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Wildlife blog #1: Encounters in the Himalayas


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Happy New Year one and all! As our trip draws to a close, we are furiously cranking out the last few blogs - today you get three for the price of one.

I wrote about zoos in my previous blog, but there's no substitute for seeing an animal in the wild. In the Himalayas, there's always the chance of an animal encounter, and we've had some memorable ones on our previous trips to Nepal and India: seeing griffon vultures at close range as we climbed to a ridge on which they perched, glimpsing musk deer and colourful pheasants in the forests around Namche, tracking a group of tahr (a wild goat) up a steep hillside and finding langur monkeys in the rhododendron forests of the Annapurna Sanctuary. This trip provided many more such moments.

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

There are two species of monkey in the Nepal Himalaya, and both are relatively easy to spot. Rhesus macaques are bold opportunists and they happily live alongside people, even in major cities like Kathmandu and Agra. We saw a large group on the first night of our trek and a lone individual at about 2,500m in the Tsum Valley, which is about as high as they venture. Further up the same valley we came across a troupe of grey langurs sunbathing on the roof of an abandoned stone hut, and they posed obligingly for photographs. The monkeys here have an uneasy coexistence with the local farmers, for they come down from the trees to raid the fields of millet and tsampa (a local cereal crop). In response, the farmers build elevated wooden platforms overlooking the crops and post their children as sentries to watch for marauding monkeys. Any animal that comes within range gets scared off with a well-aimed rock. If ever we heard a high-pitched, disembodied voice crying "Namaste!" it was sure to be one of the local kids on monkey watch.

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Higher still, the pine and juniper forests peter out and one enters a realm of windswept pastures and rock debris. Other mammal species inhabit these high, inaccessible valleys. Marmots are usually heard before they are seen, betraying their whereabouts with a piercing alarm call. They are the same species as can be seen in the European Alps, only they seem fatter here. Mustelids - Himalayan weasels and yellow martens - also patrol these valleys, hunting small rodents like the pika and Himalayan rat. In the UK you have to be very lucky to see a wild weasel, but I've seen their Himalayan cousins on several occasions. We surprised one individual who had just caught a mouse, causing him to drop his dinner and scamper into the bushes. We waited patiently and sure enough he emerged a short while later, scampered back to his kill, grabbed it, stared at us for a few seconds and scarpered.

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

The aforementioned tahr is one of a number of large herbivores which graze the scrub and kharkas. The one most commonly encountered is the blue sheep or bharal. It is not a true sheep, but rather one of those strange-looking hybrid animals that appears to have been designed by a committee. Males grow large curved horns and look most impressive when they engage in combat on the precipitous mountainsides.

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

The blue sheep is curiously named
For its blueness is falsely claimed
If I were a ewe
I'd paint us all blue
To stop us from feeling ashamed

Baby blue sheep and fat marmots are the favourite prey of eagles. Our trekking guides pronounced any large bird of prey in the sky as an eagle, but most are in fact vultures. Griffon vultures are the highest fliers and are commonly seen in small groups, circling on thermal updraughts to great altitudes. Lammergeiers, or bearded vultures, are usually seen in pairs and track up and down valleys below the mountain summits. I watched a solitary lammergeier wheeling and swooping around the outcrop on which the village of Phu is constructed, and as we got closer it buzzed us several times, flying so low that I could make out its eyes and the mane of golden feathers around its nape. A large, solitary raptor is more likely to be an eagle, always flying purposefully. In the Himalayas, we saw a fair number of golden eagles, the species we know from the UK.

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La


Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

You have to be extremely fortunate to catch sight of other large predators in these mountains. They are rare, wary of humans and mostly nocturnal. But my most memorable wildlife moment on the Himalayan leg of our trip involved one such predator, and I didn't even see the animal in question. It was above the treeline in Sikkim, at an altitude of nearly 5,000m, that my guide and I came across fresh tracks in the snow. The lower forests harbour leopards, Asiatic black bears and red pandas, but the extreme altitude ruled out any of these candidates. They were the tracks of a Himalayan wolf, a rare subspecies of the grey wolf restricted to the remote corners of Nepal, northern India, Tibet and Pakistan. As if this were not exciting enough, further along the path we came across yet more tracks, this time a trail of much larger pawprints with a shallow groove running between them: tracks left by a snow leopard. The groove was created by the snow leopard's long tail trailing through the deep snow. An actual sighting of a snow leopard must count as the ultimate animal encounter, because of its inaccessible habitat, its beauty and scarcity and the fact that it almost exclusively hunts at night. In Nepal we trekked through the Annapurna and Manaslu Conservation Areas, both prime snow leopard habitat, but even here there are thought to be no more than five snow leopards per 100km2. To illustrate the difficulty of seeing one, even the experts at the BBC Natural History Unit took a year to locate a snow leopard, and a further year to obtain some decent footage of it, when they decided to film the species for Planet Earth. I would settle happily for a set of fresh tracks!

There is one creature of the Himalayas even more mythical and elusive than the snow leopard. Legends speak of a dark, human-like shape moving swiftly over ridges, huge footprints in the snow and eerie moaning cries in the night. It is of course the yeti. Did I see dark shapes moving swiftly over ridges, or huge footprints in the snow? I did not, more's the pity, though I was once woken with a start in the middle of the night by a strange moaning sound outside the tent. A yeti, perhaps? Chance would be a fine thing - it was only Jen bringing up her dinner.

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:04 Archived in Nepal Tagged wildlife india himalayas nepal Comments (0)

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