There was little rest for the weary: After 2 and half weeks in Myanmar (Burma) and a night in Kunming I flew to Kathmandu, Nepal. The next morning I flew to Dhangadhi in the oppressively hot Terai lowlands that border India in SW Nepal. Shaking off the fatigue I quickly put on my game-face because I was excited to be joining Dr. Mukesh Chalise and his PhD student, Narayan Koju to the remote and newly established Api-Nampa conservation area in the Himalayas bordering India and China in NW Nepal.
I was particularly excited because Api-Nampa is still relatively unexplored biologically. Mukesh and Narayan made the first biological survey to Api-Nampa last year, and according to Mukesh I would be one of the first foreigners and probably the first American to visit the area. We would be travelling through alpine forest to plateau, potential habitat of species that are priorities for conservation such as red pandas, clouded leopards, musk deer spp., dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) and snow leopards.
I was also eager to collaborate with Mukesh who is a prominent figure in Nepali conservation and has extensive experience with primates, musk deer, snow leopards, and birds among other fauna. He is also somewhat of a conservation rock star and was often recognized from television appearances where he has discussed various conservation biology issues including one where he claimed Api-Nampa as the most beautiful place he had been, high praise indeed.
From Dhangadhi we drove north up through Nepal’s middle highlands to a dam being constructed on the Chamali river. On the drive through sub-alpine forest and grasslands we were fortunate to observe golden jackals and Nepal gray langur monkeys to whet our appetites for the upcoming hike. We started a relatively easy hike along the Chamali with a distinctly sub-tropical feel because of the banana plants and a number of lowland birds including the yellow throated Barbet that I have often heard in Lao PDR as it plaintively cries for “Beer Lao, Beer Lao”.
After a couple days the hike got much more challenging as the trail narrowed and continually went up and then down again through quaint villages with terraced fields and then forests. The lodging got more challenging as well and we began to sleep in people’s attics or cow sheds. My legs are still recovering from flea bites, but it was well worth it as we eventually reached the source of the Chamali River at the base of Api Mountain.
During the hike, our schedule was a bit rushed but we were still able to collect some biological data. We identified potential clouded leopard and bear scat early on and snow leopard scat later near the source. Interviews consistently indicated that two musk deer species were present (one black and one similar in appearance to the Siberian species) as well as clouded leopards, red pandas and dholes. We also spent several hours observing pikas. We saw displacements where one pika took over a preferred sunning spots from weaker individuals and took photographs that suggested two species of pikas were present or at least two color morphs. We also collected pika dung pellets for future genetic analyses. Interviews also indicated that herders sometimes consume pikas and they impart an effect similar to that from alcohol. On the way back we also observed Assamese macaque monkeys and gathered scat and urine for genetic analyses.
In addition to the interesting Biology there was also a very intriguing cultural aspect to the trip. As we hiked through the villages I was constantly struck with how much the western Nepalis reminded me of the Roma or gypsies of Europe with their dark, swarthy and attractive appearance often with nose piercings and copious jewelry. There were also 400-500 year old palace ruins from a former ruler of the Chamali valley. The ruins were at the top of a peak, and unfortunately time did not allow for closer investigation. Probably most interesting, though, was the manifestation of a much more recent cultural phenomenon: caterpillar fungus. Thanks to the rise in the value of caterpillar fungus there is now a temporary tent village for fungus hunters near the base of Api Mountain complete with hotels and a cinema.
I am very excited about future research at the Api-Nampa conservation area and collaboration between CERS and Mukesh in Nepal. Api-Nampa is undergoing rapid change with dams and roads and eco-tourism plans so we are eager to deploy camera traps next year to document the current situation and monitor any changes. I am also eager to learn more about Nepali culture and positively impact conservation through community outreach.Mukesh and I discussed wildlife conservation in Nepal at a village school, and I explained why musk deer are special (e.g. their ability to feed in trees, their tusks, the historic and present of value of musk) and how they are studied with camera traps. Hopefully more schools can be included in the future to motivate future conservationists. In addition, Mukesh will be joining the CERS education program this summer to see our musk deer and snow leopard research sites in NW Yunnan and to inspire more conservationists.