The Big Five: Ghost Cats & Mountain Monarchs

The term 'Big Five' was once used by big-game hunters to describe the five toughest animals in Africa to shoot and kill while on foot. Our version of the 'Big Five' represents five of the most magnificent animals in Asia that must be celebrated and protected.

The importance of ungulates

The snow leopard will eternally remain the enigmatic ghost of the mountains. Along with these ghost cats, the Himalayas host a little known but fascinating mammal assemblage. We like to call them Asia’s very own Big Five—large, charismatic mammals that have the potential to capture the imagination but remain generally unknown. These include four mountain monarchs (as termed by Dr. George Schaller) and of course their majestic predator, the snow leopard.

The monarchs include argali, the world’s largest sheep; urial, the presumed ancestor to the domestic sheep; ibex, arguably the most sure-footed creature across precipitous mountain slopes; and blue sheep, which is neither truly a sheep or a goat. 

Without the mountain monarchs, the snow leopard would lose a vital part of its diet. Photo by ShanShui/ Panthera/ Snow Leopard Trust

Wild ungulates are a key determinant of the snow leopard population, even in landscapes where livestock might be plentiful. These ungulates play an important role in maintaining ecosystems by influencing vegetation structure, plant species composition, and nutrient cycling. Ungulates are the pivot around which the equilibrium of these fragile mountain ecosystems is maintained.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem given their importance, these mountain ungulates have not been well documented. This is partly because of sheer difficulty in studying these creatures, owing to the remote and rugged landscape they live in. This is also due to limited awareness about their grandeur and importance. Yet, it is critical to acknowledge that issues such as large-scale mining, hydro-electric projects, and negative impacts of livestock herding and poaching are potentially affecting mountain ungulate populations, and with them, the snow leopard. 

Ibex are just one type of ungulate that play an important role in maintaining high mountain ecosystems. Photo by Munib Khanyari

And so, we joined together to do our bit to put the spotlight on the Big Five. The hope was to collaborate on large-scale ungulate and snow leopard surveys across multiple sites in Central and South Asia. We aimed to work across six sites in three countriesMongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and Indiaemploying innovative methods to study ungulates and snow leopard populations.

The method

Due to inapplicability of methods and logistical challenges, standard methods used to study ungulates worldwide are rendered invalid in mountain landscapes. To overcome this hurdle, Dr. Suryawanshi and fellow researchers from NCF India conceptualized the double-observer method. This technique involves two observers who conduct a survey in a given area independent of each other and reconcile their findings at the end. The double-observer method has been piloted in some areas of countries like India and Mongolia, but tests have not been applied at large scale. We wanted to change this with our project.

The double-observer method helps researchers better estimate ungulate and snow leopard populations. Photo by Munib Khanyari
Surveying Kyrgyzstan & Mongolia

The journey began in the Kyrgyz Tian Shan. With the able leadership of Kuban and his ranger colleagues, we found ourselves on horseback, trotting along the jewel of the snow leopard landscape—Sarychat-Ertash Nature Reserve. This is one of the few remaining landscapes across Central and South Asia with a true absence of people. The argali inhabit its undulating central river valleys, while the ibex are found in the narrow and rugged side valleys. We found ungulate numbers here to be some of the highest of any given area across Asia’s mountains. This fact would become even more important given the proximity of this pristine landscape to an ever-expanding and destructive gold mine.

We also surveyed the Tost and Noyon mountains of Mongolia, a land seemingly lost in time. Unlike the continuous mountain ranges of the Kyrgyz Tian Shan, Tost and Noyon (found in the Mongolian Altai) have pockets of mountains interspaced by vast stretches of the Gobi deserta hostile place! Here, my colleagues Pujii and Justine have worked for several years with the local herders and rangers to monitor the area’s fauna. They were part of an incredible effort to ensure this region was listed as a protected area and relieved of the immense pressure it endured from extractive mining companies. Our survey in Mongolia contributed data to ongoing efforts to ensure this area is left for its nomadic herders and their sympatric wildlife. 

The argali, known as the world’s largest sheep, can weigh up to 400 pounds (or 180 kilograms). Photo by Munib Khanyari
Heading to the Himalaya

After the great escapades in Central Asia, we found ourselves in the lap of the mighty Himalaya, first in the pursuit of the rare urial. Little is known about these reddish-brown wild sheep. They are known to prefer relatively gentle slopes along river valleys, which are often close to human habitation. Though found beyond the Central and South Asian mountains, the urial has witnessed dramatic declines and is found in fragmented populations within snow leopard habitat. It is perhaps a forgotten monarch.

In the land of the mountain passes, or Ladakh, we collaborated with the local wildlife protection department to find and estimate the last remaining urial populations. Our surveys were the first attempt to robustly quantify urial populations in India. We identified two stronghold populations which need immediate conservation attention.

The urial, characterized by its reddish-brown coat, is the presumed ancestor to the domestic sheep. Photo by Udayan Rao Pawar

Our latest survey took us to the mystical valley of Spiti, which is a special place for snow leopard conservation. The Snow Leopard Trust and its India collaborators have been working here for several years. It is a great example of how scientific research and community engagement have merged to ensure conservation of three of the Big Five—snow leopard, ibex, and blue sheep. Blue sheep are peculiar creatures.They forage on less steep and relatively rolling slopes (like wild sheep), but always maintain a safe proximity to cliffs (like wild goats).

We were here to continue the long-term population monitoring project focused on both mountain ungulates and snow leopards. Long-term studies on ungulates are particularly rare, but it’s not just the data that is valuable. Training and engaging with locals is also incredibly important to ensure routine endeavors are valued and continue year after year. 

Blue sheep, also known as bharal, are best described by George Schaller as ‘goats with sheeplike traits.’ Photo by Munib Khanyari
Bridging the scientific & communication gap

As the dust settles on our various travels, we can reflect back on a wealth of data and stories that were collected. As I write this, some of the information is being compiled into scientific articles to aid our understanding of conservation. Some is being told through stories in the media to build awareness and advocacy. Working in Spiti also provided us with a unique opportunity to tell the region’s story of snow leopard conservation from the very lens of its main protagonistsits community members. The latest issue of National Geographic features a beautiful story of just how intertwined the mountain monarchs, ghost cats, and communities of Spiti are in their mountain home. If you haven’t given it a read yet, I encourage you to do so. 

Want to choose your own Big Five? Vote for the five animals you want to see included in the New Big Five of Wildlife Photography.

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