Barren as it looks, a variety of unique flora & fauna species are found in Ladakh, a high altitude cold desert in the Himalayas. Other than mountain goats, sheep, horses and Yak that are commonly seen grazing around the pastures, the trans-Himalayan plateaus of Ladakh are home to several rare and endangered species of mammals and birds. In the vast landscape they’re difficult to spot, but once you do it’s fascinating! The jaw-dropping scenery of Ladakh is mesmerizing enough and the exotic animals add magic (and perspective), to the scene! It’s a great experience to watch these animals in their natural habitat and appreciate all that they endure to live in this paradise high up in the mountains! It’s useful to carry binoculars as most of these animals just look like tiny specks over the landscape with the naked eye. I love landscape photography and carry a wide-angle lens and a 35mm prime when I travel, so the wildlife I’ve shot is more a part of the landscape than close-up shots.
Kiang – the wild Tibetan Ass
Camouflaging with the browns of the mountains, Kiang is the largest of the wild Asses and inhabits alpine grasslands. Elegant and graceful like a horse with a broad, dark chocolate-colored dorsal stripe running from its mane to the end of the tail, Kiangs are herbivores and live up to 20 years in the wild. I had mostly seen them grazing peacefully like a part of a beautiful landscape painting of Ladakh, but in Hanle we saw a group of Kiangs run across the road a little ahead of us and disappear beyond the mountains. It was an incredible sight, and it happened twice! Not sure what makes them do that but I guess they also get excited when someone manages to come as far remote as Hanle! 😉 Watch Kiangs cross the road before us in Hanle.
Similar to the Kiangs or probably related to them are the rare Kiang breed of donkeys that live in Rangdum Monastery on a hilltop near the tiny hamlet of Rangdum, on the way to Zanskar.
The Himalayan marmot found in the cold Himalayan regions of Jammu and Kashmir belongs to the rodent family. Marmots are large furry ground squirrels that live in deep burrows that keep them warm even in subzero temperatures. They are one of the highest elevation-dwelling mammals in the world and are well adapted to life in dry alpine meadows that receive scanty rainfall. They hibernate during the winter months when the terrain is covered in deep snow and sunlight is scanty. These two cute marmots were running around and playing on the mountain slopes, en route to Pensi La in Zanskar.
Bactrian Camels at Hunder, Nubra valley
Double humped Bactrian camels are a legacy from the traders who travelled the Silk route. Their tolerance for cold, drought and high altitudes made them ideal for caravans on the ancient trade routes through the harsh rocky terrain. These camels have two humps on their back and are hairier than their single-humped cousins. They are classified as critically endangered and possibly extinct in the wild. Very few are left in the cold desert of Hunder in Nubra valley, Ladakh, where they now used to give tourists a joyride.
Common animals – Mountain goat, Sheep, wild Horses and Dogs
The Ladakh landscape is literally dotted with herds of mountain goats, sheep, yak and wild horses especially in the summer months. Carcass heads with horns of a Urial (wild sheep) and Yak are kept outside homes in Ladakh as guardians. Wild horses graze by the stunning landscape of Ladakh and dogs enjoying the mountains. Watch two wild Himalayan dogs run along our bike against the breathtaking landscape of Ladakh.
Brown headed Gull, Pangong Tso
A small white gull with red feet and beak, it breeds in colonies around marshes or shallow islands around high altitude lakes. Brown headed gulls are migratory birds that breed on the high plateaus of central Asia and Inner Mongolia and migrate to the coasts and large inland lakes like Pangong Tso – the most famous and largest of all the high altitude lakes in the Ladakh Himalayas. At an altitude of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft), the lake is 134 km long and the Line of Actual Control between India and China passes through the lake. Read more about the Enchanting lakes of Ladakh.
A rare endangered bird and the world’s only alpine crane species, the Black-necked crane breeds on the high altitude wetlands, alpine meadows and river marshes of the Tibetan plateau in China, Bhutan, Eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh in India. It’s a tall whitish-grey bird with a long neck & legs, a black head & tail, and a small red crown. The Black-necked crane is sacred for the people of Ladakh and appears on Thanka paintings in monasteries. Sighting of this bird is considered auspicious and a sign of prosperity. It is the state bird of Jammu & Kashmir in India and Bhutan celebrates the bird by hosting a Crane Festival every year.
Black billed Eurasian Magpie
Magpies belong to the Crow family and are one of the most intelligent animals, one of the only non-mammal species able to recognize itself in the mirror test! With a metallic blue-green & violet sheen, it’s a common bird in Ladakh. A few other common birds like the sparrows, pigeons and crows against the gorgeous backdrop of the Ladakh Himalayas.
This piece is a part of a series on my travels to Ladakh, other posts – Ladakh Blues: Enchanting lakes of Ladakh, Ride of a Lifetime – Road trip to Ladakh, Smiling Faces of Ladakh – heartwarming people of Ladakh and Hidden treasure of Ladakh– prehistoric Rock Art that dates back to 3000 BC!