In Search of the Blue Sheep: A Memoir of Kedar Valley
I have always been one for an adventure. The idea of walking in the wilderness excites me. When I found out that my task as an intern in the Wildlife Institute of India was to trek into the valleys of the Bhagirathi Basin to count Bharal (otherwise known as Himalayan Blue Sheep), it felt like a dream come true. Even before starting my journey, I was already imagining myself walking along a mountain range, looking at the snow-clad peaks on the horizon, while a herd of Bharal galloped past on the grassy slopes beside me – a look of joy and peace on my face. Little did I know that the first few times I would be too scared to look anywhere except where I was stepping, and that I would be really bad at spotting any Bharal in the mountains. My face would only have the look of fatigue, cold and breathlessness – at least the first few times.
My first trek in Gangotri Valley showed me how important it was to walk at my own pace, so that I don’t lose breath. Even though this trek did not have tough climbs, the cold and the high altitude made simple walking very difficult. My supervisor, Ranjana, taught me some tricks to spot Bharal on the mountainside. Without these tricks, it was impossible to differentiate these goat-like creatures from grass and rocks. Looking back at this trip, I realise that Gangotri Valley was a mere “walk in the park” as compared to our next expedition in Kedar Valley towards Kedar Tal (Lake).
The Trek to Kedar Valley
Higher up in the trek, Himalayan Birch trees started taking over more of the forest while the Pines reduced. The shorter Birch allowed us to see the mountain slopes on the other side of the valley. That is when I pulled out my survey sheet, GPS device and binoculars and began looking for Bharal. But the slippery and steep path of this valley made the task difficult. With binoculars hanging off my neck, the GPS in one hand and a stick in the other, I was trying hard just to stay on my feet, let alone look around. It was amazing to see Ranjana and her research team move quickly around this landscape without even slipping once. They could even look around with their binoculars, while on the move! I, on the other hand, could only survey the area when I would sit for a water-break with one of our research assistants, Vinod. Even then, we had no luck. No Bharal in sight!
Weathering the Storm
After walking for more than 3 hours, the forests of Birch and Pine were far behind us, and the valley ahead opened up with grassland and shrubs. I had a feeling that we would see Bharal now, considering that grass and shrubs are their main food source. As it turned out, this unpredictable landscape was going to throw us another curveball. The sunny sky suddenly turned dark. The warm air became harsh and cold. My supervisor told me to keep my equipment inside my bag and to put on my raincoat. Within a few minutes, heavy snowfall and dense clouds surrounded us. We were suddenly treading through thick, wet snow.
Being a first timer on this trek, I was slowly waddling behind the team. There were times when I could not see anyone ahead of me because of the fog. I just had to follow the footsteps in front of me. I couldn’t see past a few feet, and all I could hear were howling winds and echoes of boulders crashing down the mountain on the other side of the valley. The sounds sent a chill down my spine. The stories I had heard about an avalanche that had happened in this valley the year before did not help my mind either. At this point, I had completely forgotten about the Bharal that I had come to study. I just wanted to make it out of there alive!
After a long walk through the thick snowstorm that felt like a lifetime, when my feet were ready to give up, I saw a ray of hope just a few metres away. Through the thick clouds and snowfall, I could see a blurry image of our orange tent, which was set up by our team members near a set of giant boulders. But then I realised (as if we did not have enough challenges already), the tent was on the other side of a long and thick patch of ice that I had to cross, in the middle of a white fog! Compared to the snow that we had walked on, this ice was old, hard and way more slippery. I carefully stepped ahead, while pegging the stick that I was holding deep into the ice. When I tried looking to my left , I saw that the clouds had covered everything in the valley below, and I could not see where it ended. Everything was just white! It felt like I was looking down into an abyss from which I would never return. But I mustered up enough courage to move my tired legs across the ice. It took a few stumbles and slips, and my stick broke on the way too. But I finally made it across!
As the Dust Settled…
Reaching the campsite was pure bliss. As we waited inside, we enjoyed a warm cup of lemon-tea that our team members, Vinod and Naresh had quickly brewed. Now, we just had to wait for the snow-storm to clear out. An hour or so passed and everything quieted down outside. We could tell that the wind and snow had stopped because our tent had stopped flapping around loudly above us. Just then, two people from the other trekking group came outside our tent and said in Hindi, “Baahar Bharal aaye hain! (There are Bharal outside!)” I quickly pulled out my camera and stepped outside. They were close. Very close!
Bharal in Sight!
About 20 feet away from our campsite, a herd of at least 15 Bharal was on the mountains. Some of them had made their way up the patch of ice that I had only just awkwardly fumbled across. For the Bharal, walking up the ice was not at all inconvenient. Amidst the white ice, the Bharal stood out in all their glory. This was the first time I got a close look at the animal that I was studying. The giant curved horns of the males, the thick grey fur, the black fur of their underbellies and legs, and the glittering brown eyes of the herd were just beautiful to see! In that moment, I could not remember all the fear, cold and fatigue that I was experiencing so far. Now, all that mattered were the Bharal.
Seeing the herd easily waltz across the loose gravel, rocks, ice and steep slopes, reminded me why they are so important for the Himalayan wilderness, and why studying them is crucial. Bharal are really well adapted to the unforgiving landscape of the mountains. With their muscular hoofed legs and perfect sense of balance, they can sprint over sheer cliffs! They are one of the few mammals who can survive in such conditions. This makes them one of the only available food sources for the carnivores who have made the Himalayan mountains their home. In the Gangotri National Park, where I did my research, Bharal are the main prey for the Himalayan Wolf, Wild Dog, and the elusive Snow Leopard. If there is a change in the population of Bharal, all these rare Himalayan creatures will be severely affected.
Bharal are found in many different parts of the Himalayan and Trans-Himalayan ranges. Though their population is not deemed to be at any major risk, in some places, they are affected by poaching and loss of food sources (grass and shrubs) which get eaten by human livestock. These threats are still not very serious, as Bharal are mostly present very high in the mountains, where livestock or people cannot go with ease. However, another threat seems to be lurking in the Himalayas that will affect the wildlife of the mountains.
The Unseen Threat
My internship was part of the project “National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem” or NMSHE. Researchers under this project have studied the status, threats, and ways of conserving the plants and wildlife of the Himalayas. My supervisor, Ranjana, has found through her research that climate change is going to severely affect the condition of Himalayan forests, grasslands and wildlife. With an increase in the average temperatures of the earth, the icy glaciers of the Himalayas like Gangotri (the source of the river Bhagirathi) have reduced tremendously over the years. When such a large amount of ice recedes into the mountains, the land where ice is no longer present ends up staying warmer in temperature. Over the years, these places will be warm enough so that plants that would generally not survive in this area, will be able to grow. This phenomenon is called “Secondary Ecological Succession”.
Now, if I look back at Kedar Valley, I remember seeing Pine and Birch forests only till one point in the trek. As we went higher and closer to the glacier, there was only grass and shrubs. This showed that bigger trees like Chir-Pine and Himalayan Birch cannot grow on colder lands. Only grass and shrubs can survive there. But when this land becomes warmer because of climate change, the mountainsides full of grass can slowly be taken over by bigger trees. Thus, the food source of the Bharal, the grasslands, will have reduced tremendously.
In time, there won’t be enough grasslands for Bharal to survive, and in turn, there won’t be enough Bharal as prey for the Snow Leopard, Himalayan Wolf, and Wild Dog. Thus, the unique creatures only found in the extreme wilderness of the Himalayas, will perish. I am reminded of a quote by the biologist George Schaller, who has written a memoir of his work on Himalayan wildlife – “For epochs to come, the peaks will still pierce the lonely vistas, but when the last snow leopard has stalked among the crags and the last markhor has stood on a promontory, his ruff waving in the breeze, a spark of life will have gone, turning the mountains into stones of silence”.
The Researcher’s Task
Projects like NMSHE become crucial for monitoring the changes in different ecosystems. With researchers and interns constantly bringing new information to the table, new ideas can be developed for raising awareness, managing and conserving nature. Ranjana has already collected evidence of Secondary Ecological Succession occurring in the Bhagirathi Basin. Her team’s camera-traps have recorded the highest altitude at which a Rhesus Macaque Monkey was found. While these monkeys are generally present in the warmer forests at low altitudes in Uttarakhand, this one was seen close to where Bharal generally roam. Ranjana has also captured pictures of a Common Leopard, an animal of warmer temperate forests, in the same location where a Snow Leopard was seen. Such findings can play a big role in monitoring the changes in the Himalayan wilderness.
I am glad that I was a part of the NMSHE project. My surveys of Bharal were intended to shed some light on how they are currently distributed in different parts of Gangotri National Park. My findings will help in tracking the changes in their population and habitat in the coming years. We can also study the distribution of carnivores like Snow Leopards in this region, since they will always be present in places where more Bharal are available as prey.
While this was the ‘research’ aspect of my internship, I feel that it is equally important to share the knowledge and experiences that I had with everyone. Before my internship, I did not know that an animal called ‘Bharal’ existed. Now, through my stories, I can introduce people around me to this amazing creature, and the wonders of the unforgiving yet awe-inspiring Himalayan wilderness. This is my contribution to raising awareness about the wildlife in the Himalayas, and the need for its conservation.
The Farewell party
My journey to the Kedar Valley was the second of a total of five treks in the Bhagirathi Basin area that I undertook as a part of my internship. In fact, I returned to the Kedar Valley for a second survey. Trekking felt so much easier the second time around. I feel that the first visit to Kedar Valley gave me enough scares and challenges to prepare for the rest of my treks during my internship.
Although each trek had amazing sights and new surprises in store, the first trek to the Kedar Valley where I was put to the maximum test proved to be very special. Afterall, it was there that I saw the Bharal for the first time, at the closest distance possible. On the first day in Kedar Valley, I thought that the Bharal crossing the patch of ice in front of us would be the closest look that I would get of these creatures. But on the final day of that trek, when we were ready to pack up and head back to Gangotri Dham, the same herd of Bharal was right outside our tents, not more than 10 feet away! Though they were wary of us, they slowly moved closer to the tents. I did not know why they came so close, but Ranjana explained the reason. Bharal regularly lick giant rocks and boulders because the surface of the rocks have a lot of mineral-rich salts. And sure enough, this Bharal herd could not resist the giant boulders near our camping site.
Our whole team sat and watched the large and furry Bharal licking away at the rocks, while intermittently looking up at us. Even as I captured a quick picture in my camera, I knew that I would cherish these beautiful moments in my heart for a long time to come. By the time the herd had fulfilled their need for minerals, our team was packed and ready for the journey back home. As I began walking down the mountain, looking at the snow-clad peaks on the horizon, I took one last look back at the herd that climbed up the grassy slopes of the mountains beside me and disappeared out of sight.
The walk back down did not seem that tiresome anymore… My heart was joyous and there was a look of peace on my face.