Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary

Himalayan kaleidoscope

Print edition : October 28, 2016

The Himalayan monal (Lophophorous impejanus).

The monal in flight.

Mountain bulbul (Ixos mcclellandii).

Maroon oriole (Oriolus traillii).

Wedge-tailed green pigeon (Treron sphenurus).

Chestnut-bellied rock thrush (Monticola rufiventris).

Red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythroryncha).

Long-tailed broadbill (Psarisomus dalhousiae).

White-throated fantail (Rhipidura albicollis).

Plumbeous water redstart (Rhyacornis fuliginosa), male.

Khalij pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos).

Asian paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi).

Blue-throated barbet (Megalaima asiatica).

Ultramarine flycatcher (Ficedula superciliaris).

White-capped redstart (Chaimarrornis leucocephalus).

Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius).

Alpine accentor (Prunella collaris).

Great barbet (Megalaima virens). The freeze shot shows its dropping.

Brown dipper (Cinclus pallasii), juvenile.

Rufous-vented yuhina (Yuhina occipitalis).

Russet sparrow (Passer rutilans).

Long-tailed minivet (Pericrocotus ethologus).

The Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus). It inhabits rocky and precipitous terrains as well as frozen cliffs.

The Himalayan tahr.

The tahr amidst rocks and rhododenrons.

A regal setting for the tahr herd.

The wildlife photographer Shefiq Basheer Ahammed.

A LONG and strenuous trek in the wild may not always yield a sighting of the bird or animal one wishes to photograph. Wildlife photographers lug their cameras and huge lenses through rough or soddy terrain to capture that fleeting moment in the life of birds and animals.

The wildlife photographer Shefiq Basheer Ahammed was on one such mission to see the Himalayan tahr ( Hemitragus jemlahicus), the wild goat hailed by naturalists as the “Mountain Monarch”, and the Himalayan monal ( Lophophorous impejanus), one of the Indian birds with iridescent feathers. He trekked for several days along the winding paths leading up to the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary in Uttarakhand in the western Himalaya.

He waited for several days for the tahr to show up and to catch a glimpse of the magnificent many-hued pheasant.

“The exhaustion I felt after a nerve-racking trek in the high altitudes disappeared at the sight of the ‘Mountain Monarch’,” he said. As soon as he sighted the tahr on a rock’s edge, Shefiq felt a sense of joy and satisfaction. He lifted his binoculars and watched with wonder the ungulate that holds its own on the rocky mountain slopes.

“My intention was to get a solid, up-close image of the tahr,” he said. Patience paid off, and Shefiq was able to photograph the tahr and the monal from close quarters. Shefiq was accompanied by a knowledgeable guide named Dinesh Negi. Negi could sense the presence of the tahr even before sighting it. He would stop in his tracks and signal to Shefiq that the animal was within range. Negi never went wrong, as after some time the tahr would appear on the high rocky platform.

On one such occasion, the rhododendrons (the Kedarnath sanctuary witnesses floral outbursts in the summer with the red, white and yellow rhododendrons adding lustre to the verdant landscape) in the background gave the “monarch” a regal setting.

“I stumbled upon a herd of four tahrs,” said Shefiq. “It was an irresistible sight, but we could not move up close because there was a small valley in between.” The tahr seemed to have noticed the photographer. It was as if it allowed him to shoot some glittering frames before moving away. It was one of the best moments for Shefiq.

The Kedarnath sanctuary, spread over 972 square kilometres, is the largest protected area in the Himalayas. It is also known as the musk deer sanctuary, but the sanctuary, which was established in 1972, has a significant tahr population. The tahr is distributed across the Himalayas from Jammu and Kashmir to Himachal Pradesh to Uttarakhand, and a slender population of the animal exists in Tibet, Sikkim and Nepal. Snow-clad mountains, an undulating terrain, glaciers, alpine meadows and mixed forests—coniferous being the most prominent—constitute the sanctuary’s magnificent landscape. It has pine, oak and evergreen patches, too.

Dr Dhananjay Mohan, Additional Principal Chief Forest Conservator (Uttarakhand), who is an avid birdwatcher, said there were around 250 species of birds in the Kedarnath sanctuary. The majority of them migrate to other parts of the Indian subcontinent in the winter.

The sanctuary is situated close to the Alakananda river and has peaks with elevations of over 6,000 metres. The Kedarnath and Tunganath temples attract pilgrims between May and October. Chopta is a base for Tunganath trekking. The region is well known for rock climbing and snow trekking. Wildlife photographers and nature lovers begin to arrive at the sanctuary in April, when the snow recedes. And for three months the place is thick with activity.

The tahr, with its shaggy mane gently swaying in the wind, looks majestic as it appears to survey the ground and pose for photographs. The tahr is a favourite of wildlife enthusiasts and tourists for they can sometimes go close enough to take back home a memorable picture. Although the tahr does not seem threatened by visitors, the movements of this sharp-eyed animal suggests that it is cautious. Sometimes it just withdraws into the wilderness.

Shefiq, who has travelled widely and is a meticulous watcher of animal behaviour, said he enjoyed watching the tahr’s body language. He said some looked stubborn; some tahrs shrugged their shoulders and moved away; some were indifferent to the visitors. He has studied the brown bear and the red salmon in the Russian Far East and the Ceylon frogmouth in the Thattekad forest in Kerala ( Frontline, March 8, 2016, and December 11, 2015).

The sprightly tahr is usually found in groups, but dominant males can be seen on cliffs as if they are standing on a high pedestal or like sentinels watching the kingdom. The tahr inhabits rugged, rocky and precipitous terrains as well as frozen slopes and cliffs. It is sure-footed and can traverse the terrain with amazing agility. It can swiftly move from rock to rock to higher elevations to escape from predators.

The tahr roams the woodlands, too. It is usually found at an elevation of between 2,500 m and 4,000 m. The Greater Himalayan National Park and the Nandadevi National Park are the other important tahr habitats. The tahr seldom descends to lower altitudes.

The Himalayan tahr is one of three tahr species, the others being the Arabian tahr ( Arabitragus jayakari) of the mountain deserts of Oman, and the Nilgiri tahr ( Nilgiritragus hylocrius). The Eravikulam National Park in the Western Ghats near Munnar, 110 kilometres from Kochi, Kerala, has a viable Nilgiri tahr population. Other pockets of the Western Ghats have only a scattered population. In the tourist zone of Eravikulam, tahrs do not shy away from people. But in the core sanctuary areas, they run away at the sight of people.

According to wildlife biologists, the tahr appears to be an evolutionary link between the primitive goat antelope and the goat.

The musk deer and snow leopards, two other important residents of the Kedarnath sanctuary, can rarely be sighted.

Himalayan wildlife

Early European travellers and explorers left practically little accounts of Himalayan wildlife. George Schaller, a globally renowned wildlife biologist, associated himself with the local tribal leaders and did many surveys and studies in the Himalayan regions from 1963. According to Schaller, the English explorer C.H. Stockley (1928) left the best description of Himalayan wildlife. But whereas early European adventurers had indulged in the joy of discovery, Schaller established camping facilities with the support of the tribal people to conduct a pioneering study of the wildlife of the Himalayan region.

In his work Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya, Schaller has presented meticulous observations of the ungulates of the Himalayan region, which include the tahr, the markhor ( Capra falconeri), the bharal (Himalayan blue sheep, or Pseudois nayaur), the Marco Polo sheep ( Ovis ammon polii, a subspecies of the argali, the largest wild mountain sheep in the world), and the takin ( Budorcas taxicolor). His studies focussed on India, Afghanistan, Balochistan, Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan.

Other serious studies by scientists from various universities and wildlife bodies have provided the best documentation of the Himalayan ecology and wildlife. The contribution of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, Uttarakhand, in this field is significant.

Schaller observes in his book that sheer adventurism is needed to study the mountain goat because weather is one of the factors causing impediments. At one time, because of torrential rain and knee-deep snow in the Himalayas, it took Schaller five weeks to reach a bharal group in Tibet. “When watching wildlife among the barren cracks with the temperature at 43 degrees, the sky, the rock and sand like a furnace and December so icy, mental energy gets sapped by altitude and fierce blasts from Tibetan plateau, the reach for shelter may take precedence over the search for facts,” he notes in his book.

Dr A.J.T. Johnsingh, S. Sathyakumar and G.B. Rawath of the Wildlife Institute of India found in their studies that the once contiguous distribution of tahrs is now restricted to isolated pockets because of biotic disturbances and loss of habitats. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the tahr population in India is on the decline. Hunting of the tahr is threatening the species, and climatic conditions, such as avalanches and high snowfall during the winter, are causing a high mortality rate among the animal.

The monal’s crest

The Himalayan monal is an exquisite bird whose beauty is enhanced by its colourful plumage. The State bird of Uttarakhand is hunted for its meat and for its copper-green crest, which is used to adorn the caps of the local people. On the first day of his visit to the sanctuary, Shefiq spotted the bird at a distance, its feathers glistening in the sky. The female monal is dull brown and unattractive.

The monal is a ground nester. It roosts on tall trees close to cliffs and slopes interspersed with grass and wood patches. It can sense the slightest disturbance on the ground—a reason for Negi advising Shefiq not to speak even in whispers. Even as he whispered the advice, a bird flew past from the rear, and Shefiq was able to quickly get a shot of the bird in flight. Although Shefiq spent a week in the sanctuary, he could sight the monal only on two days.

The high-altitude bird likes rocky terrain. It is seen in the Chopta area, which is at an elevation of 3,048 m. If the tahr is capable of leaping from one rock to another, the monal can surprise you by appearing from some tall tree and disappearing into another.

Ornithologists have found that the bird adopts seasonal altitudinal migration patterns. The study book on the monal prepared by the Wildlife Institute of India and the Central Zoo Authority says that the bird prefers sub-alpine, oak forest in the spring and forests dominated by coniferous trees in the winter. The monal is widely distributed from Afghanistan to Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nepal, China and Tibet. The bird moves in pairs. But in winter, it moves in a congregation of up to eight or 11. When the monal moves near human habitations, it falls prey to hunters, which explains its declining local population.

It is a highly vocal bird. Dr Rajah Jaypal, scientist at the SACON (Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural Studies), Anaikatti, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, said that during his survey in the Himalayas he found the bird uttering a wide range of calls on different occasions. Although its fluty call can be quite distinct, it is not easy to spot the bird as it hides in the foliage, only to emerge eventually.

There are several bird species in the sanctuary with stunning colours and calls. They include the Khalij pheasant ( Lophura leucomelanos), which is seen in the lower parts of the sanctuary; the alpine accentor ( Prunella collaris), a bird endemic to the Himalayas, which is seen in high altitudes (Shefiq found the bird perched on a rock); the brown dipper ( Cinclus pallasii), the brown-fronted woodpecker ( Leiopicus auriceps); the rufous-vented yuhina ( Yuhina occipitalis); the whiskered yuhina ( Y. flavicollis); the maroon oriole ( Oriolus traillii); the wedge-tailed green pigeon ( Treron sphenurus); and the long-tailed minivet ( Pericrocotus ethologous). The Khalij pheasant is red-faced with an attractive, glossy plumage.

Migration from the Himalayas

Dr R. Sugathan, who heads the Bird Monitoring Cell at the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary at Thattekad, said around 30 species of the Himalayan birds, including the Indian pitta ( Pitta brachyura), the paradise flycatcher ( Terpsiphone paradisi) and the forest wagtail ( Dendronanthus indicus), migrate to the Western Ghats every season. They would come in October and return by March. Because of the extreme cold in the Himalayas, the availability of food is drastically reduced in the absence of flowering plants, nectar, insects, grains and grasses. But all this will be available in the migrating area and the climate will also be congenial.

The flowering pattern in the Western Ghats is similar to that of the Himalayas, which makes the migratory birds feel at home in distant mountain ranges such as the Western Ghats. He said 600 species of birds occurred in the Himalayas, which is almost half the number of birds available in India.

Sugathan has ringed birds to find out their migration paths and has studied their migratory phenomenon in detail. The Bombay (now Bharat) Natural History Society (BNHS), then headed by Salim Ali, started bird ringing in different parts of India. Sugathan took part in the bird-ringing project in Ladakh, Kargil, Shimla and Nainital in the 1980s. The birds were caught with mist nests and nooses. After noting down details of the bird such as its weight and plumage, a ring engraved with a number and the name “Bombay Natural History Society” would be placed around a leg. When the bird was recovered elsewhere in India or abroad, information about its location would help in the study of migration.

Nearly 6,000 birds were ringed during the project, with each observation and ringing completed within 10 minutes of its capture, as the bird would suffocate if its neck was held too long by the researcher between his/her index and middle fingers.

G. Shaheed is Chief of the Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi. Shefiq Basheer Ahammed is a wildlife photographer and motor vehicles inspector in Kochi.

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