When The Family told me that she’d seen a Pika, I was flabbergasted. She couldn’t be playing Pokemon GO in a part of the Himalayas where the phone network is so sporadic. I had to google to figure out that she’d seen the Indian Pika (aka, Himalayan mouse-hare, Ochotona roylei). When I finally saw her photos I figured that they are indeed the small rabbit-like creatures which I’d read about in the meanwhile. She must have seen them at around the lowest elevation of their range; they are found at altitudes of 2.4 to 5.2 Kilometers above mean sea level. IUCN classes them as being of least concern for conservation, mainly based on the fact that there seem to be no new threats at these heights, although maybe at the lowest elevation there is some contraction of the population.
From The Family’s photos it seems that they like to live in burrows or crevices between stones, where predators may find it hard to reach. After a little search I found a study of these animals around the area that The Family had photographed them in. It was interesting to read that they do not hibernate, as a result of which they spend a large part of the year gathering food for winter. The Family had not noticed them doing much gathering. It could be that at the end of a prolonged winter they were more interested in foraging.
I’d been sure there were many studies of the natural history of these animals, but the study I found cited only two previous works. Observations in the field showed that a Pika typically moves far less than 100 meters from its burrow, although it must sometimes move much further in order to forage. Interestingly, inspections of its hoard showed that they often gather plants which are locally said to have medicinal properties. This could be part of the reason for the loss in Pika population at the lower end of its habitat where the density of people is increasing.
The Himayalan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) is one of the several large hooved herbivores of the Himalayas. The Family told me about watching this individual walk down a steep slope as if it was on a highway. The spectacular long golden coat grows in winter and is shed in summer, revealing a dark undercoat. This picture is from mid-April, probably at about the time when the coat begins to fall off. It can be found along the length of the Himalayas, at a height of over 1500 meters, and up to about 5000 meters, with the eastern end of its range at Thimphu and the western end at Srinagar. In all the photos that The Family took, the Tahr is seen browsing on grass. As humans and their sheep range higher, the habitat of the Tahr is getting restricted, which is why IUCN now considers it to be near-threatened, even in the absence of a census.
The Family talked about standing on a road and looking at a far hillside where this individual walked down the steep slope while grazing. I looked at the photos, at the yellow eyes, the golden mane, and I wished I’d taken the trip with her. This is an animal I would love to see, wild in its natural habitat.
As a tourist, the Himalayas are wonderful. The lower hills have comfortable hotels and good food. In the high Himalayas a few days of discomfort, lack of hot water and unheated rooms, are outweighed by the beauty of the surroundings. The locals have to live through this all their lives, and for them it is a different matter. Chopta, in Uttarakhand, is at an altitude of over 2.6 Kilometers. The extensive meadows attract shepherds in summer. But the winters are so harsh that they have to move down to other villages nearby. A lifestyle like this can be seen across the Himalayas. If the shepherds have been using dogs all this time then I hadn’t noticed them. I did a double take when I saw one in the photo that The Family took.
In a lower village she took this photo of women’s work. The amount of work done by human muscles when machinery can easily be used instead is amazing. The burden on the backs of each of the women is clearly at the limit of what they can carry. I wonder whether they are carrying these leaves for their own use. If they are, then they do not have access to motorized vehicles like the one they are passing. The Family and I have a romantic dream of retiring to the mountains, but life at these heights is far from easy, and the dream does not survive the first light of rational planning.
As the stay-at-home spouse, I was quietly envious of The Family when she sent me photos of her journey to the Kedarnath range of the Garhwal Himalayas. I especially loved the featured photo. The last line there seems like wishful thinking; highways are arteries through which plastics circulate in nature.
But to start at the very beginning, The Family sent a string of photos of these metal sausages by the road. Why were they there? No one around her knew, but they were nicely painted. There were deer and birds. These spotted owlets were really nice.
The weather was strange, and the light through the clouds was an odd yellow which made this tree stand out. I think at this time they were still fairly close to Dehra Dun, on their way up to the Alaknanda.
Around midday she must have passed Devprayag. The blue waters of the Bhagirathi and the brown of Alaknanda rivers join at this point to become the Ganga. A quick explanation is that the dam at Tehri upstream on the Bhagirathi allows the silt to settle down, so that by the stream that arrives at the Devprayag is blue. But this otherwise convincing reply is wrong. As an observant blogger pointed out, the colours of the streams change with season.
The photos from further up are gorgeous. The Family complained about the cold; it was past mid-April and the temperature on some days went down to nearly freezing. Sitting at home in warm Mumbai I enjoyed the photo of fog rolling down the Himalayas much more than she did. Disappointingly, she never had the views she expected of the Nanda Devi (7.8 Kms high), Trishul and Chaukhamba (both 7.1 Kms high) because of the clouds. This winter has been severe in the Himalayas, due to the same disruption of the polar vortex that gave the USA a record winter. If it weren’t for that, the second half of April would be a wonderful time for these views.
And now, in the middle of April the Rhododendrons were in full bloom, finally. In the last few years we’ve gone too early in the season to see this flowering. I was happy to get a lot of photos of these upper meadows around Chopta, at an altitude of 2.6 Kms above sea level. The Family was very happy with the flowers.