Rigzen Dorjay is a Field staff member with our team in India. He comes from a small village called Saspochey, in the mountainous region of Ladakh. After finishing high school, Dorjay joined our team at Nature Conservation Foundation India as a local volunteer to help students in their field work. He immediately stood out with his passion for wildlife and his fast and eager way of learning. Six years later, Dorjay has grown into an invaluable part of our Ladakh-based team, leading wildlife surveys and working with local communities to reduce human-wildlife conflicts.
This is his first blog article.
Working in the mountains of Ladakh and surveying snow leopard prey is a dream come true. But it does get tough sometimes.
This February, we were working in remote Tsaba Valley, where for the last five years we’ve monitored the winter populations of Tibetan Argali, a large wild sheep that is a key prey species for snow leopards. And let me tell you, it gets cold in Tsaba Valley in February. -20 degrees C is not unusual. Our toothpaste, cooking oil and sometimes even our sleeping bags freeze!
But the joys of spending time in these mountains, among the local herders and the majestic wildlife, usually more than make up for the hardships – and this time was no different.
Tsaba valley is an important wintering ground both for the Argali and for domestic livestock. A total of 13 herders graze their herds here, sharing the pastures with the Argali. Interestingly, where each herder grazes depends on a random chit picking system. This way there is no favoritism nor is there a monopoly.
This year, there was more snow than usual. Additionally, we were short on field staff due to their various other commitments. So it was particularly important to secure the help of locals to get the Argali survey done.
For the past five years, we’ve trained interested locals and herders in how to conduct such surveys using the so-called Double Observer method – and that time investment is paying off in a big way. This year, when we needed them more than ever, we were lucky to have 4 people from a nearby village ready to work with us. They had experience from the previous years and also an interest in wildlife.
Our team had a good mix of younger and older people and men and women. Diversity makes a team strong!
We packed our tents, food, and equipment and went off to survey in late February 2019. We all met at Rumste village, which is the doorway to the Tsaba valley. Due to the heavy snowfall, we couldn’t take a car into the valley. The river was frozen and the slopes were heavy with snow.
So instead of a cozy car ride, we had to trek a whole day to reach our campsite. Two local herders has set up their camp in the same location as well. They live in a traditional tent called a Rebo, which is made of Yak wool. Each herder grazes around 300-400 sheep and goat in this region.
One of the two was an old friend, Acho Tashi Phunstok. He greeted us with his usual wide smile and a fresh cup of warm tea he’d made after returning from the pastures. What a blessing for our tired legs and cold bodies!
We made dinner together and talked with Acho Tashi and the team about the upcoming survey. As the herders use this valley during the same time as the Argali, they are a key source of information about the presence of these large mountain sheep in this remote area.
For the next day’s survey effort we split into 3 teams consisting of two observers each. Together, we surveyed three adjacent side valleys. As we were walking to our respective survey areas, we rather unexpectantly saw a lot of Argali along the way. Not only that, but we were treated to an amazing sighting of two wolves as well.
What was especially interesting was the fact that there was a Kiang, a wild Tibetan ass, in amongst the Argali herd. Did the heavy snow disorient this majestic beast? We could only speculate.
As different teams surveyed different valleys, we spoke with herders about Argali. A particular valley within Tsaba, named Nyelung, is known to be the best Argali habitat in these mountains. In fact, for the past 5 years we have regularly seen these beautiful creatures there. However, this year we found extremely few of them in Nyelung. The herders suggested that heavy autumn snowfall may have rendered the pasture inaccessible – and the heavy snowfall during winter only added to it. This perhaps pushed the Argali to come further down the valley.
As we met each herder family, we gifted them a torch with extra batteries as a token of appreciation for hosting us and providing us with valuable information. Though to a normal city-dwelling person a torch may seem insignificant, to the herders of Tsaba, a torch is the only source of light in the dark of the night. They were really happy with our gift. Additionally, we gave each herder a Tibetan calendar with the idea that whenever they see a group of Argali, they record and subsequently share that information with us.
On the first survey day, we saw over 100 Argali. This is the highest number we have ever seen in a single day. We went to bed extremely satisfied and excited for the next day. The cold tried to spoil our spirits – I couldn’t feel my toes and fingers – but what was in store the next day calmed me down, and I finally fell asleep.
The next day, after three hours of uphill climbing at more than 5,000 meters above sea level, we finally reached a ridge line that allowed us to scan the valley floor for Argali. The snow soaked my shoes and socks, and my eyes burned with harsh sunlight reflected in the perfectly white snow all around us.
As we rested and sipped some warm tea, I saw a circling raptor. I took out my binoculars to see what species it was. Then, rather unexpectedly, in the corner of my eye I saw a strange-looking rock. As I shifted my gaze towards it, I was stunned… right there, behind a Caragana bush, sat the majestic ghost of the mountain, the snow leopard!
I told Acho Yanjor (my survey partner) to look for the cat. But Acho had spotted something else meanwhile! A few hundred meters below, there was a fresh carcass of a big male Blue Sheep. No wonder the snow leopard was around!
We sat there for a long time, not moving, barely breathing. Finally, the snow leopard walked down to the carcass and ate till it was satisfied.
Our survey route was meant to run right through the area where the carcass was. However, to not disturb the animals, we took a detour and made sure we remained inconspicuous and hidden amongst the rugged rocks.
It is always a thrill to see creatures like the snow leopard – but it is important to ensure that we don’t disturb them. After all, Tsaba valley is their home – we are just guests here.
As we continued surveying we found an impressive group of big male Argali. This was the cherry on top of an amazing day! As we returned to base camp, we met came across another carcass, this one of an Argali. This reminded me of the circle of life…In my culture, we believe that each living being is important for the balance of life.
In the evening, all 13 herders and the survey team came together for a cup of tea and conversation. We compiled our data and realized that we had recorded the highest number of Argali in Tsaba valley in our 5 years of monitoring.
I am extremely proud that a team consisting solely of locals has conducted this robust scientific survey, and I’m excited to lead more such surveys in the near future.