I started from Leh at about 8 AM. I was alone, as nobody was ready to join me on this wild goose chase. My plan was to head to Gurudwara Pattharsahib and look for Ladakh Urail (Ovis orientalis vignei). During a chance conversation, a forest officer in Leh had informed me that there were a couple of flocks of Urial (a kind of wild sheep) which lived in the hills near the Gurudwara. The drive from Leh to Pattharsahib takes about an hour. I was there at 9 AM after an uneventful drive.
The First Sighting :
Just after crossing the Gurdwara there is a jeepable track which branches out from the left of the road and goes up a small dry ravine. I drove up this track and parked the jeep after about 500 meters.
I was now at the base of a small hill. Cut off by the road on its west and north and by the Indus river on its south and east, this hill is an isolated feature, with its peak about 400 meters higher than the road. According to the forest officer the Urial were expected to be on this hill. The hill itself is devoid of any major vegetation and is made up of crumbly mud mixed with small rocks and pebbles. Many dry stream beds and ravines crisscross the sides of the hill and continue to the top.
I saw a faint footpath going up a ravine and decided to follow it. After a few hundred meters I reached the top of the ravine. I was now on a spur running down from the summit of the hill.
As I climbed up onto the spur to survey the area I noticed some movement to my left, half way up the mountain. A small flock of Urial had seen me coming up the ravine and were trying to escape. They were sprinting at full speed across extremely rugged terrain. Their route would take them across a very steep hillside about hundred meters on my right. I ran a few yards get into a better position to take photographs and waited. I expected them to slow down when they reach the hillside as it was very steep, but they hit the hillside at full gallop and were across in a few jumps.
There were three animals, a male, a female and a small kid. The Ladakh Urail moves with the grace speed of an antelope and its gallop reminds one of the springy “devil may care” gallop of a blackbuck. I did get a few photographs but they were across in a few seconds.
After crossing the steep hillside they slowed down and then stopped to look back. I got a few more photographs of them while they were looking back. They soon left the area and disappeared into the maze of ravines. I walked around on the hill for another three hours and even climbed to the top but I did not see any sign of the Urial.
My first magical but brief encounter with the Ladakh Urial was over.
A few words about the Ladakh Urial.
The Ladakh Urial (Ovis orientalis vignei) :
the Ladakh Urial is a medium-sized eurasian sheep with longish strong legs and a short tail. The males have prominent wrinkled, back and outwards curved horns which can measure up to 100 cm in length. Their coat is greyish brown with a strong rufuous tinge. The underparts, lower legs and chin are whitish. They have a brackish lateral line and a short dark rough from throat to the breast. The winter coat is denser and is brown-grey in colour. The females are smaller and the little paler and they have much shorter horns measuring only about 10 to 12 cm. The Rams can weigh up to 70 Kgs. In general appearance the Ladakh Urial reminds one of a small and graceful antelope rather than a sheep.
The species is an occasional to locally rather common resident restricted to the lower slopes of the mountains of western and central Ladakh. The total population of Urial in Ladakh is estimated to be around 1500 animals. Till about a century ago the Ladakh Urial were numerous and widespread throughout the region. Today their distribution is strongly fragmented, mainly due to overhunting, transmitted diseases, and competition for grazing areas with domestic livestock. The Ladakh Urial is protected throughout its distribution range and is listed as vulnerable in the “IUCN Red List of threatened animals”.
The Second Sighting :
A few days after spotting the first Ladakh Urial, we planned a visit to the Likir monastery which is about 70 km from Leh on the Leh Srinagar road. We left Leh at 8 AM and had crossed Gurudwara Pattharsahib by about 9 AM. About 2 km from the gurdwara the road crosses a small plain. To the left of this plain is the hill on which I had first seen the Ladakh Urial. To the right is another small hill. The plain extends up to the base of this hill and then drops off into a maze of ravines. We were driving along the road when one of my friends noticed a small group of sheep grazing just below this hill. A quick look through the binoculars confirmed that these were Ladakh Urial. They were about a kilometre and a half away from us. I took the jeep off the road and started driving slowly towards them. They let us approach to about 500 yards and then they started slowly moving towards the hill.
I got off the jeep and walked towards them and got a few photographs. But they did not let me approach closer than 300 m. All this while they were slowly moving up the hillside always keeping me below them. The flock had about 15 animals, 4 young males, 7 females and a few kids. When they were halfway up the hill I walked back to the jeep.
Behind the hill side which the Urial were climbing was a small valley which looked jeepable. I drove the jeep up this valley slowly and when halfway up stopped the jeep and parked it. We got off and crawled slowly up to the top of the hill. On reaching the top I carefully peeped across. The Urial were just 40 meters below us. They had not spotted us and were grazing calmly.
I settle down and started taking photographs. Just then, one of my friends, who was about 20 m away from us, tried to have a look at the Urial.
When he peeped over ridge the Urial spotted him and sprinted down the hillside into the ravines below.
I did get a few photographs of them running down the hill, but I was quite disappointed.
It was a case of so near and yet so far. Had we stayed hidden we could have spent much more time with the Urial. We tried to follow the Urial down into the ravine but could not catch a glimpse of them again.