By Priya Ranganathan | Illustrations by Kshiti Mishra
The Regal Ram
A dull clang echoes around the lonely Himalayan slopes. Two rams shake their heads, disoriented, and then charge at each other again, their massive horns slamming together in an age-old power struggle.
With curling horns that resemble corkscrews, the argali is one of the most distinctive wild ungulates of the mountains. The word “argali” is Mongolian and means ‘wild sheep.’ The powerful sloping shoulders and sturdy hooves of this ungulate allow it to survive the harsh terrain of the Himalayas. The range of the argali spans the Altai Mountains at the border of Russia and Mongolia to the Himalayas in the south, from the highlands of central Kazakhstan in the west to Shanxi Province, China, in the east. These agile animals prefer the high mountains, living in elevations from 300 to 5,800 metres. Throughout their range, argali face heavy competition from domestic livestock and therefore must search for food in the rocky, higher altitudes, away from human habitation and grasslands.
These wild sheep have many ways of coping with a harsh lifestyle. The argali eats snow at higher elevations to quench its thirst. This sheep has been noted to consume saline soil, though scientists are not entirely sure of the benefits of this odd behaviour! In the Himalayas, the argali is hunted by the snow leopard, Himalayan wolf, and occasionally the common leopard, though this spotted cat only occurs in the lower ranges of the Himalayas. Vultures and eagles may attack young lambs and bones of young argali have been found in eagle nests from time to time. However, the biggest threat to the argali is from humans – poaching for use in traditional medicines, hunting for meat, and loss of resources from overgrazing of livestock are major threats to this majestic wild sheep of the snow mountains.
A Distinctive Deer
Hush! Do you see those big eyes staring at you from the scrubby Himalayan brush? Meet the only fanged deer in the world – the Himalayan or white-bellied musk deer. With a small home range and a preference for night-time activity, the musk deer is rarely spotted going about its daily business. Their favourite foods are low in fiber and high in protein, and they are even known to “climb” up trees when searching for tender leaves in the snowy ranges of the Himalayas. They do this with the help of long dew claws on their slender legs, powerful hind legs that propel them up rocky slopes, broad toes on their hooves, and dense fur to protect them from freezing temperatures.
Musk deer are known for their distinctive tusks, which are actually extra-long canine teeth. These tusks never stop growing and can grow up to 10 cm long! Male deer use their tusks to fight other males for mates and to defend their territories. Musk deer are also known for the special fragrant secretion – known as musk – that they produce from a small sack in their stomach region. Males are the only individuals to secrete this musk, which attracts females and is helpful in marking territory. However, this musk is also coveted by hunters for the production of perfumes and medicines. The musk deer, with its preference for extreme altitudes above 2,500 metres, is hard to spot and catch, yet its value on the black market grows each year. Its musk is one of the most expensive animal-derived products in the world, selling for approximately U.S. $50,000 per kilogram (over 37 lakh Indian rupees)! International laws protect the musk deer, but it is still one of the most secretive and highly endangered animals to call the Himalayas home.
The Blue Sheep
The best-known of India’s wild mountain goat-antelopes is the bharal, or blue sheep. This agile ungulate is the favourite prey of the beautiful snow leopard and lives high in the mountains, much like its mysterious predator. Known as the blue sheep for its blue-grey coat, the bharal is active during the day and grazes on short mountain grasses and in alpine meadows in herds. When the bharal senses danger – such as an approaching predator – it freezes, and its dull coloured coat allows it to blend in with the rocks that it lives among. This behaviour is best described as “melting” into the rock. Bharal are very sure-footed and will leap up and down rocky slopes effortlessly, using this daredevil tactic to avoid a pouncing snow leopard. Young bharal are targeted by golden eagles, which hunt by sight and swoop down to attack.
Walking in the high Himalayas, one cannot help but run across this common ungulate. The bharal is not particularly endangered, and its population is maintained by predation. Given its remote habitat at elevations exceeding 3,000 metres, it is rarely hunted by humans. The blue sheep also faces little to no competition from domestic livestock, unlike the argali. Researchers and hikers alike often stake out by herds of bharal in hopes of coming across the grey ghost of the snow peaks – the snow leopard. The bharal enjoys the protection of various Buddhist monasteries, many of which look after young bharal lambs that are injured or orphaned. It is no wonder, perhaps, that the blue sheep has survived for so long in this inhospitable landscape!
The Gnu Goat
Ancient Greece swims with legends of marvellous beasts and the heroes who conquered them. One such rare beast, however, has its origins in the high Himalayas, a land where the heroes of Ancient Greece were unlikely to have ever set foot. In the tale of the mystical golden fleece, Jason and his ship of loyal heroes, the Argonauts, sailed in search of the golden fleece, which would render its wearer immortal.
Meet the source of the golden fleece – the takin, also known as the gnu goat. While most of the subspecies of this odd goat-antelope (which looks much like a small muskox) are dull in colour, the golden takin has inspired lore and legend for eons. Its lustrous shaggy fur is coveted by poachers and hunters, but this thick pelt keeps the takin warm in the Himalayan winter.
The Himalayas are home to four subspecies of takin – the Mishmi takin of Arunachal Pradesh, the Bhutan takin from the high-altitude bamboo forests of Bhutan, the golden takin from China, and the Tibetan takin from Tibet. While the golden takin is also found in Northwest China, the other subspecies are restricted to the eastern Himalayas. If you travel to the land of the rising sun, Arunachal Pradesh, and visit Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary, you may be lucky enough to spot this silent ungulate. The takin’s oily coat protects it from moisture from early morning fog, allowing it to retain heat. Its fur is light in colour with a dark stripe down the centre of the back, and both males and females have large horns. Takins live in small family groups and often gather in large groups – almost like a reunion – by salt licks (areas where the soil is salty) and hot springs. They graze on scrubby grasses and browse for bamboo shoots, flowers, and leaves.
Unfortunately, the takin is often targeted by hunters and poachers due to its love for salt licks, which makes it easy to lure into a trap. They are most often hunted for their meat, which features in tribal dishes, and for their magnificent horns and thick pelts. In the wild, takins are hunted by the Himalayan black bear, the common leopard, the snow leopard, and the Himalayan wolf. However, the takin is large enough that it is often left alone by predators. Humans, it would seem, are the only threat that its size cannot intimidate!
About the Author:
Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist and geologist by training who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam. Check out her website ‘On Life and Wildlife.’
About the Artist:
Kshiti Mishra is pursuing a PhD in physics in the Netherlands and occasionally likes to dabble in different kinds of art.