Written by Radika Timbadia


A surprise sighting on a perfect day

It was almost the end of June and I was thrilled to see snow. I got out of the car and walked towards the closest hill. The sky was a perfect blue, just the kind one gets in these high- altitude mountains and the ground in front of me was white! Winter hadn’t given up its hold on this beautiful, quiet corner of Ladakh. Clothed in my winter warmest, enjoying the delicious cold at the same time basking in the warm sun, I had a good feeling that it was going to be my lucky day.

I was visiting the eastern corner of Ladakh to see the Tibetan gazelle or gowa, with my then colleagues who all worked in wildlife conservation and research. The Tibetan gazelle is a small, graceful antelope with characteristic white rumps that you can see when they turn around. It is globally ‘near threatened’ according to the IUCN Red List as it is found all over the Tibetan plateau, but in India their population has rapidly declined, with fewer than 100 individuals left near a remote village in Ladakh close to the Tibetan border. As soon as we crossed the first hillock, where the snow had begun to melt, we saw seven individuals trying to graze, in what looked like a very impoverished area to us. They merged into the greyish- brown landscape and I would have missed them if not for the keen eyes of my companions. I was excited and happy to see the gazelles, but also concerned about their future.

Just as we were getting ready to go back to the village, we saw a few fuzzy brown dog-sized animals. We weren’t excited, free-ranging dogs are not uncommon in Ladakh, though we had never seen them in this valley. We unhurriedly took out our binoculars to take a look. And we almost yelped with surprise: it was a pack of five wolves lounging around, watching us. We kept a safe distance from the wolves so as not to alarm them or harass them and after about an hour of peacefully watching them we moved on to the other side of the valley. Boy was I lucky! I had a perfect day watching the elusive Tibetan gazelles and wolves in this magnificent landscape.

Ladakh is a high-altitude cold desert. It is arid, rugged and mountainous. It has become a coveted tourist destination with its stunning treeless landscapes, colourful mountain slopes, azure skies and welcoming people. What is surprising is that despite the harsh climatic conditions and seemingly barren landscapes, the wildlife of Ladakh is abundant and unique. To name a few, the majestic snow leopard, wolf, fox, Pallas’s cat, sand fox, Tibetan wild ass or kiang, bharal, ibex, Tibetan gazelle and over 300 species of birds including the black- necked crane are all found in this corner of the world.

We ended this perfect and exciting day in our host’s house in the village, chatting and warming ourselves over many cups of sweet tea, butter tea and yogurt mixed with toasted barley.