Summer on the Deosai Plateau and Wildlife We Encountered While Camping

This is a summary of our visit of the Deosai Plateau during the summer; the wildlife and scenery we experienced while camping and exploring the area.

The summer of 2022 was unusually dry on the Plateau. The Deosai summer, which is normally full of water with the carpet of alpine flowers in full bloom, this time was super dry and the plants were all the like their autumn colors. There was a lack of snowfall in the winter, earlier in the year, so it caused the high plains to be dry early on. In another blog, I will write about the impact of this big change on the Himalayan Brown Bears.

Past articles about the Deosai

The Deosai Plateau on a sunny day is remarkable, with crystal clear rivers, wetlands and mountains inviting you to stay.

The Long-tailed Marmot(or Golden Marmot). These are the same species as the marmots we see near the Khunjerab Pass, but will have a more muted coloration. (The Khunjerab Pass marmots really live up to their names as the “Golden” marmot!)

A male Citrine Wagtail. So striking in the breeding season! Breeding in the thickets along the river, we saw them carrying beaks full of insects to their chicks in the mornings and evenings.

The male Horned Lark who was busy feeding their chicks as well. I was there in mid-July, which seemed to be the season for fledging. It was nerve-wracking to see the baby birds that could not fly so well, as they were so close to the roadway.

Robin Accentor

The Robin Accentor. I didn’t really see it near the campsite, but we saw it while observing the livestock grazing in the Shatung area. In Pakistan, this bird can only usually be seen in a limited area from the Deosai Plateau to the northern area.

We walked every day in search of the Himalayan Brown Bear. Due to the exceptionally dry weather this summer, the brown bears were not in the areas where they are usually seen. There were days when we couldn’t find them, even though we looked all day, into the evening.

After days of walking, there was a big bear cub. It may have had a mother bear nearby, or maybe it was recently independent.

There was another huge Himalayan Brown Bear engrossed in eating grass. Thanks to the wind direction, I was able to get even closer to observe it.

When I returned to the campsite, we had large trout waiting for us (note: it was caught by the staff with a proper permit from the national park). The Deosai Plateau contains both native and exotic trout released for fishing by the British during the colonial period. I don’t know which one this is, but it seems the native trout is a very rare species called an “Indus Snow Trout.”

Seeing trout makes me a little thirsty for Beer. We had a toast with Pakistani beer, Murree Beer (Caution: the altitude is 4,000m, so don’t try it). This can is the Murree Brewery’s Millennium Beer, which I personally think is the most delicious beer. It is the British Colonial legacy that I appreciate the most.

The starry sky of the Deosai Plateau. I really recommend taking photos of the dark skies of the Deosai Plateau.

Himalayan Brown Bear

A brown bear came to our campsite…it was attracted to the garbage, looking for food and is seems it comes often. It was clearly visible in the camera traps.Due to the abnormally dry weather this year, it was difficult to see the brown bears and so few flowers were blooming on the plateau. I just pray that the abnormal weather will not upset the ecology of this special place.

 

Images & text: Mariko SAWADA

Observation: JUL 2022, Deosai National Park, Gilgit-Baltistan

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YouTube : Himalayan Brown Bear in Autumn

Category : ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Himalayan Brown Bear > - Deosai National Park > ◇ Birds of Pakistan
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Searching for Himalayan Brown Bears in the Deosai Plateau in the Summertime

In the summer of 2022, finding Himalayan brown bears to observe was quite a struggle. The National Park Staff and I, searched, and wondered why they weren’t in the places we usually see them.

The first reason that came to my mind was the “increasing number of tourists.” but it’s not something that has happened just in this one year. Second, the nomadic people came to the Deosai Plateau brought their livestock into the brown bear area. Definitely, their presence has a certain impact. However, we could not even find the bears in the core zones…so I suppose the main reason for the lack of bears might be the ‘dryness’ due to the exceptionally low amount of snowfall this winter. The grasses, which are the favorite food of the bears, has not grown in the usual areas, so the National Park staff are guessing that the bears have moved to different areas in search of better food sources.

Unfortunately, there is very little research that has been done on the Himalayan brown bears. To be honest, even the published population estimates are not very accurate.

The easiest place to see bears is the “Watching Point” which is just behind the Barapani National Park Station. If you have any luck, you will get to see a mother and cubs feeding on the hill nearby. However due to the distance, make sure to bring good binoculars or have a scope with you.

This time, during our visit, we could walk to 4 different areas in search of the bears. While walking, we could see Nanga Parbat (8,126m), the 9th tallest peak in the world, from various places around the Deosai Plateau.

 

This is a temporary hollow used by the brown bears to sleep. There are two indentions, one big one and one small one. Looks like it was used by a mother and her cub.

We also found lots of feces, large piles (mother bear) and smaller ones (cub). However, according to the national park staff, the newest one was already 3-4 days old and we didn’t find any fresh droppings. So most likely, the mother and cub has moved on to a new place already.

We scanned the core zone. Finally, we happened upon a Himalayan brown bear.

It was a very young bear!

It must have smelled us, so it stood up and started looking around for us.

It has become aware of our presence. As soon as it confirmed our presence, it put as much distance as it could from us.

It ran across the meadow until it disappeared. It is quite a young bear, so perhaps the mother was still nearby, or maybe it had just become newly independent. I pray that this little one can grow up safely.

A different, bear, this one a large one and totally engaged in eating the grass.

It was so absorbed in eating, that it hardly looked up at all. While eating, we moved closer and we gradually closed the distance. The wind direction was right, taking our smell away from the bear, and it was our chance.

We got lots of photographs.

The bear never realized we were there, and just kept eating. Surrounded by the alpine plants, I was able to enjoy the sights of a bear preying on insects in the grass, observing the natural behavior.

I have tried observing the brown bears several times before, but this time compared to in the past, we had a hard time finding them and had to walk long distances. The impact of the extreme weather on the Deosai Plateau and the effect it has on the brown bear was quite terrifying.

The Deosai Plateau, which is usually covered in lush greenery and alpine flowers, but this summer was so dry. The scene of so many tourist cars driving through the Plateau and the clouds of dust behind the vehicles made me fearful that one day, Deosai could turn into a desert.

 

Image & Text : Mariko SAWADA

Observation : JUL 2022, Deosai National park, Gilgit-Baltistan

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YouTube : Himalayan Brown Bear in Autumn

Category : ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Himalayan Brown Bear > - Deosai National Park
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Snow Leopard After The Hunt

Abul was scanning the mountains for the snow leopard that he had just heard. He quickly came back and told us “Congratulations!” Through his binoculars, he could find the snow leopard, sitting with a freshly caught ibex (with its head cracked, at that!) and the snow leopard had a hurt eye. It was such an exciting moment!

Youtube “Snow Leopard after the hunt”

Article related “Snow Leopard”      Feature “Widlife of Pakistan”

The two were just under a steep cliff dropoff, suggesting that they had both had a fall from a considerable height, which had been enough force to crack the head of the ibex open. There were signs of the ibex then being dragged to the hollow of this rock, were the snow leopard was now sitting.

Sadly, one of the eyes of the snow leopard was quite swollen and seemed to be impaired now, showing that the ibex was not the only one who suffered terribly from this incident. Abul began to voice his concerns that perhaps it was a serious injury that might prevent the leopard from being able to hunt in the future, spelling out its death. Not only thinking about the pain it must be in, but also it was quite heartbreaking to think that it might not survive for very long after this…

This is the moment I realized we were witnessing just how harsh the reality is for a wild carnivore.

Having said that, the sleeping snow leopard, then just showed off their cat-like expressions.

Tired from hunting + having a full tummy = a great sleep!

It seemed to have zero concerns that we were there watching it.

We were watching it through the spotting scope and getting photos/videos. I attached my iPhone to the Kowa scope (TSN-663) that I recently purchased this spring.

Those toe beans…

It was quite a large cat.

The snow leopard’s grey eyes that opened with a start.

After this, the snow leopard got up and went towards the back of the rock hollow. It really broke my heart to see its appearance, apparently quite injured, as it could hardly walk.

 

Photo & text : Mariko SAWADA

Observation :Apr 2022, KVO conservation area, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan

*Contact us, Indus Caravan for more information or to make arrangements for observing wildlife of Pakistan.

Category : ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - the Karakoram Highway > - Snow Leopard > - Gojar
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(Movie) Himalayan Ibex Fighting For Dominance

Normally the peak of the Ibex rutting season is in December to January, and that is when you would expect to see them battling it out for dominance with the sounds of antlers clashing. However, this time, we found a group of them challenging each other, on a snowy spring April day, using the rocky outcrop as their stage.

Himalayn Ibex fighting for the dominance

From Dec 2021 to Feb 2022, there was some unfortunate illegal hunting that took place in Khunjerab National Park, resulting in the loss of a significant number of Ibex. Up to now, trophy hunting had been tightly controlled by national parks managed and the KVO community management system. But now the carefully managed Ibex population, which had been recovering, due to the heartless actions of people who are willing to cheat the system, has started to dwindle again. This in turn, affects the snow leopards, which forces them to start hunting among the villagers’ livestock for food. This causes the human-wildlife conflict issues to escalate in the harsh winter.

By the time we arrived, the case had already been resolved by the person in charge, but the lasting impact on the wildlife populations and people who live with them, will not be restored so quickly. Now we need to worry about the situation for next winter, as well.

 

Image & text : Mariko SAWADA

Observation : Apr 2022, Khunjerab National Park

Category : = Video Clip Gilgit-Baltistan > ◆ Video Breathtaking Views of Pakistan > ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Ibex > ◇ Wildlife of Pakistan > - Khunjerab National Park
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Appreciating the Remaining Rock Art & Lamenting Their Impending Loss (Part 4) Gonar Farm

The last of the rock art blogs, which I will introduce to you is on the banks of the Indus at Gonar Farm. From Chilas, drive east on the Karakorum Highway for about an hour, then we get off the car and walk for another 30 minutes. We arrived on the outskirts of the village, dotted with rock art. It is a rock art that everyone in the know is already aware of.

It’s a light climb up, and after walking through the fields of the village, you arrive at the location.

A lot of rock art remains on the big rock, on the outskirts of the village in an open area.

A steep mountain range makes the backdrop of the petroglyphs.

The strange thing about this location is that it is a little far from the Indus River. It is possible that the Indus River once flowed through here and has now changed its flow, or perhaps it was a place that people gathered away from the river. I will imagine many scenarios as I walk around here looking at the art left behind.

The rock art of Gonar Farm has been significantly well-preserved. Perhaps it is because there were fewer visitors, but all of the rock paintings were clear. This Buddha has a happy expression, with folded hands, and adorned in the preists’robes kesa.

Most of the petroglyphs are related to Buddhism, and many that remain are images of pagodas.

There are carvings that are right on the ground, but these pagodas and other engravings remain free of damage because there are fewer people who would trample on it.

Some of the non-Buddhist etchings, are like this image of a plant and a handprint.

Regrettably, the rock art which I have introduced so far, are all destined to be flooded, upon the construction of the dam scheduled by 2027. Some of these rocks will be relocated and preserved by the government, but most of the more than 50,000 images will be submerged. I hope that these stones, which are engraved with the activities, thoughts and beliefs of the various people who traveled on the Silk Road, will have a chance to be seen by as many people as possible before they disappear underwater forever.

 

Photo & text : Koji YAMADA

Visit  : Nov 2021, Gonar Farm, Gilgit-Baltistan

Category : - the Karakoram Highway > ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Indus river bank > - Rock art / Petroglyph > ◇ Heritage of Pakistan
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Appreciating the Remaining Rock Art & Lamenting Their Impending Loss (Part 3) Shatial

This blog is about the rock art from Shatial. It is known as a “Buddhist site” because a huge pagoda petroglyph, which is included in many of the tours to visit the Hunza region. This time, I was able to take a leisurely tour to look around more, and I found that there are many other rare works than just the famous pagoda.

Rock engraving of the pagoda, buddha image

Since Shatial is such a well-used transit point to cross the Indus River, since ancient times, many merchants, pilgrims, travelers, as well as Buddhists, have passed through. Many distinct designs and images were carved by the travelers. I will introduce a number of these rarer rock engraving.

A person who is raising their right hand

At first glance, it may seem that this person raising their right arm up, may be angry or upset, but the round halo behind his head indicates that this person was an Enlightened Buddha.

A Swastika symbol

This 卍represents a swastika, which is a symbol of Buddhism along with the Dharmachakra wheel.

PitchforkThis is a three-pronged pitchfork. You can try to imagine whether it was used as a weapon, a religious symbol or for agriculture, but either way, it has been in use since ancient times.

Ancient characters engraved on the rock

There are not only pictures but also various writing engraved on the stones. It is believed to be languages like Karosti, Sogdian, Aramaic, and more which have been found here.

The center image to me, looked like three fingers with nails, but it may actually be depicting a plant.

This looks like a Buddha statue with Naga in the background, but it also looks like a flame, so there is a theory that it is a fire worship platform.

A person wearing a mask

This is a person wearing a round mask with horns. The person is also wearing a skirt-like outfit which was very interesting.

Many animals were also depicted as well.

The face of a camel

The camels were an essential animal for the travelers in their journey along the Silk Road.

An elephant

Did the Indian elephants come this far up?

It was a small image, but animals like antelope were also engraved.

In Shatiar, various things were engraved in rock paintings; things used by ancient people of that time, the things they saw, and objects they worshiped. Just looking at this timeless rock art made me feel like I travelled back in time and experienced part of the hustle and bustle of daily life on the Silk Road.

Photo & text : Koji YAMADA

Visit : Nov 2021, Shatial, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Category : - the Karakoram Highway > ◆Khyber Pakhtunkhwa > - Indus river bank > - Rock art / Petroglyph > ◇ Heritage of Pakistan
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Protecting Nature in Karakorum: Cleanup Activities in Khunjerab Pass

This April, our snow leopard tour in Pakistan was excellent with great sightings! However, I was really saddened to see some marmots carrying garbage into their burrows at the Khunjurab Pass. On May 4, with the support of our tour participants, Abul Khan and the village of Moorkhun’s Boy Scout group, we cleaned up the trash around the Khunjurab Pass. Even if you ask the government to do something about the trash, we cannot expect a prompt response. It will still take some time to shift the culture and awareness about properly disposing of waste for the domestic Pakistani tourists. This season, we are planning to do two more cleaning activities again.

 

<<Video>> Marmot with Garbage, at Khunjerab top area

It was heartbreaking to see the hungry marmots, since they just work from their hibernation, eating the trash left behind by people.

Mr. Abul at the community hall in Moorkhun village, giving an orientation about the cleanup activities.

The most trash that is left behind is in the area near the border with China, which is the final destination for many of the tourists. Working at altitudes above 4,600 m, this work requires the cooperation of locals.

Cleaning along the ditch next to the Karakorum Highway. Snack wrappers, PET drink bottles, diapers, masks, etc. were all strewn about. How can people be so careless to just throw garbage out of their vehicle window?

A child that participated in the cleanup efforts.

This year we would like to conduct two more clean ups, one before and after the season. We still have a chance to regain the beautiful nature as it once was. In order to protect nature and amazing wildlife environment of the Karakorum Mountains, also called the “ridge of the world,” and the Pamir Plateau, I would like to do my best to protect it.

 

Image & text : Mariko SAWADA

Category : ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - the Karakoram Highway > - Morkhun > ◇ Conservation of Wildlife, Nature > - Khunjerab National Park
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Eurasian eagle-owl at Morkhun village

I visited Mr. Hussain’s house in Morkhun Village. There, I could meet this Eagle Owl. This is where Mr. Hussain and Mr. Abul, who cherish nature and wildlife live. They rescue owls like this, that are injured or caught sometimes.

This large owl, called an Eagle owl, or Eurasian eagle-owl, is widely distributed in the Eurasian continent, resting in the forests and among the rocks during the day, and the nocturnal owls actively hunting at night.

Living in the highlands at nearly 3,000m (about 9840 ft) altitude, these owls are a subspecies of the Eurasian Eagle Owl, Bubo bubo hemachalanus which inhabit the Himalayas from Bhutan to northern India and northern Pakistan.

In the private house of the Wakhi family. You can see how close the child can get to the owl.

The owl was being fed chicken.

The Eagle-owl seemed to be very comfortable with his rescuer, Mr. Abul. But today it was scheduled to be released back into the wild.

He released the bird from his yard. It flew straight, and then landed in a bush nearby.

These colorful poplar trees line the slope of the Morkhun village, are the habitat of the Eagle owls.

The liberated Eagle Owl. I hope it can return to its original territory.

After that, we had lunch around the buhari (stove). We were there just in time for the potato harvest. A traditional Wakhi dish made from lots of dairy products, fried potatoes and chow men (fried noodles) and salad. I can’t stop myself from eating the fried potatoes made from fresh potatoes.

Then, following the meal, we have some chai, milk tea. In northern Pakistan, they add Himlayan rock salt, instead of sugar into their chai. The chunk of salt is stirred in the chai, and the salty milk tea “Namkeen chai” is enjoyed.

These rock salt are brought from the far reaches of the Punjab region to all over the world. They are sold in the market under the name “Pink salt” or “Himalayan rock salt.”

This wraps up my time in the Morkhun Village, were I could help send off an Eagle Owl back to the wild, and relaxed with Namkeen Chai.

 

Photo & text: Mariko SAWADA
Observation: Oct 2021, Morkhun Village, Gilgit-Baltistan
Special Thanks to Hussain ALI and Abul KHAN

Category : ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Gojar > - Morkhun > ◇ Birds of Pakistan
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The Himalayan Brown Bear Before Hibernating: The Deosai Plateau in October

I photographed this Himalayan brown bear in mid-October on the Deosai Plateau. Once October rolls around, the snowy season comes to the grasslands. With the first snowfall, the wild animals are signaled that winter has arrived and their preparations hasten. For example, the long-tailed marmots will surprisingly, all start hibernating at the same time! Just until yesterday, they were out, basking in the sun, but I didn’t see any of them today at all!

This is the wintery scene of the Deosai, near the Barapani camp. According to the National Park staff, the Himalayan brown bears will prey on the long-tailed marmots especially in month of September because they are plump with their winter fat by this time. All the animals are preparing for the long hibernation. Once the marmots stop emerging and enter their hibernation period, the bears will also move from the highlands of about 4,200m (about 13,780ft) to a slightly lower altitude valleys for their own hibernation.

We could see the Himalayan brown bears near the road around Barapani camp!

↓↓↓ A video of the Himalayan brown bears!

Himalayan Brown Bear in Autumn|デオサイ高原のヒマラヤヒグマ

The bears get so large and plump just before hibernating. Just looking at them, fills me with happiness.

This bear has found a comfy spot to sit in the grassland.

The surrounding mountains are already covered in snow. According to our Park staff, it will probably be the last time we will see the brown bears on the Plateau, until next summer.

After the second snow, the Park staff also packed up their base camps and headed back to Skardu. The sheep and goat herders have already descended into the Valley, and winter on the Deosai plateau is setting in.

The long-tailed marmots will hibernate, but the red fox stays active in order to survive the long winter. Even long after the people have gone, I have still seen foxes along the road during our visits.

The number of domestic Pakistani tourists that come to Deosai National Park is increasing and the management of garbage disposal at the campsites is becoming problematic. In 2018 there was a very shocking report that 80% of the content in the bear droppings was plastic. After that, it was reported that the staff of the Park started to make efforts to do cleanups once a week. In addition, it is common to see brown bears in the campsite’s trash areas, so taking more proactive countermeasures is needed.

This awareness sign about the problem has a photo of the bear taken in the summer time. Even in the summer, it is looking so fluffy!

 

Image  & Text : Mariko SAWADA

Observation : Oct 2021, Deosai National Park, Gilgit-Baltistan

Category : = Video Clip Gilgit-Baltistan > ◆ Video Breathtaking Views of Pakistan > ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Himalayan Brown Bear > - Deosai National Park
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(Tour Vlog) Snow Leopard Spring Expedition 2021

This is the Vlog for the Snow Leopard Spring Expedition, April, when we had a great sighting of a snow leopard. We were on the recently melted snowy slopes near the Khunjerab Pass there the animals waking up from their long hibernation appeared. There were long-tailed marmots, along with predators like red foxes and the birds of prey from above, as well as herds of yak moving north, making their way to the highlands…and of course, the snow leopards. It is such an irresistible season for wildlife lovers.

 

Tour Vlog SNOW LEOPARD EXPEDITION SPRING2021

 

Considering all the hardships we have faced so far, I was filled with gratitude for this tour.

 

Videography: Mariko SAWADA
Observation: April 2021, Khunjerab National Park, Gilgit-Baltistan

Category : = Video Clip Gilgit-Baltistan > ◆ Video Breathtaking Views of Pakistan > - the Karakoram Highway > ◆ Gilgit-Baltistan > - Snow Leopard > ◇ Wildlife of Pakistan > - Khunjerab National Park
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