To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles … not to escape but to find reality.
– Paul Shephard, ‘Man In The Landscape: A Historic View of Aesthetics of Nature’
I stand on a plateau enveloped by turquoise blue skies, at an altitude of 4,500 m. Hard winds move the clouds overhead and their flowing shadows bring a sense of scale to the expanse below. The Sun blazes down on the plateau and warmth sifts through pauses in the breeze. I am an exile tired of the all too human, and a pilgrim in search of all that is wild.
The quaint plateau I am on, little under 30 sq. km in area, is the Kalak Tartar. It is about 25 km to the south of the village of Hanle; Hanle itself is about 300 km southeast of Leh, on the Indian part of Changthang (Tibetan for ‘northern plateau’).
All life forms that have survived in the spare landscape of the Changthang are hardy by nature. Even the Tibetan gazelle, a small population of which is found here, has a tenacity that belies its dainty build and the charm of its white caudal disc. However, it is now threatened with local extinction due to human activities in and around their range.
This region of alpine meadows and steppe straddles the shadow line between India and Tibet. The wetlands here are a summer destination for a host of migratory birds, the most notable of which is the black-necked crane, which breeds in this area. The Tibetan wild ass, known locally as kiang, can also be spotted on the lake basins and on Changthang’s plateau steppe.
When I visited Kalak Tartar in the summer month of July, I had seen signs of a lugrang, a nomadic campsite, less than 500 m from the final climb to the plateau. Animal droppings had mixed with soil and turned the ground black. The nomads that had camped there had descended to their villages, taking their livestock to graze on the pastures around the marshlands.
A vacant lugrang meant the land around had been temporarily bequeathed to wildlife, until the people and their livestock came up again for forage the following spring. Riding beyond the empty lugrang towards the edge of the plateau, I saw wildlife undisturbed by human presence, a heart-warming experience. I counted about 40 kiang on the plateau and on the hills of its southern fringe, just specks in the vast landscape. Further ahead along a mud road that cut across Kalak Tartar to a border security checkpost, I had seen a couple groups of kiang grazing.
At last summer’s unoccupied lugrang site, a disheartening yet picturesque scene awaits me: there are five rebo (tents). It is spring now and, adhering to their pasture management regimen, the nomads have returned and their livestock are back on the plateau. Not very far from the tents, snowmelt trickles into a shallow gully; my eyes follow it until it reaches up to a height where I can see herds of yak and some horses, and a couple of men.
In the vast landscape, with motion imperceptible, they seem frozen. A snow-capped hill looms over them. Closer to me, a girl fills water into a plastic can with snowmelt even as I see a woman approach from another rebo, the sun in her face and the wind in her hair, bearing empty cans for water. Closer still, I hear a human voice in the breeze. A changpa, a nomad of the Changthang, tells me they may camp here for a month or more, and that they have been here for a fortnight already. Yes, they have seen some gowa (the local name for the gazelle), but fifteen days ago. The kiang, he says, “are all around”.
The rebo‘s yak-wool roofs flutter furiously on this sheltered slope below the Kalak, recalling the wild ungulates that endure the wind’s unbridled intensity on the plateau. The presence of people and livestock so close to the Kalak may have disturbed these wild animals and forced them to move away. With some misgivings about sighting them, I climb the plateau, and I am unprepared for what I finally see. There are a score yaks and about a dozen horses grazing on the slopes of the hills to the south. On the hills to the north, I count about five herds of sheep, each a group of nearly 300. One of the herds is running down a slope, kicking up a trail of dust that catches the evening’s golden light.
As the day nears its end, the herds and their herders move back to their rebo. As I witness their journey over this unforgivingly harsh landscape, I realise there may be little difference here between what it is to be human and what it is to be wild. After all, their survival in this part of the Changthang, remote and bleak as it is, is strongly intertwined. Far away from the debate over the Forest Rights Act that rages among conservationists, both wildlife and people battle forces that threaten them together.
The region’s history reveals disconcerting layers of disturbance, the most recent one in the 1950s, when you could trace a domino effect of events from China’s occupation of Tibet to the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, when many Tibetans also crossed the putative border into Ladakh, greatly stressing the local economy and ecology. The Changthang’s exotic charm belies the effects of this geopolitical event to this day.
After the Indo-China war in 1962, the border was closed, denying local herders access to large tracts of traditional pastureland. The influx of Tibetans and their herds further reduced the amount of land available to local herders on the Indian side of Changthang. Then the dawn of the pashmina industry changed the herd composition, and increased numbers of pashmina goats adversely affected the use of pastureland. Finally, the strength and near-constant presence of the armed forces only rendered the ecosystem more fragile.
Today, many tourists visit the region and the trash generated as a result has been piling up, attracting many dogs that have threatened wildlife and people.
All of these things threaten the regional culture and biodiversity, so much so that the problem has become very large and complicated now. With each passing day it becomes harder to resolve even as it becomes important that it is resolved. This landscape has sustained both people and wildlife for thousands of years. It would be terrible to have the unique lives and cultures disappear from this remote Trans-Himalayan world.
Narendra Patil has worked for Wildlife Conservation Society (India Program) for a decade and with an NGO towards snow leopard conservation.