After spending three months in Japan interning at Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, I returned to India to start my work at Rudranath, in the high-altitude meadows of Western Himalayas. I was well prepared for the potential challenges that could arise during my five-month stay here, as I had followed langur troops 30 km. away at Chopta in 2015, at similar elevations (~4000 above mean sea level or amsl). Why did I pick Rudranath, when I had the option of another relatively easier site at Chopta? The answer lies in its unique vegetation, especially alpine plants, and their remoteness. Additionally, Chopta is well connected by road and observes continuous tourist disturbance. Rudranath, also a tourist spot, attracts a smaller crowd due to the intense 32 km. trek one must undertake to reach there. The main attraction at Rudranath is its popular Lord Shiva temple and hence, tourism is largely religious. When the temple closes from October to April, tourism comes to a halt as well.
I first witnessed the grandeur of Rudranath’s alpine meadows in August 2015, at the peak of flowering season. Monsoons are the best time to visit these meadows, which are then covered with a variety of flowering plants. The trek to Rudranath from Mandal, the nearest road-head, takes two full days. On the first day, we camped at Panar after 12 km. of arduous trekking through beautiful oak and birch forests. On the second day, we stopped at Panchganga in Rudranath valley, after walking 14 km. through dense fog. My first glimpse of Rudranath valley made me believe that such beauty couldn’t be described with words, nor captured with camera. The first day of our trek was mostly foggy; we were unable to see anything around. The next morning was a different experience altogether. We got lucky with a clear view of the breath-taking meadows, with the snowclad Himalaya as the backdrop. At that moment, I longed to live here. I had no idea what I was going to do; only that I had fallen in love with the mesmerizing landscape.
On the third day, we headed towards Rudranath temple, which is 7 km. from Panchganga. A kilometer into the dense oak forests below the meadows, I saw some white dots in the canopy. I took out my binoculars and could hardly believe that they were actually langurs. I had found what I was looking for! After reaching Rudranath temple, I spotted another troop of langurs close to the temple. Spotting two troops of langurs in one day convinced me that Rudranath was the right choice for my next research project. I was lucky enough to get funding from National Geographic Society (USA) and Rufford Foundation (UK) to begin my work in 2016. With this project, I wanted to conduct some preliminary investigations on langurs and the surrounding landscape. We had to set up some infrastructure in place first; including sleeping tents, a kitchen tent and another tent for storing rations and changing out of wet clothes. I decided to establish my basecamp at Panchganga. The site had water supply handy, ample space and a langur troop located nearby last year. Inspired by the local community of shepherds, we customized our tents. Basic readymade tents are not suitable in this region due to heavy winds, hailstorms and rain that can continue incessantly for 20 hours a day during the monsoon. To make these locally designed tents, we used tarpaulin sheets mounted over a skeleton frame made of the local bamboo (ringal), which grows at 3000 amsl. We further strengthened the structure to protect against natural hazards.
The next challenge was to get regular supplies up on the mountain. We hired four mules to carry our supplies until Panchganga from Mandal. We started our trek from Sagar village at 6 am on May 28, through a long, yet gentler route. Although there is an alternate shorter route from Mandal village, we chose not to take it as it was risky in the rains, especially since the wooden bridge was prone to getting washed out periodically. The trek to Sagar was easy for the first six hours up to 3000 amsl, after which I started feeling tired. My hectic schedule in Japan had involved no physical activity. With good pains, I realized that undertaking such an arduous trek without preparation had not been a good idea. I was accompanied by Mr. Harish Maithani, my field assistant and Akash Verma, a volunteer research assistant. We reached Panar later than expected and I was exhausted by then. We still had around 7 km. of trekking left. Most trekkers stay at Panar for the night, but I wanted to reach Panchganga the same day. We had small portions of noodles for lunch and headed for Panchganga immediately. I told Harish to walk ahead and put the ration and other supplies inside the tent before the weather goes bad. The pre-monsoon period assured a high probability of rain after 4PM. In the monsoon, once could only guess and hope. After crossing Panar, I began to find it difficult to continue walking at a fast pace. It was already 4PM and we had merely two hours of daylight left to reach Panchganga. After 20 minutes of walking, as we climbed on the ridgeline (~4000m), the downpour began with enthusiasm. Soon, our environment seemed to change completely, as an envelope of dense fog reduced the visibility to the extent that I couldn’t even see Akash walking a few steps ahead of me. The temperature fell below zero and my hands grew severely numb. I had erroneously chosen to pack everything in my rucksack, carried by the mules trudging ahead of us. I was wearing a thin rain-jacket over a T-shirt and hadn’t worn gloves. I was drenched and the heavy winds worsened our situation. For every step I took forward, the wind shoved me two steps backward. The ridge was extremely windy, as it was skirted by open meadows devoid of trees and boulders that may have provided shelter. The fog made it impossible to ascertain how far we were from our campsite at Panchganga.
After an hour of struggle, we found a cave and ducked in promptly, grateful for the immediate relief. It was impossible to get out again, so we decided to spend the night there. I requested Akash to help Harish set up the main tents. He refused to leave me alone and urged me to walk on for another 15 minutes. I agreed reluctantly, on the condition that if we did not see the camp in the following 15 minutes, I would return to the cave and he would walk on to the campsite. It was still raining and had started getting dark. We walked for ten minutes and crossed the ridge to enter a different valley. I reached the mountaintop and the tiny light at the bottom of the hill, blinking through the fog as if calling to me, gave me all the adrenalin I needed. Suddenly, I had the energy to run downhill. We had made it to camp in time for a meal and bed. However, as they say, “When it rains, it pours.” After reaching the campsite, I learnt that all our supplies had been ruined by the rain – which was strange, as we had sent two local boys ahead to set up the tents and secure the supplies. Further investigation revealed otherwise. The mule handler thought we wanted to camp on the top of the mountain, which is where he left the supplies, and the boys we had sent ahead did nothing to disillusion him. They were also, for some strange reason, waiting for us to reach to start pitching the tents. In the end, we had no choice but to sleep inside a wet tent on top of wet sleeping bags. My clothes were already wet and so were the extra clothes I had brought. The floor was wet, the sleeping bags were wet and the cold was relentlessly numbing. Surprisingly, we all woke up none-the-worse for wear to a sunny morning. Over the next six hours, Harish, Akash, two locals and I finished our camp, which included 3 tents. Our sleeping tent and kitchen tent were lined with thick layers of grass for insulation. The tent was cozy and comfortable. As soon as we finished the work, it started to rain again, followed by a heavy hail storm in the evening. The hailstorm punctured the first layer of tarpaulin covering our newly made sleeping tent. It was sad to see the damage so shortly after the tent was put up. Thankfully, we had three more layers of tarpaulin sheets. We were lucky that there was no hail the day before as a hail storms could have been fatal to us.
I knew that I had been lucky to spot the langur troop the year before on the first day near our Panchganga campsite and that it would probably take a lot more effort to spot the langurs this time. The day after setting up camp, we searched for langurs where I had seen them before, with no success. The next day, we looked for them 10-15 km. deeper inside the forest, and were again without any luck. After searching for three days, we finally spotted a few individuals near the meadows. We tried to follow them but they were too shy and quick. We always maintained a minimum 50m. distance from them. In my previous experience of observing four different langur troops in different parts of the same sanctuary, I had not observed them to be this shy. Presumably, due to Rudranath’s remoteness, this troop may not have seen humans from such a close distance and thus had to be approached carefully. We eventually lost the troop (can’t beat them in running!). I refused to lose hope and continued my search. We combed the forests the next five days without much success and I could sense my team slowly losing its motivation. We received a tip from a local shepherd, who had spotted a different troop straight down from our camp in the oak forests just below the meadows. As my research was focused on medicinal plant use by langurs in meadows, I also wanted to study a troop which frequented meadows. I decided to pursue the search for this troop, hopeful and curious.
Day six dawned, and we decided to move our search site to a new location, but were not able to find any langurs for another three days. Every day, we’d wake up with renewed hope and walk several kilometres, coming back fully drained at the end of the day. With the peak of the monsoon season approaching, I started to wonder if I’d ever find a troop. At this point, I had no option but to extend our search to farther sites as we had already searched all the areas close to our camp. I decided to search for another troop below the Rudranath temple, around 6 km. from our Panchganga campsite. This meant walking for an extra 12 km. everyday just to reach the site. Our two-person team of Aakash and I, was strengthened by the arrival of Takhe Bamin, our second intern, although I was the only one who had prior experience working with langurs. Somehow, I was positive about spotting the troop which I had seen below the temple the year before. The first day passed without much luck, although the temple priest assured us that he had seen them around only a few days previously. I could see the evidence of quite a lot of activity inside the forest – the meadow was littered with broken branches and damaged plants. We continued our search on the second day in the same area and found more indirect signs of langurs, but still were not able to spot them. On the third day, we decided to scan the site from the mountain top and voila! There they were, hopping on the oak trees down the valley. We had finally spotted our langur troop!
Spotting langurs at Rudranath was a big achievement. We went inside the forest and found them at the same spot that we found them at on the mountain top. Again, they were too shy and thus unapproachable, and we were unable to get close enough to record any data. However, after a few days, we were able to get close enough using different techniques and gather some behavioral data. The rains began to fall with renewed force, presenting us with our next big challenge. The peak monsoon rains were incessant, pausing only for a few hours at night. It was cold and our clothes and shoes remained perpetually wet, with no sunshine to dry them. Firewood was a luxury, as our camp was situated in a meadow. However, we grew accustomed to our situation and continued following langurs. There were days we failed to find the troop, but we still managed to document their presence significantly. Entering the forest from the meadow was an interesting experience. First, we had to cross the rhododendron bushes. Sometimes, we used the tunnels made by animals inside the bushes. Although the fieldwork became more challenging with each passing day due to the rains, it was satisfying to see the langurs living at such treacherous high altitudes and faring far better than their longforgotten cousins, us humans.
For all of June, I was quite pleased; we were able to follow the langurs and work was now moving in a positive direction and we were learning so much about langurs at this elevation. However, one day, as we crossed the meadow, crawling under the rhododendron bushes, we sensed something had changed overnight. The vegetation inside the rhododendron trail was massively and unusually disturbed. The path we were on was often used by wildlife, but the destruction we saw seemed to come from an animal much larger than the antelope or wild boar that usually roamed the forests at night. When we crossed the bushes and ventured into the oak forest, signs of disturbance were much more prominent. Piles of fresh scat affirmed my hunch that the animal was large-bodied (at that time we were not sure which animal it belonged to). Such destruction is common in all the langurs’ potential feeding sites, but we were still unable to locate them. At the time, only Bamin and I were following the troop. It was far darker inside the forest, and the fog made visibility even poorer. We hopped upon a den we hadn’t seen before in the langurs’ home range. It had been built by digging the base of an oak tree. The base of the den was filled with feces and undigested acorns.
After trudging through the heavy rain, carrying dripping wet supplies, we now had another challenge – the Himalayan black bear. In the den, Bamin and I realized that the unknown animal was the bear – a hard pill to swallow in our precarious situation. We were trapped in bear territory and there was no way of getting out. We had a dense rhododendron bush tunnel to cross before we could reach the meadows, but the bear (or bears) may use the same route. Having listened to numerous stories of bears mauling people, we were mutely expectant of a bear attack at any moment. Wherever we went, we found fresh pug marks and scat. We decided to head back to the camp and luckily, reached without incident. I reiterated our adventure to the local shepherds, and they remained nonchalant. They simply said, “Don’t be scared of them. Just be confident, make some noise and whistle when you’re crossing the rhododendron tunnel to avoid bumping into them.” According to them, most bear attacks occurred when the bears were caught by surprise. I now grew confident about entering the forest and following the langurs. The next morning was clear, allowing us to scan for langurs from the mountaintop. I started scanning the forest below the meadow with binoculars, and could not believe my eyes. It was a huge Himalayan black bear foraging on the ground, the biggest individual I had ever seen. The second big surprise for the morning was a sighting of langurs on the same tree under which the bear was foraging. After spotting the bear, we were too scared to follow the langurs. We watched the langurs and bear peacefully from the mountaintop. Minutes later, it started to rain and get foggy, bringing our observation to a rueful end. The next day, I decided to take the shepherds’ advice. We recruited two new volunteer research assistants. Luckily, we never had an aggressive encounter with the bears, but spotted them multiple times in the same area. So far, the shepherds’ advice had worked. The incident actually made me think about the relationship between langurs and bears and led to a research article on the subject. After my work on the langurs in the monsoon of 2016, I started my Ph.D. from the Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, Japan. I chose to study a habituated troop at 1500 amsl in Mandal valley. I had always wanted to study the Rudranath troops for a long time, but for my Ph.D., I had to select a troop whose social structure and mating behavior I could study The Mandal troop was just perfect for that. Two years of fieldwork in Mandal actually gave me an opportunity to understand langur behavior better. Studying the troop at Mandal made me ponder over details I’d never thought of about the Rudranath troop, which I hope to continue working on soon. Rudranath’s challenges made me a stronger person. It was in this landscape that my love and passion for langurs had deepened.
Author: Dr. Himani Nautiyal
Himani Nautiyal is just completed her PhD from the Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, Japan. She is interested in the behaviour, ecology and conservation of primate species living in the higher Himalayas. You can read more about her work at www.himaninautiyal.com
Published in Explore Wild India Magazine Issue 12, March 2021 Edition – JAMMU CITY