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Journeys to the ends of the earth

June 30, 2008

Narendra Patil travels to Changthang, the northern region of the Tibetan plateau, in search of the shy Gowa, now on its way to extinction.
The Sunday Deccan Herald (India)
June 29, 2008

One August morning, I ride my Enfield on a road that snakes along river Indus. I move roughly along the suture between the tectonic plates of the Tibetan plateau and the Indian Subcontinent. About 200 kms upstream of Leh, and at an altitude of 13,500 feet, the river basin widens and the steep-faced mountains give way to rolling hills. The wind blows hard in this open terrain and the wrinkled sand dunes nearby have an aura from the flying specks of sand. The sky is overcast and at a distance, the dark clouds taper down and touch the hills.

The landscape here is most unique; at once serene by virtue of its vastness and brutal because of its bleakness. I am in Changthang, the northern region of the Tibetan plateau.

On my previous visits to Changthang, as an amateur naturalist, I was looking for Gowa (Tibetan gazelle). There are a couple of small isolated populations of these animals on the Indian side in Changthang. Since the annexation of Tibet by China in the mid 50s and the grafting of industrial culture on a society living in these austere landscapes, the population of Gowa has diminished considerably. On the Indian side too their range has shrunk and they are threatened with local extinction.

By noontime, I ride into a village called Hanle and proceed to the plateau of Kalak Tarkar, at an altitude of 15,000 feet. The day is cold and windy, and there are spells of drizzle. At the western end of Kalak, I see tracks of Gowa that indicate their movement towards the northern hills. Approximately at the mid-point of the southern hills, is a stream with a trickle of water, flowing down towards the Kalak plains.

At the source of the trickle I see a tent and an excavator cutting a road above this stream. A new road to a border village is being made across this plateau, which is the last refuge to a population of Gowas in Ladakh. The team of road builders had arrived at Kalak the day before and had seen about 15 Gowas. They invite me to stay and I decide to camp there with them. After pitching my tent, I climb an adjoining hill to scan the Kalak plains for Gowas. There are none to be seen.

It keeps drizzling on and off right through the night. The next morning I am out of the tent by six and it is too cold to touch the water for any kind of morning ablutions and my hosts are still in their tent. The top of a hill on my left is already aflush with the morning light and I set out with that indescribable exultation that accompanies the beginning of such outdoor ventures.

I climb a rocky mound that is the culmination of a dwarf and flattish ridge above the nullah where I am camped. I settle myself on this mound to scan the Kalak and the hills around it. The northern hills flatten into a wide plain towards the eastern end, and there at a distance of approx three kilometers, I see a Kiang grazing. At this distance, the shake of my hands disturbs the image in the binoculars. I scan the place around the Kiang for nearly 15 minutes and then not very close to it I spot a small animal, grazing. I can, with some effort, see a white caudal disc and I am sure I have seen the Tibetan gazelle. The animal is small and in the vastness of the landscape appears even smaller. Soon I see another. I spend some more time scanning the landscape and I am reasonably certain that there are only two Gowas. They are climbing the hills to the north of Kalak and moving west.

I judge the direction and the pace of their movement to plan my approach. I decide to walk away from them at an angle of about 20 degrees across the Kalak plains and reach a narrow gully that climbs a hump on the northern hills. I speculate that by the time I get to the top of that mound, the animals will have climbed the top of a hill beyond. That would leave a gap of about 200m between us, and at that distance I can get a very good view of the gazelles through the binoculars. I get rid of my bright red jacket; and now with khaki cargo trousers, full-sleeved dirty brown turtle necked shirt and a pale blue woolen cap, I am less conspicuous on this landscape.
After crossing the plain I am out of sight of the gazelle. I start to climb the mound through the gully. I have to keep my pace slow lest I become breathless and get into a coughing fit (at 15,500 feet, a fair possibility). Once I approach the top I have to be cautious and slow, the animals are perfectly camouflaged in their terrain. I do not see the animals around and suspect that instead of climbing on to the second mound, which was now in front of me, they must have taken to the slopes of the main northern ridge. So I continue to trudge, approaching the top of the second mound, where I am completely exposed. If I do not spot them soon there is a risk of them sighting me and fleeing. I remain frozen and scan the slope in front of me. It is too late. The animals have spotted me and have begun to move away. The distance between us is about 300m and then soon they are very far away, above me and approaching the ridge line. They form small silhouettes on the skyline with white clouds for a backdrop, and then disappear.

I climb the ridge and look around; to my left the slope dips into a nullah. After ensuring that the animals were neither on the slope to my right nor in the broad valley at the bottom of the slope, I move left and down towards some small rocks. Though I cannot hide behind them, I hope that my presence, as it breaks the open space, would get assimilated into the rocks, even as the rocks themselves disturbed the monotony of the open landscape.

I see one of the gazelles when I am amidst the scattered group of rocks. The animal to my left is moving parallel to me. It is less than 100 mts. away and moving down the slope. It is, however, building a greater distance between us. It freezes to look straight in my direction. I freeze too, not sure of what it sees of me.

Like most wild ungulates I have seen in such situations, it decides to move away but not without making a statement. Head turned towards me, very slightly tilted upwards and the whole body stiff, it lifts the front left leg and hind right, pauses and plants it down and ever so slightly in front. Next the gazelle lifts the front right and hind left, pauses and plants it hard on the ground. It is a joy, the sight of this prancing and strutting. It has great style and grace.

Then, suddenly even as I watch it through my binoculars, it springs on all its four legs, hop-hop-hop-hop, neck still craning in my direction.

Then after about four hops it gallops away, though not at full pace but tentatively, as if unsure of the presence of a threat. The animal disappears behind a mound and reappears below me on the slope together with the other gazelle. I watch them even as they look in my direction and continue to move away along the length of the valley. I have had my first encounter with the Tibetan gazelle, but the moot question that haunts me is; can they hold their own in the face of expanding human frontiers?
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