By Samyak Kaninde
It was the coldest winter in the Kashmir valley in the last 30 years when I arrived at Srinagar Airport in February 2021. So cold that the Dal Lake was partially frozen during ‘Chillai-kalan’, the harshest period of winter that lasts around 40 days. I was here in search of a rare and elusive wild animal that I had wanted to sight for over three years – the markhor Capra falconeri, the world’s largest mountain goat.
Like most high-altitude Himalayan wildlife, it is easiest to sight these animals when they descend from their summer, mountaintop homes to the valleys in winter. The extreme cold in Srinagar was therefore reason to hope, as the animals would probably be lower down in the valleys.
After securing the necessary permits to visit the Kazinag National Park, a markhor stronghold, I headed for Lachipora village in the Baramulla district. This quiet, picturesque Himalayan village, where step-farming is practised on mountain slopes, would be my base for a week. A small stream named Kazinag, originating from the Kazinag glacier, crisscrosses the village until it meanders down to meet the Jhelum river. Largely inaccessible, the high mountains around the village teem with wildlife such as the markhor, musk deer, goral and the apex predator, the common leopard. Soon after settling down, I set out in the evening to explore the stream and scan the mountains in anticipation of discoveries ahead. In the distance, I saw a herd of goral grazing peacefully on a slope, oblivious to our presence. The stream was partially frozen and we trudged through melting snow along a small trail that locals used to fetch dry grass for their cattle in winter. That evening I met Dr. Riyaz Ahmad, Head of the Markhor Recovery Project, for the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI). He has been studying the markhor for over a decade and I was fortunate to be invited to join him on a field visit the next day.
We set off early the next morning in the company of local forest guard, Latif, who has guided several researchers and wildlifers who come by his village. It was a tough climb up the mountain path, but we were rewarded by chance encounters with a small group of Kalij Pheasants and Himalayan Monals that Latif said were common to the area. Himalayan Griffons and Golden Eagles circled the sky above effortlessly, using thermals as large raptors do. Within an hour we were exhausted but glad to reach our campsite after tramping through knee-deep snow. Here we rested, at an inconspicuous wooded clearing where our presence was well hidden. Markhor are most active early mornings and late evenings, so we patiently waited for quite some time. The slopes where the markhor were most likely to be spotted were separated from our location by an expansive deep valley, making visibility and photography near impossible. But this was our best chance to observe the elusive goat, which sensibly stays away from humans whose presence it detects thanks to its incredible sight and strong sense of smell.
The author visited the Kazinag National Park in February 2021 in winter, when the landscape is cloaked in snow. As with most high-altitude Himalayan wildlife, it is easiest to sight the markhor when they descend in winter from their summer, mountaintop homes to the valleys below. Photo: Samyak Kaninde.
We were blessed. The markhor did indeed make their appearance. First, one sub-adult male, then his small harem of females, with a few young in tow. Exhilarated, we reveled in the rare sighting and though we knew where they were, it took a while to actually spot them. Their incredible brown coat gives them the ability to virtually melt into the mountains. As we watched, we could not help but marvel at the way in which the sure-footed animals grazed nonchalantly on the near vertical mountain slope with intuitive ease. Through our field glasses we watched with bated breath as a sub-adult male used his short hind legs to support himself while reaching far out for a morsel of grass. The young ones never wandered far from their mothers, almost tracing their footsteps, sometimes hesitant, and other times, hopping and skipping playfully about.
The best way to spot them, we learned, was to look out for their prominent black and white legs. Contented to watch the group, we were gratefully taken aback when a huge class four male made his appearance! As with other Capra species, male markhors are classified for their age by the length of their horns. The imposing male that held us in a hypnotic trance sported a huge horn with five twists, demonstrating why their corkscrew-like horns are such prized possessions. While observing him, five other males came into view. They were grazing in close proximity while the largest sat indolently on the slope. It was a rare and wonderful sighting because females most often form small groups with their young and move about, while adult males are solitary, some moving in bachelor groups away from the mixed herd.
Spot the markhor -- how many do you see? Markhor camouflage so well with their surroundings, they are difficult to spot unless you know how to look for them. Photo: Samyak Kaninde.
Over the next five days, we explored different aspects of the valley and mountains where we saw several markhor herds. One sighting was particularly memorable. We were returning to the valley as excessive melting snow had prevented us from crossing a frozen, slippery stream. Scanning the nearby mountains, we found a lone female with two of her young moving along the vertical slopes, extremely close to where we were. We froze the moment we saw the family so as not to disturb them. Normally, females give birth in summer to a single young, rarely two. By the time winter arrives, kids follow their mothers down to the valley. At one point, we saw a kid stumbling on a rock and the mother immediately nudged her offspring towards a safe foothold. Latif reiterated how lucky we were to observe this family at close range. By now a cold chill had picked up as the sun sank lower on the horizon. Blessed, we looked forward to the warmth and comfort that awaited us after we covered the long distance towards our village camp.
On my last day in Kazinag, I was overjoyed to observe a group of nine strong class four males. This time the climb was tougher as we had to confront a small avalanche on the way. But everything was worth the sight of those magnificent mountain monarchs.
On our return, we were greeted by our host’s grandmother who excitedly confirmed that as many as five markhors had approached the village, pointing to the slope where she had seen them. Peering through my binoculars I soon spotted one, a lone male, grazing peacefully. The others had become one with the mountain.
A female markhor, discernible by the smaller horns, navigates a near-vertical mountain cliff to graze with intuitive proficiency. Over the course of a week, the author was fortunate to spot several markhor herds. Photo: Samyak Kaninde.
As I closed my eyes to sleep that night, I could not help but wonder whether the magnificent markhor would be able to survive the trials being placed in their way by Homo sapiens… the ‘wise’ ones.
Samyak Kaninde is a nature and wildlife photographer who splits his time between the Himalaya and forests around India. He loves to capture urban wildlife around his home.