Friday, December 9, 2011

Bactrian camels

Jerking frantically, our jeep climbed up a dirt-road that snaked across an alpine slope covered with sparse vegetation. We were on a quest to understand the conservation issues related to the Bactrian camel in the Nubra valley of Ladakh. Soon the Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world, came into view. Prayer flags, hallmark of a high pass in this part of the world, fluttered incessantly on a spur.

Once at the top, we staggered around taking pictures of signboards with 'World's Highest Motorable Road (18, 380 ft)' emblazoned on them. The height soon affected us, and we quickly squeezed into the jeep and continued. After a relatively smooth drive on a macadamized road we reached at Khardung village. The bright green agricultural fields around the village were in stark contrast to the dark brown slopes surrounding them.
Hundreds of nature lovers visit Nubra valley every year. It is popularly known as the Valley of Flowers, and is located at about 100 km north of Leh, the capital city of Ladakh and the erstwhile Indian gateway to central Asia. The landscape is adorned with wild flowers, sand dunes, jagged mountains and sea-buckthorn thickets that teem with birds and mammals.
Sumur village was our first stop, and we stayed at the Stakrey Guest House with a beautiful garden in full bloom. Apart from delightful flowers, the owner had grown vegetables such as potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes, etc. Next day we ventured into a side-valley to look for wildlife, but after plodding for a while the trail faded into a vertical cliff, and we needed to retrace our path.
The afternoon was spent in the Tirit village, learning about the history of camel in Nubra. "Camels in the valley are the descendents of a group of about 15 individuals bequeathed by the central Asian traders" said Wangdus Norbu. The Kalon families of Tirit and Sumur, who ran a caravanserai during the heyday of trade on the Silk Route, were the first to raise camels as draught animals. But as the road infrastructure in the valley improved, thanks to the Indian Army, they were abandoned.
"The trade on the Silk Route was made possible only by these hardy animals" added Mr. Norbu. Bactrian camels can live several days without water, a feature well recognized by the central Asian traders. "An adult camel can carry three times more load than that carried by a horse" remarked another villager. The most important commodities the Yarkandi traders brought included silk, bullion, pearl and Persian rugs, which they bartered in Leh for spices and clothes from the plains of India. The trade ended in the late 1960s following the Sino-Indian war.
After a pleasant stay at Sumur, we continued our journey up the valley and found a small oasis for camping. We pitched tents amongst Hippophae bushes, laden heavily with luscious berries. An effort was made to spot camels before having a dinner of Spaghetti.
A golden light had bathed the surrounding peaks, when a roaring helicopter woke me up the next day. One more machine flew across before I got up. Perhaps they were carrying fresh supplies to the frontier post at the Siachen glacier, the biggest outside the polar region and the highest battleground in the world. After morning ablutions we headed toward Panamik village, a much coveted destination in the valley because of its hot springs. People from all over Ladakh come here to take a shower, as they believe that the sulphur water is a panacea for all diseases.
After a few days at Panamik, we went to Diskit, the headquarters of Nubra. On arrival we explored the small market with shops selling trinkets. We were told that camels are found in the scrub forest below the village, so Mark and I ventured into it. After a great deal of searching, we saw a pair of camels feeding on leaves of stunted willow trees. Soon they joined a group of thirty animals. It was a grand sighting indeed; our efforts finally paid off.
Although the domesticated Bactrian camels are abundant in central Asia, the wild form is one of the most endangered mammals on the planet with less than 1000 individuals surviving. They are distributed in the Gobi desert of Mongolia, and Xinjiang and Gansu provinces of China. Despite concerted conservation efforts, its population continues to dwindle due to competition with livestock and poaching.
The feral camels in Nubra has long remained isolated from the larger population in the aforementioned central Asian countries, and perhaps represent a genetically distinct population. Thus they need immediate attention from conservationists, as they are in conflict with the people. "They enter the fenced orchards and destroy trees" said Abdul Razaq, a villager of Hundar. "People throw axe in retaliation and the animals succumb to the injuries" he added while sipping a traditional Ladakhi tea.
Furthermore, some agitated villagers drown the foals by driving them into the high currents of the Shayok river. "People urged the district administration to appoint temporary guards to prevent the animals from entering private properties, but to no avail" said another villager. The situation is worsening with the soaring needs and aspirations of the people.
Fortunately, the opening of the valley to tourists a decade ago gave new economic opportunities. Camel Safari is a recent initiative and is increasingly becoming popular in the area. Young entrepreneurs are fascinated by this new prospect, and are increasingly taming the feral camels. However, since the animals have been left untended for a long time, it is often difficult to recognize them in the wild. This sometimes leads to scuffle amongst the alleged owners.
One day, we joined a group of tourists riding camels on the sand dunes near Hundar. As I sat astride and rocked on a camel trudging across the sand dunes, the guide told me about this newfound business. Although Camel Safari enhances the income of the locals, the animals seemed stressed and emaciated. The ones we rode were certainly weaker than those we had seen earlier in the thicket. But perhaps enhancing the economic value is the only way to conserve them in the long run.
"People also take a few camels to Leh every year to participate in the week-long Ladakh Festival in September, and earn some additional income" snapped the guide. With this increasing business prospect, the people of Nubra are becoming possessive about their camels. According Abdul Razaq, people were up in arms when four Bactrian camels were taken for breeding in Pushkar, Rajasthan, home to the Dromedary in India. They contend that if tourists see the Bactrian in Rajasthan, they (tourists) will not make an effort to come to a remote place like Nubra to see them. "Fortunately, the animals did not survive in Rajasthan due to the intense heat and were brought back" informed a villager.
We set out on the last leg of our journey to Hundar, where we camped at Nyerchung Resort located in a gorgeous orchard in the middle of the village. We pitched our tents below an apple tree that shed its fruits day and night. After a couple of memorable days at Hundar, we bid adieu to Nubra and drove back with the fond memories of Bactrian camels, hoping that they survive the negative impacts of modern development and continue to be the cynosure of the valley for centuries to come.

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