From the Field

What Pikas and Marmots don’t like

The desert packs many surprises.

When someone says “desert” you may think, “barren”, “hot”, “wasteland”, and “unfriendly”.

But actually none of those monikers are true. Deserts are not barren, they are all bursting with life. They are not always hot, you have cold deserts too. They are not wastelands; they are full of endemic species- flowers, tiny and huge both; reptiles, (from large snakes to the smallest of lizards) and birds and animals (owls, sheep, rodents, wolves.. ).

I visited India’s cold, high-altitude desert, Ladakh a few days ago. And I met a pika! A small, furry mammal, in the stony paths of Hemis National Park. Hemis is outstanding. It has craggy, chocolate coloured slopes and deep streams of white water. It has snow-leopards, argali sheep, Chukar partridge and of course, Marmots (a kind of squirrel) and pikas.

A little marmot peeps out from purplish flowers in Hemis. Burrowing marmots are now facing the challenge of unregulated tourism and biking in Ladakh,

A little pika peeps out from purplish flowers in Hemis. Burrowing marmots are now facing the challenge of unregulated tourism and biking in Ladakh. Photo: Neha Sinha

This little guy was darting in and out of the banks of a stream. He clearly had an underground network in-between stones and rocks. He came out finally into a clump of purple flowers, looking at the world around him and woffling his nose.

But — and you may have guessed, a but is coming — pikas, while plentiful, are facing two-wheeled, and sometimes, four-wheeled problems. Lots of tourists come to Ladakh to enjoy the starkness of the desert. They love the sweep of the place. You can see five kilometres, even more, into the distant horizon. You can watch the sun come up in a huge sky that turns brilliantly blue during the day. The place is as beautiful as it is severe.

The gorgeous slopes of Hemis, adorned with pinpricks of bright pink flowers. Photo: Neha Sinha

The gorgeous slopes of Hemis, adorned with pinpricks of bright pink flowers. Photo: Neha Sinha

And the animals, big and small, are used to isolation. Pikas live in burrows. So do marmots. And bikers, traipsing all over Ladakh, are running over the dens of these little creatures.

This is an appeal. If you love Ladakh, and if you love the little creatures– who have not evolved to withstand 250 CC bikes, stay on the road. The marmots and pikas will thank you.

So will the people. For despite perceptions that the desert is unfriendly, it is a hospitable place with some of the friendliest people you will meet. They want you there, as long as you help preserve the unique codes, and fragility, of the desert. As film-maker Stanzin Dorjai says, “I want people to be in living in Ladakh, not leaving Ladakh.”

(More reading here)

And you can also watch a much bigger (and tamer) Marmot here. Thanks to @4nks!

Happy animal spotting!

Cheery yellow flowers really break the myth of deserts being bare, brown and boring. Photo: Neha Sinha

Cheery yellow flowers really break the myth of deserts being bare, brown and boring. Photo: Neha Sinha

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3 thoughts on “What Pikas and Marmots don’t like

  1. Hi neha, indeed marmots and lots of other wildlife is threatened by unregulated tourism … including feeding of marmots by tourists in Pangong, which is facing massive increase in tourism after 3 Idiots! But the pic above is not a marmot, I think its a pika.

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