With scant vegetation, and virtually no rainfall, animals have to survive in freezing conditions. The yak is the most common, but the region is also home to the rare snow leopard, bharal or blue sheep, ibex and the Tibetan gazelle, ('chiru', which is now infamous for the shahtoosh fleece). The Tibetan wolf, Red fox, tailless rat, and the urial are also found here.
The More Plains are home to the Tibetan wild ass or kiang, wild horses (the ones from Zanskar are even better known), and marmots whose population outnumbers that of humans by a ratio of 1000:1!
The shaggy, double-humped Bactrian camel is to be seen among the 'snowy' sand dunes of the Nubra valley, which also holds the highest concentration of lynx in the Himalayas. The bird life is particularly interesting around the lakes and there are around a hundred species to be spotted through Ladakh. The bar-headed gull and goose, the black necked crane, Brahmany ducks, Turkoman rock pigeon, kestrels, Bactrian magpies and the great crested grebe are a few of the more spectacular birds on view.
There is little in terms of flora but the fragrant juniper (used for religious ceremonies), willow and poplar are the prevalent species in the green belt snaking along the valleys. The heather in the Nubra valley makes a pretty sight, casting lilac hues over the expansive land and the sea buckthorn is much in evidence though most of us will recognize this more from the popular 'Leh Berry' juice! Valleys around the Shyok-Indus confluence grow apples, apricots and walnuts.
Yak, a wild ox, is the largest animal of the cold desert. First described only a century ago by the famous Russian naturalist-explorer, Mr. N. M. Przewalski, the wild yak is definitely more imposing than its placid domestic counterpart. Immensely shaggy and weighing about a tone it has curved horns whose tips can be as wide apart as 90 cm. and measure 76 cm. over the curves. Its long black hairs can easily distinguish it, which is tinged with gray at the muzzle. Spending its summers at a height above 6,000 meters, in winter it moves in herds to the lakes, marshes and lower valleys.
All the world's sheep are closely related and zoologists generally believe that each kind is only a variation of the same species. The largest and most magnificent of wild sheep is the nyan also called the Great Tibetan sheep (Ovis ammon). Roughly 200 of these antelope - like animals are found in the extreme eastern portion of Ladakh. The horns of the nyan measure up to 145 cm. and the animal normally remains at a great height, rarely descending to a level below 4,500 meters.
The Urial or Shapu , (Ovis orientalis), which weighs 85 Kg. and has horns measuring upto 99 cm., is the smallest of the world sheep in eastern Asia , its body just about as tall as its horns. These sheep prefer the grassy mountain slopes, usually at a height of 3,000-4,000 meters. The meeting of this species, as is the case with most sheep during December-January and they give birth to their young around May. The need for protection of the urial is great as they are with in easy reach of hunters. Their numbers have been declining rapidly and it is estimated that there are no more than 500 in Ladakh.
Black Necked Crane
Of the 15 crane species in the world the black necked crane (Grus nigricollis) is perhaps the only one that has eluded the scrutiny of both professional biologist and amateur naturalist. Till today, therefore, it retains an aura of mystery. Discovered relatively recently in 1876, by the Russian naturalist / explorer, Count Prezhwalski, this bird has an exclusive distributional breeding range between the altitudes of 3500 meters to 5500 meters in the tablelands of Central Asia. Its migratory patterns are equally unique.
Of the goats in the region, ibex (Capra ibex) are the most distinctive and beautiful . Sporting a pair of fine curved, spiral horns measuring as much as 147 cm. (the largest on record), the large stocky ibex normally move in herds of 10-16. They prefer the black precipitous rocks and cliffs and consequently roam much higher than the smaller wild goats, descending, however, in winter to lower altitudes to feed and shelter. The Wildlife Department of J&K estimate that around 250 ibex exist in Kanji Nala .
(Snow leopard, Brown bear, Wolf, Lynx) High in the mountains, this solitary animal hunts goats, ibex, blue sheep and shapu by following them up and down the slopes in their seasonal migration. During the winter, snow leopards stalk the lower mountains, often feeding on domestic stock. Observations seem to indicate that this animal hunts in the early morning and late afternoons. Despite the heavy toll taken by poachers, the population of the snow leopard in Ladakh is estimated to be roughly 200. With almost 40-50 skins smuggled out of Ladakh in the 1950's, 30-40 in the 1960's and 10-15 still being slipped out, the main enemy of this animal is, undoubtedly, man. Two other carnivores inhabiting this mountain home for the great bears. The medium-sized Himalayan black bear (Selenarctos thlbetanus), a forest dweller, is found up to heights of 4,500 meters in the summer. Like most bears it feeds on practically anything ranging from fruit and ripe corn to sheep, goats, deer and even termites. Its usual home is in dug-out hollows or caves. Further up the mountain lives the more adaptive brown bear(Ursus arctos) which has a population of around 200(of which approximately 20 are found in the Kargil area- the rest in the Zanskar valley). Three or four pairs of black bears have also been spotted here during the months of July and August when fruits like apricots and apples ripen.
The wolf population in Ladakh is likely to be around 300 and consists of two basic varieties. The northern race is light fawn and brown whereas the southern is invariably darker. These wolves, probably the most hated predators in Ladakh, hunt in pairs and move over vast territories. It is observed one particular regularly moving across a narrow valley at dusk. The red fox exists in larger numbers but many are, unfortunately trapped for fur. From western Ladakh alone, about skins are possibly smuggled out every year. The stone marten, a pretty, alert and active animal is also hunted for its fur; again about 400 skins are smuggled out annually.
The Himalayan and Tibetan snowcocks-large majestic birds much hunted for their meat, and partridges breed at a height about 5,000 meters. The rest are visitors, moving down to the foothills in autumn in an annual ritual of altitudinal migration. Other birds move still further, horizontally following ancient routes of global migration. The highest realm belongs to the birds of prey and carrion eaters. These include choughs, griffon vultures, ravens and lammergeiers(bearded vultures), which follow man and animal wherever they roam. Choughs and ravens have been seen as high as 6,150 meters along with the lammergeiers, which have a spectacular three meters wingspan, which enables them to glide on high powerful upcurrents. Lammergeiers are never found far from mountains and locals awed by their size falsely believe them to be capable of carrying away young lambs.
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