The highest reaches of Asia’s mountains — Himalayas, Hindukush, Pamirs, Altai, Tien Shan, Tibetan Marginal Mountains — are beautiful and enchanting landscapes. But they are also inhospitable, even hostile. Not much vegetation grows at altitudes above 4,000 metres, and almost no trees. The plants that do manage to take root remain senescent for most of the year, thanks to temperatures that often dip to -35 degrees C in winter. There is but a short window of a few weeks of favourable summer weather when plants do grow and reproduce.
Feeding on this sparse vegetation is a group of wild animals that flourish in these extreme environments of rock, snow, and precipice. These species are so fascinating and unique that George Schaller, one of the most eminent naturalists of our time, christened them mountain monarchs.
These largely unsung denizens of the high mountains have had a defining influence on the course of the human civilisation. They are creatures that fundamentally restructured ancient human societies, and set them off on the course that was to determine who we are today. Yet, presently, we hardly know of their existence.
These wild animals are the various species of wild sheep and goats and their relatives — the ancestors of modern-day livestock. These unique animals that thrive in the extreme cold and seemingly inhospitable mountain regions are, perhaps not surprisingly, relics of the ice ages. Fossil records suggest that the Pleistocene epoch, that repeatedly saw the earth covered by large glacial sheets between 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, was the period in Earth’s geological history when these species evolved as we know them today.
These hooved animals, or mountain ungulates as they are called by scientists, evolved from more ancient species that lived in tropical forests. They evolved and radiated out during the Pleistocene from the region between the Himalayas and Asia Minor (the westernmost protrusion of Asia). They colonised most of Asia up to Siberia, and spread through Europe, Africa and North America.
Interestingly, this period of rapid evolution of mountain ungulate species coincides with the first appearance of humans in the fossil record, Homo erectus to start with, followed by Homo neanderthalensis, and our own kind, Homo sapiens. It would appear then that the fates of humans and mountain ungulates have been tied together for a very long time, though the actual domestication of sheep and goats took place relatively more recently during the Holocene, some 11,000 years ago.
At the end of the Ice Age, as the ice caps melted with the warming of the Holocene, the environment changed significantly for these cold-adapted species. Many of them, however, managed to cling on to the high plateaus and mountaintops that offered the familiar cold and harsh, but relatively stable Pleistocene environments. Around the same time, lower down in altitude, humans were being challenged by the unpredictable climate of the Holocene, and a decline in their preferred large-bodied prey species, partly as a consequence of their own over-hunting.
It was in this context of resource fluctuation that the domestication of sheep and goats by hitherto hunter-gatherer humans first took place. The origins of domestic sheep are traced back to the mouflon of West Asia, a relative of the urial that occurs further east in Ladakh, India, and in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. Domestic goats are similarly traced to the wild goat of West Asia and Eastern Europe. It is due largely to the domestication of mountain ungulates and a few wild plants that humans started producing part of their food for the first time, even surplus food — a transition that marks one of the most defining thresholds in human history, and, for better or for worse, forever altering human societies.
In my research and conservation efforts in the mountains of Asia, I have had the privilege of getting to know several species of mountain ungulates closely. Looking back, the sequence of my first few field research initiatives, per chance, seems to have followed the evolutionary trajectory of the mountain ungulates themselves. My first ever field research project, for example, focused on the evolutionarily most ancient and forest-dependent mountain ungulates of the Himalayas and Southeast Asia, the relatively small goral and its bigger cousin, the serow.
Goral and serow
Largely solitary or living in relatively small groups, goral and serow are essentially like the ancient, pre-Pleistocene forest dependent species that — from ecological and evolutionary perspectives — have perhaps just begun to explore the open grassy and steppe habitats of the ice ages, so to speak. Like their ancient ancestors, they are still tied to forested habitats with dense plant cover, and still occur largely in tropical to temperate environments.
When threatened by a potential predator, goral and serow seek refuge in steep, dense areas, their strategy being to disappear from the predator’s sight. They have short, sharp horns, which, though ineffective against large predators such as the common leopard, are highly effective weapons to defend resources or mates from their own kind. Males and females are largely similar in body size and their mostly drab colouration blends well with the undergrowth of their relatively closed forest habitats.
Next I explored the Anaimalai Hills of the Western Ghats for Nilgiri tahr, a species found nowhere else in the world. Evolutionarily, the tahr lies somewhere in-between the ancient and the modern mountain ungulates. It occurs in tropical to temperate habitats, and appears like it has just begun to invade the alpine environment where available. A classic example of an ice age relic, the three living species of tahr today are confined to the mountain tops of three different, widely separated mountain ranges: Nilgiri tahr in the southern Western Ghats; Himalayan tahr in the Himalayas; and Arabian tahr in the Al Hajar Mountains of the Arabian Peninsula.
In tahr we see the end of forest dependence and an invasion of open grassland habitats by mountain ungulates, and the consequent formation of the selfish herd – the strategy of forming large herds in open landscapes to reduce risk of predation. Herd living allows for lurking predators to be detected more easily, thanks to the multiple pairs of vigilant eyes, and better chances of escape. From an individual’s ‘selfish’ perspective, it reduces the odds of predation on oneself by distributing risk among the group.
Unlike the evolutionarily more ancient goral and serow where the two sexes look similar, male tahr are much larger than females. Along this evolutionary ladder, their body colouration has begun to get more accentuated, with, for example, the stronger Himalayan tahr males developing lighter coat colour. Tahr horns, less dagger-like and perhaps less dangerous than those of goral and serow, appear to be changing in their function. While individuals may still try to gore each other, the relatively larger horns seem less suitable for piercing the opponent’s skin and muscle. Instead, they seem more suited for testing the opponent’s strength through ritualistic, though intense head butts. Living in herds implies greater levels of social interactions, which, in turn, require that individuals develop more ritualistic and less lethal ways of testing each other’s strength and dominance. We see this behavioural progression along the evolutionary trajectory of mountain ungulates. The most modern and flamboyant of them all are the open-habitat species of the highest altitudes and alpine regions: ibex, argali, and blue sheep.
Ibex – wild goat
Ibex is a true goat, like the markhor and wild goat. The species that occurs in the Himalayas and large parts of Asia, is the Siberian ibex, the largest wild goat species in the world. Males may weigh up to 130 kg. They sport a set of scimitar-shaped horns that look more like heavy and expensive ornaments than lethal weapons, meant to impress females and compete for mates. Males test each other by clashing horns, which can grow to four or even five feet long. To support them, ibex have developed a thick, well-muscled neck. For perspective, these horns sit on the head of an animal that is between 3-4 feet in height at its shoulder. Can there be anything more impressive?
As it turns out, there is one thing about the ibex that I find even more awe-inspiring than their splendid horns. It is their unparalleled surefootedness, an unmatched ability to navigate the steepest of precipices. Ibex live on near vertical mountain walls, the smallest cracks or ledges providing them adequate foothold. They appear supremely confident and unconcerned, even though one small slip might end up in a fatal free fall. Watching ibex on cliffs evokes pure admiration, but also extreme anxiety.
The strategy that ibex employ to escape predators is, not surprisingly, tied to these cliffs. Ibex do not necessarily attempt to disappear from the predator’s view, as is the case with goral and serow. Instead, when ibex detect a predator such as a snow leopard, they tend to bunch up on relatively inaccessible cliffs. Once within the security of the near vertical cliff walls, they try to keep the predator in sight, seemingly taunting it with a catch-me-if-you-can attitude. Their confidence stems from their exceptional mountaineering abilities.
Female ibex are less than half the size of males. While males focus on acquiring and investing significant resources and energy in maximising their body strength and the size of their horns, the females choose to invest more prudently, in producing and looking after healthy offspring. They give birth to relatively precocious young that are ready to follow them and take to the cliffs soon after they are born. The females stick to areas near cliffs and steep slopes, which may offer less to eat, but afford more security from potential predators such as snow leopards and wolves. These differences in body size and reproductive strategies of males and females cause them to use different habitats and be physically separated for parts of the year, a pattern commonly referred to as sexual segregation. Typically, outside the breeding season, one either encounters mixed herds of ibex, comprising of females, younger males, and the kids and juveniles, or what are called bachelor or all-male herds. Sometimes the mixed herds are joined by larger males, but the latter tend to spend some time by themselves at least for part of the year.
When a mountain ungulate herd moves between areas, it is typically the adult female that leads the group, exploring the horizon with head held high, taking a few careful and determined steps each time, while the others follow. With the all-male herds, such leadership either doesn’t seem to matter, or does not appear to be very effective. In their quest to become stronger and thereby acquire more mates and sire more offspring, the males tend to take risks. They may venture out of cliffs to areas with more food, and in the process, become more vulnerable to predation. For their obsessive focus on food and females, the males pay a price. Sometimes the ultimate price. It is not surprising that most populations of ibex and several other open-country mountain ungulates tend to have sex ratios that are skewed in favour of females.
Argali – wild sheep
Interestingly, the argali is a species that appears to have moved on from its dependence on cliffs and steep areas. Rather than running into cliffs, the argali’s strategy to escape from predators is simpler. Just outrun them. Argali is a wild sheep, with a lean body structure and relatively long legs that make it a relatively faster and a more efficient runner than the ibex. They are the biggest of all of the world’s wild sheep and goats, and can weigh up to three times more than an ibex. Male argali carry what must be the most impressive set of curved horns nature has ever created, sometimes up to six feet long. It is these spectacular horns that argali are best known for, especially the sub-species of argali called the Marco Polo sheep, that live in the Pamirs.
In between the cliff-bound ibex and the relatively unencumbered argali lies the blue sheep or bharal. This animal is actually not a true sheep, nor is it a goat – Schaller described the blue sheep as ‘an aberrant goat with sheep-like affinities’. Much like their somewhat befuddled evolutionary status, the life strategies that the blue sheep employ are also mixed up. They are not cliff-bound to the extent the ibex are, nor have they freed themselves from dependence on cliffs, like the argali have. They forage on less steep and relatively rolling slopes richer in forage, much like the argali do, but unlike the argali, the blue sheep always maintain a safe nearness to the cliffs. At the first sign of danger, they bolt into the cliffs. They cannot run long like the argali, but they can run fast. Their lighter body helps them with these sprints, while their ibex-like stocky shape allows them to navigate cliffs with reasonably good mountaineering skills.
How do these animals manage to survive the extremes of winter, when food is scarce, temperatures are exceptionally low, and the energetic demands of keeping warm are very high? Well, they employ multiple strategies to deal with the ice age conditions that they seek out. During the short productivity pulse in summer, they put on considerable body mass and fat reserves that see them through the tough winter.
Once winter sets in, ibex are able to dig through snow with their hooves to access plants underneath. Blue sheep choose to congregate on relatively snow-free slopes, where they can access more forage. During extreme winter, when snow cover is high and temperatures very low, blue sheep reduce foraging time and energy. Instead, they spend more time resting and conserving energy.
The tahr, argali, ibex, and blue sheep are all prey species for the endangered snow leopard, top predator of Asia’s high mountains, and a species of great conservation interest and concern. The global distributional range of the snow leopard, tends to mirror that of the ibex and the blue sheep, indicating how important these species are to the ecology and survival of snow leopards. The abundance of these mountain ungulates is, in fact, the primary determinant of how many snow leopards can exist in any area. It is these mountain ungulates, therefore, that enable this most iconic and charismatic high-altitude predator of Asia to survive, or even to exist.
Since the early years of domestication, livestock have remained a critical resource for humans. Today, they are a significant contributor to the global food economy and food security. A growing proportion of the word’s 2.6 billion poor rear livestock, and there are some 200 million pastoral households whose livelihood and lifestyles revolve around their domestic animals. For this and more, we owe their wild cousins.
Not all is well with man’s oldest providers. One of the main threats that mountain ungulates face today, ironically, comes from their own tribe, their most important gift to humanity — livestock. In large parts of Asia’s mountains, growing livestock populations have led to declines in populations of mountain ungulates as they compete for food. There also appears to also be a worrying increase in instances of disease transfers from livestock to wild mountain ungulates.
As if these problems were not enough, across the world, there is both legal and illegal hunting of wild ungulates — for trophy, protein, or sport hunting. Their impressive horns attract hunters, and their trophies adorn walls in private drawing rooms, trophy boards, and colonial-style lodges and bars.
Wild sheep and goats altered the course of human civilisation. Although most of the landscapes they inhabit today are relatively remote, their habitats are not insulated from the intensifying human impacts on nature. High Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions of the world, expected to be significantly affected by global warming and human-induced climate change. Mountain ungulates were able to withstand and survive the warming that took place at the end of the Ice Age. They colonised the highest altitudes to become the rulers of Asia’s mountains. But will they be able to weather the consequences of a changing climate and human onslaught in today’s rapidly changing planet dominated by Homo sapiens?
These majestic monarchs of High Asia must not be relegated to the fringes of our consciousness, left to decorate the walls of old clubs and bars. Humanity owes them a bit more adulation. And more help.