The last stronghold
A 40 sq km tract is the last refuge of the Tibetan Gazelle in Ladakh
I vividly remember the first time I caught a glimpse of the gowa (Tibetan Gazelle) in Hanle in Ladakh around 11 years ago. A dainty creature with large eyes and a grey-brown coat broken by a white heart-shaped rump. Possibly the most beautiful animal I had ever seen. What disturbed me, however, was that the animal fled at the sight of our vehicle, a behaviour unusual for wild grazers in Ladakh where they feel secure from humans. It left me wondering if there was hunting or some other cause of harassment of these animals.
Along with Rinchen Wangchuk, an old hand on the wilderness of Ladakh, I was doing a rapid study on the distribution and status of large mammals, including snow leopard, Tibetan argali (mountain sheep), kiang (Tibetan Wild Ass) and Tibetan Gazelle, in eastern Ladakh. We surveyed over 1,400 km of the region and were delighted that wildlife was spread, not just in remote mountains, but also near habitations, roads and almost everywhere.
The Tibetan Gazelle, however, was spotted only in one place, Kalak Tar Tar (KTT), the same site where another Ladakh veteran, Raghu Chundawat, had spotted 36 animals in 1998, and two years before him, another researcher, Otto Pfisher, had spotted 68. In spite of considerable search, we spotted just about 20 gazelle. Local herders informed that the severe winter of 1998-1999 had caused a major catastrophe when many of them had lost over 50 per cent of their livestocks and wild animals like kiang and gowa too had perished in large numbers.
We had looked for gazelles in other areas from where they were reported in the 1980’s, like Dungti, Kuyul and Tso Kar, but apparently they had long disappeared from these areas. Alarmed at this finding, we returned the next year and spent many days surveying KTT and adjacent areas but still ended up with an estimate of not more than 50 animals in this valley, mostly concentrated on the plateau. From the sparse literature on the gowa, we were able to deduce that the animal was widespread over more than 20,000 sq km of eastern Ladakh, less than a century ago. Now it seemed confined to barely 100 sq km. There is a similar population in northern Sikkim, though these move between Indian and Chinese territories.
The Tibetan Gazelle is patchily distributed in large areas of Central Asia and till 2003 was classed as a least concern species in the IUCN Red list. From the scarce information on its status and distribution, it was clear that the gowa had suffered over a 20 per cent decline in the past two decades even in its stronghold in Tibet. This prompted the IUCN to slot the species as near threatened in 2007.
What could have decimated the gowa to this extent in Ladakh? What is special about KTT that the animal persists here, though in small numbers? We were able to piece together various bits of evidence to arrive at the most likely answers. The small ungulate needs nutritious forage, which is naturally confined to small patches in this landscape. This probably makes it a patchily distributed species in the area. The Indo-China war in 1962 seemed to have played a key role in decimating the Tibetan Gazelle. There are many reports of poorly supplied soldiers hunting gazelles they could find on easily approachable rolling slopes. Some old herders even recall soldiers wiping off an entire herd at one go to stock up for winter rations.
Around the same time, large numbers of refugees arrived from Tibet. Most did not have any means of sustenance and had to resort to hunting, and again the gazelle was among the most accessible preys. The refugees brought animals with them increasing the livestock population in the area. The livestock were allotted pastures and in time the population of the refugees and their animals began to increase.
By the 1980s, the demand for local cashmere increased leading to a steep increase in the pashmina goat holdings. There was thus a double whammy of sorts. Initial hunting wiped out gazelle populations and though hunting declined by the 1970s, the animal’s recovery was hampered by the tremendous rise in livestock grazing intensity.
The primary threat thus appeared to be competition with livestock. Our search for more reasons for the gowa being confined to the KTT plateau seemed to confirm this hypothesis. The area has little natural water and herders don’t use this 40-odd sq km plateau for more than a month in late winter while most other areas are used more intensively. The plant cover and nutritious forage in this area is more compared to other adjacent areas.
The KTT population, at about 50 animals, is thus the “largest” gowa population in all of Ladakh. Probably the last flicker of hope for the species in this region. Most large mammal studies suggest that a population of less than 50 animals is usually unviable. In other words it is unlikely to survive for more than a few generations. Even if there is no hunting or competition for food, such small populations can be wiped out in a single severe winter or by an epidemic. Genetic and demographic limitations also make them more vulnerable. Fatal diseases, like peste des petits ruminants, have been reported from the region.
The movement of military in this border region is perhaps inevitable, but problems caused by some of the existing and planned roads can be addressed. Probably more damaging than the movement of vehicles is the influx of labourers to make and maintain roads, who sometimes even poach wildlife.
We engaged with the local community and the wildlife department to develop means to conserve the gowa in Ladakh. We needed a multi-pronged strategy for arresting the decline of the Tibetan Gazelle in Hanle and subsequently look at recovery of the species in the rest of Ladakh.
Suggested measures include minimising the possibility of winter mortality by improving habitat—deploying movable fences to protect small patches of winter pastures from livestock so that more forage is available to Tibetan Gazelle—giving incentives to the local community to stop using designated areas for livestock grazing and supplementing the animal feed with locally grown or imported fodder.
Other measures suggested included tackling disease threats (by vaccination and disease control in livestock), better awareness among herders, labourers and the armed forces regarding the rarity of the gowa and the need to conserve it. Realigning the existing road and scrutinising other development proposals are also important. Some long-term measures need to be undertaken when large enough populations of the gazelle become available after an initial recovery. These involve restocking in restored habitats of their erstwhile range.
Some of these efforts have begun, but much remains to be done in Ladakh to ensure survival of the gowa. Herders, the widlife department and scientific bodies must collaborate.