape Hare, potentially the primary prey species of Lynx here, active both at night and during the day. We also saw a bold Mountain Weasel, one morning, as it entertained, sometimes bounding, sometimes scurrying, between patches of scrub, presumably in search of breakfast, clearly aware of our presence, but unbothered enough to come within touching distance of our vehicle. We also saw a handful of Pikas (two Large-eared, the others unidentified – possibly Nubra) and a fleeting glimpse of one rodent/pika at night, rounding off the modest selection of mammal sightings from this location. Among birds, our highlight sightings from here included distant sighting of a large owl on open ground (Eurasian Eagle?) and of the lovely Fire-fronted Serin, among innumerable Common Rosefinch (in breeding plumage), Mountain Chiffchaff and Bluethroat. We also saw several Himalayan Agama, basking in the warmer than usual days here.
Our sighting efforts were also planned for while travelling from/to Leh/Nubra via Wari La (5300m), the alpine meadows around which, also, reputedly, produces sightings of Eurasian Lynx. Despite dedicated scanning, we did not have luck with the species on this scenic, quiet, albeit circuitous route but we did see Woolly Hare, large colonies of Himalayan Marmot and Blue Sheep in and around the pass. A brief, AM detour, towards the Tangkyar Monastery, to scan the surrounding hills, produced a distant sighting of Ladakhi Urial. The high elevation pass also produced alpine specialist birds like Tibetan Snowcock, White-winged Redstart and Robin Accentor, among soaring/gliding Lammergeier and Golden Eagle. The the zone around 5000m, enriched with streams and bogs of snow-melt, was filled with alpine flowers at this time of the year.
Dras (29th July)
A brief effort to see Himalayan Brown Bear, turned out fruitless, for the species, that are, reputedly, seen commonly around Dras (3300m), in the western fringes of Ladakh. We spent break of dawn, on a rainy morning, looking from the Leh-Srinagar highway, scanning the slopes behind the army camp at Dras, before concentrating driving along the Mushkow Valley, scanning the meadowy slopes for the ursid, until we reached the no-go zone close to the LAC. We understood from our hosts in Kargil (the owners of Black Sheep B&B, who incidentally operate Brown Bear tours, but could not provide a guide for us that day) that the bears, at this time of the year, are active from around dusk until around 8 AM. As such we stopped looking around 9 AM and headed for breakfast in Dras. We were out again around 11 AM, in clearer weather, to explore the slopes to the south of Dras, on a road that wound upto around 4300m, amidst meadows, providing scenic views of the valley below. There were innumerable herds of domestic sheep and goat here, as well as feral horses, and for a while it appeared that this was the animal life we were going to see, until we heard the alarm call of what turned out to be Long-tailed Marmot. We returned to Dras for lunch and a leg-up before hoping to head back towards Mushkow Valley for the evening. However, as it turned out, due to apparent monopolistic tendencies of the local tour operators and taxi union, we were warned against going back into the valley without a local taxi/guide. Given what was evidently an ‘arm-twisting’ exercise, we decided against the local help and concentrated our efforts looking for the bears from the Leh-Srinagar highway and around the slopes behind around the army camp at Dras, but with no luck, until we wound up our efforts at nightfall.
We had a top-notch spotter (I understand, he conjures up Snow Leopards, literally? out of thin air, in winter) in Tsewang Dorjey (+91 95969 79013), who doubled as the driver of the Toyota Innova we hired from him, during our visits to Tso Kar, Hanle and Nubra Valley. For Dras, we did not use a dedicated guide, but Tundup Tsewang (+91 84920 41684), the driver of the Suzuki Ertiga, was reliable and enthusiastic during our efforts there. One can contact +91 60054 91103 for reservations at Tso Kar Eco Resort and +91 94198 18993 for reservations at Hanle House. We stayed at the the excellent Rock Castle Residency (+91 94692 20897), a quaint family run hotel, with modern, spacious rooms and a kitchen garden, the produce from which often found its way into the food there, whenever we passed through Leh.
List of Mammals Seen
Ladakh Pika Ochotona ladacensis
Large-eared Pika Ochotona macrotis
Nubra Pika? Ochotona nubrica
Woolly Hare Lepus oiostolus pallipes
Cape Hare Lepus capensis tibetanus
Stolickza’s Mountain Vole? Alticola stoliczkanus
Himalayan Marmot Marmota himalayana
Long-tailed Marmot Marmota caudata
Pallas’s Cat Octolobus manul nigripectus
Mountain Weasel Mustela altaica
Red (Himalayan) Fox Vulpes vulpes montana
Tibetan Sand Fox Vulpes ferrilata
Tibetan Grey Wolf Canis lupus chanco
(Ladakh) Urial Ovis orientalis vignei
Greater Blue Sheep Pseudois nayaur
Tibetan Gazelle Procarpa picticaudata
Tibetan Wild Ass Equus kiang
Highlight Birds Seen
Eurasian Eagle Owl?