Mammals in the Himalaya
This male alpine musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster) is enjoying his meal of old-man’s-beard lichens (Usnea), which have fallen to the ground in the forest below the Tengboche Monastery, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) are affectionate mothers. This one was photographed at the Swayambhunath Stupa in Kathmandu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) males, grazing in the Khumbu area, eastern Nepal, where this species is common. The animals are not harmed by the local Buddhist Sherpas. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This Royle’s pika (Ochotona roylei), encountered at Phedi, near Gosainkund, Langtang National Park, central Nepal, was remarkably confiding, scurrying about between our feet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This page deals with a selection of Himalayan mammals, which I have encountered during my travels. Families, genera, and species are presented in alphabetical order.
As is obvious from the major part of the pictures, I prefer to depict animals in their natural surroundings, or studies of their behavior, rather than taking close-ups, which I find rather boring.
In case you find any errors on this page, I would be grateful to receive an email. You may use the address at the bottom of the page.
The word Himalaya is from the Sanskrit hima (‘snow’) and alaya (‘abode’), thus ‘The Abode of Snow’. The Himalaya consists of a long arch of gigantic mountains, stretching from northern Pakistan southeast to the northern tip of Myanmar – a distance of more than 2,500 km. In these mountains are the Earth’s largest concentration of very high peaks, fourteen of which reach an altitude of more than 8,000 m, whereas hundreds are more than 7,000 m high. (For comparison, the highest mountain outside Central Asia, Aconcagua in Argentina, is a mere 6,962 m.)
The borders of the Himalaya are not well defined. To the northwest, the Karakoram Mountains (which some authorities consider a part of the Himalaya, others do not) merge into the Hindu Kush and Pamir Mountains. To the north and northeast, several mountain chains in Ladakh, Tibet, and China are a continuation of the Himalaya proper.
As a result of the great span in altitude and precipitation – besides various other factors such as micro-climate and soil composition – flora and fauna of the Himalaya are indeed diverse. In these mountains, two bio-geographical regions meet. In most areas, flora and fauna from the Indo-Malayan Region, which includes the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia, dominate, but in northern Pakistan, Kashmir, Ladakh, and in areas of far northern Nepal and Bhutan at altitudes above c. 3,500 m, there is a large element of species from the Palaearctic Region, which includes Central and West Asia.
When the monsoon has passed over the Himalaya from the south, almost all its humidity has already fallen as rain. Thus, the Tibetan Plateau north of the mountains receives very little rainfall. In many places, the annual mean precipitation is less than 100 mm, most of which falls as snow in the winter. For this reason, the major part of the landscape is dry and rather barren, with lush and green areas mainly found along rivers and around the numerous lakes of the region.
On this page, Tibet (called Xizang by the Chinese), Qinghai, and Xinjiang are treated as separate areas. The term ‘western China’ indicates Chinese territories just east of Tibet and Qinghai. The term ‘south-western China’ encompasses the provinces Yunnan, Guizhou, and Sichuan.
This large family, comprising about 47 genera and c. 143 species, are cloven-hoofed, ruminant animals, including cattle, antelopes, sheep, goats, and many others.
This genus contains about 9 species, including the domestic goat and several species of ibex. The domestic goat is presented in depth on the page Animals: Animals as servants of Man.
The generic name is the classical Latin word for a she-goat. A billy-goat was called caper.
Capra sibirica Siberian ibex
In former times, this goat was treated as a subspecies of the Alpine ibex (Capra ibex), and whether it is specifically distinct from other ibex is still not entirely clear. Traditionally, 4 subspecies have been recognized, but some authorities regard it as monotypic. In the Himalaya, subspecies sakeen occurs in Pakistan and north-western India, and it is also found in Afghanistan and the Pamir Mountains.
The Siberian ibex is a heavily built animal. Males measure 90-110 cm across the shoulder, weighing 60-130 kg, with horns typically about 115 cm long, although a length up to 148 cm has been recorded. Females are smaller, measuring 70-90 cm across the shoulder, weighing 35-56 kg, with horns measuring an average of 27 cm long. Both sexes also possess a scent gland beneath the tail. Their greyish coat is well suited for camouflage in mountains with low or no vegetation.
This picture is from the interesting Hindu temple Hadimba in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, which is adorned with various items, including ringed horns of Siberian ibex, smooth horns of bharal (Pseudois nayaur, see below), and antlers of Kashmir stag (Cervus canadensis ssp. hanglu). The history behind the temple is described on the page Religion: Hinduism. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Near Saspol, Ladakh, many of the boulders, which lie helter-skelter in the desert, are covered in petroglyphs, depicting various items, including ibex, hunters, birds, and stupas – artwork by an unknown people and of unknown age. The black surface on these boulders is called desert varnish. It consists of a thin layer of manganese and clay, formed through thousands of years by bacteria, living on the rock surface. These bacteria absorb small amounts of manganese from the atmosphere and deposit it on the boulders. The petroglyphs have been made by scraping off this ‘varnish’ from parts of the surface.
(Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hemitragus jemlahicus Himalayan tahr
This animal, the sole member of the genus, is widely distributed in the temperate zone of the Himalaya, found from Kashmir eastwards to Sikkim and extreme south-eastern Tibet, in summer encountered up to an elevation of 5,200 m, in winter sometimes descending to about 1,500 m. The population is declining due to hunting and habitat loss.
Elsewhere, this species has been introduced as a hunting object, including New Zealand, Argentina, and South Africa. In these countries numbers of tahrs have exploded, as they have no natural enemies here, and they have become a serious threat to the local environment through overgrazing.
In 1826, English artist, naturalist, antiquary, illustrator, soldier, and spy, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith (1776-1859) named this animal Capra jemlahica, meaning ‘the goat from Himalaya’. However, in 1841, the outstanding British naturalist and ethnologist Brian Houghton Hodgson (1801-1894) renamed it Hemitragus jemlahicus, derived from Ancient Greek hemi (‘half’) and tragos (‘goat’), thus ‘goat-like’. Apparently, he found that this animal was not really a goat. Today, however, genetic research has revealed that it is in fact a goat.
A stunning encounter with this animal is related on the page Travel episodes – India 2008: Mountain goats and frozen flowers.
Himalayan tahrs, grazing in the Khumbu area, eastern Nepal, where this species is common. The animals are not harmed by the local Buddhist Sherpas. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A genus with 4 species of small, stocky, goat-like animals, distributed in Central Asia. Goral is the Hindi name of these animals, probably of Sanskrit origin. The generic name is explained below.
Naemorhedus goral Himalayan goral
This species is usually 1-1.3 m long, weighing 35-42 kg, with short, curved horns. It is found along the Himalaya, from Pakistan eastwards to Arunachal Pradesh, mostly living on the lower slopes, at elevations between 1,000 and 3,000 m. The population is declining significantly due to habitat loss and hunting.
In 1825, English soldier and naturalist, Major-General Thomas Hardwicke (1755-1835) named this animal Antilope goral. Apparently, he found that it resembled an antelope, presumably due to its small size. Only two years later, Hamilton Smith (see tahr above) renamed it Naemorhedus, derived from the Latin nemus (‘forest’) and haedus (‘a young goat’). Later research has shown that it is neither a true antelope or a true goat, but a member of the so-called goat-antelopes, which have traits from both groups. Other goat-antelopes are the Asian serow (Capricornis), the European chamois (Rupicapra), and the American mountain goat (Oreamnos).
Incidentally, Smith made two spelling mistakes in the name Naemorhedus. It ought to be Nemorhaedus. However, according to the rules of nomenclature, we must stick to the former spelling.
Himalayan goral in its typical habitat: grassy slopes, interspersed with rocks and taller vegetation. – Amjilassa, Lower Ghunsa Valley, eastern Nepal (upper two), and near Shyabrubesi, Langtang National Park, central Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Himalayan goral, resting on a rock ledge, near Sherpagaon, Lower Langtang Valley, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This picture from Delhi Zoo shows the stockiness of the goral. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pseudois nayaur Bharal, Himalayan blue sheep, Chinese blue sheep
Today, this species is considered the only member of the genus. For many years, it was assumed that an animal living in eastern Tibet and the Sichuan Province was a distinct species, called dwarf blue sheep or dwarf bharal (P. schaeferi). However, genetic research has shown that it is a mere dwarf form of the common bharal.
The adult ram is a splendid animal, weighing up to 75 kilos, with thick, sweeping horns that may grow to a length of 80 cm. The coat is grey with a bluish sheen (hence its English name), with black markings on chest, flanks, and legs. Ewes and young males are more uniformly grey. The horns of females are small, growing to 20 cm long.
This species is widely distributed in Central Asia, from Ladakh, the northern Himalaya, and the Yunnan Province northwards across Tibet to Gansu, Ningxia, and Inner Mongolia. The Helan Mountains of Ningxia have the highest concentration of bharal in the world, with a population of about 30,000. It is also quite common in parts of the Himalaya, including Ladakh, Dolpo, and the border area between Nepal and Sikkim.
Bharal is the Hindi name of this animal, whereas the Nepali name naur has given rise to the specific name. The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek pseudes (‘false’) and ois (‘sheep’), alluding to the fact that the animal is sheep-like, but also has traits from goats.
The bharal was the main focus of an expedition to the Dolpo area of Nepal in 1973, led by American zoologist George Schaller (born 1933). He was accompanied by the famous American writer and environmentalist Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014). Their personal experiences are well documented in Schaller’s book Stones of Silence (1980), and Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978).
Bharals, illuminated by morning sun, Trisul Nala, Nanda Devi National Park, Kumaon, Uttarakhand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bharals, grazing in a semi-desert near Niki La Pass, Ladakh. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bharal, Ramtang, Upper Ghunsa Valley, eastern Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
My guide Karma Tsering, showing the sweeping horns of a bharal, Ulley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cercopithecidae Old World monkeys
This large family, comprising 24 genera and about 140 species, is widely distributed in Africa and Asia. Members include baboons, macaques, colobus monkeys, langurs, and many others.
On the page Animals – Mammals: Monkeys and apes, many other members of the family are described.
The number of species in this genus has been growing steadily in later years to 23, as two new species have recently been described.
The generic name stems from the word makaku, plural of kaku, a West African Bantu name for a species of mangabey. In Portuguese, makaku became macaco, and in French macaque, the latter adopted by the British. In 1798, French taxonomist Bernard Germain de Lacépède (1756-1825) applied this word of African origin, in the form Macaca, to an almost exclusively Asian group of monkeys, presumably because he was familiar with the Barbary macaque (Macaca sylvanus) – the only species of the group outside Asia, living in north-western Africa and on the Rock of Gibraltar, southern Spain. (Source: itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003458.html)
Macaca assamensis Assamese macaque
This monkey is quite similar to the well-known rhesus macaque (below), but has a longer tail, and it lacks the orange hindquarters of that species. It is distributed from western Nepal eastwards to south-western China, and also has populations in Indochina and Bangladesh.
It generally lives in forests at altitudes between 200 and 2,000 m, but may be observed down to sea level in Bangladesh, and it occasionally strays to high mountains, sometimes as high as 4,000 m. It is declining in many places due to hunting and habitat fragmentation.
Members of a troop of about 50 Assamese macaques, observed near Pairo, Lower Langtang Valley, central Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Macaca mulatta Rhesus monkey
The common brown monkey of northern India, in Hindi called bandar, is found almost everywhere in the country north of the rivers Tapti in Gujarat and Godavari in Maharashtra. The total distribution area is from Afghanistan eastwards through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos to Vietnam, and thence northwards to central China.
The rhesus monkey has become well-known through its usage in medical research, which detected the rhesus factor, an inherited antigen in the blood of humans. Its fur is mainly brown, with an orange tinge on the hind parts, and the tail is rather short, 20-30 cm. This monkey lives in very diverse habitats, from semi-desert via various forest types to temple groves and cities, from the lowland up to about 2,500 m altitude.
Due to the great deeds, performed by the monkey army in the great Hindu epic Ramayana, monkeys are regarded as sacred animals among Hindus, and troops of monkeys often live around temples, where part of their diet consists of rice, sweets, or other edibles, brought as offerings by devout Hindus.
One such temple is Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple on the shores of the Bagmati River, Kathmandu, Nepal. Another temple with many rhesus monkeys is the great Buddhist stupa Swayambhunath, likewise in Kathmandu, which also contains Hindu shrines. At least two troops of rhesus monkeys live in the forest around this stupa.
The specific name is of unknown origin. The common name may refer to a person in Greek mythology, King Rhesus of Thrace, who sided with the Trojans during the Trojan War, related in the Iliad.
The role of monkeys in Ramayana is described on the page Animals – Mammals: Monkeys and apes.
Rhesus monkeys, resting on a chorten (a Tibetan Buddhist shrine, similar to a stupa), Swayambhunath, Kathmandu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This rhesus monkey is sitting on a huge vajra, or dorje (‘thunderbolt’), which symbolizes the male aspect of the spirit. Small vajras are held during Buddhist invocations and prayers. – Swayambhunath. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhesus monkeys, eating offerings of rice, Manakamana Kali Temple, central Nepal (top), and Swayambhunath. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhesus monkeys, eating biscuits, presented by a tourist, Manakamana Kali Temple. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female rhesus monkeys are affectionate mothers. These were photographed at the Manakamana Kali Temple (top), and at Swayambhunath. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This mother and young are sitting in front of a sculpture at Swayambhunath, depicting a meditating Buddha and an elephant. The elephant plays a significant role in Buddhist mythology. Legend has it that on the night of his conception, Siddharta’s mother, Queen Maya, dreamed that an elephant had placed a lotus flower in her womb. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Copulating rhesus monkeys, Swayambhunath. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhesus monkeys spend a considerable time grooming. – Pashupatinath, Kathmandu. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The rhesus monkeys at Swayambhunath and Pashupatinath have become very bold and daring. This one has grabbed a carton, containing orange juice, from a tourist. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This rhesus monkey is enjoying the morning sun, sprawled on a tree branch, where it spent the previous night, Uttarkashi, Garhwal, Uttarakhand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The behind of rhesus monkeys is reddish with two bare patches of skin that the animal sits on. – Swayambhunath. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Langurs are leaf-eating monkeys, comprising 8 genera with about 40 extant species. Two genera are dealt with here, Semnopithecus (typical langurs) and Trachypithecus (lutungs).
Semnopithecus Typical langurs
Today, this genus contains 8 species, all restricted to the Indian Subcontinent. In the past, all grey langurs living here were regarded as belonging to a single species, Semnopithecus entellus, divided into six subspecies. However, recent morphological studies, combined with DNA-analyses, have revealed that the grey langurs should be regarded as 6 full species: northern plains langur (S. entellus), terai langur (S. hector), pale-armed langur (S. schistaceus), Kashmir langur (S. ajax), black-footed langur (S. hypoleucos), and tufted langur (S. priam). A seventh species, dussumieri, has been declared conspecific with northern plains langur.
The generic name is from the Greek semnos (‘sacred’) and pithekos (‘monkey’), alluding to the sanctity of monkeys to Hindus. The role of the langur in the great Hindu epic Ramayana is described on the page Animals – Mammals: Monkeys and apes.
Semnopithecus hector Terai langur
This species is found in the Himalayan foothills, the terai, encountered up to an altitude of c. 1,600 m, from Uttarakhand eastwards to south-western Bhutan. It mainly lives in forests, occasionally feeding in orchards and fields with crops. Its fur is thicker than that of the northern plains langur, but not as rich as that of the pale-armed langur (below).
The total number of terai langurs is probably only about 10,000 mature individuals, and the population is slowly declining, mainly due to habitat loss.
The specific name refers to a person in Greek mythology, Prince Hector of Troy, who was one of the foremost fighters among the Trojans during the Trojan War, related in the Iliad.
During an excursion with my Indian friend Ajai Saxena to Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, we had company of a couple of terai langurs, which took their seat on the roof of our car. Presumably, many car drivers feed these monkeys, but as we oppose the habit of feeding wild animals, we didn’t give them anything, and shortly after they disappeared, jumping into the trees. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Semnopithecus schistaceus Pale-armed langur, Nepal langur
This species is easily identified by its luxurious, pale grey fur and the large white ruff around its jet-black face. It has a wide distribution at mid-elevations in the Himalaya, mostly between 1,500 and 3,500 m, but occasionally up to 4,000 m, from Pakistan through India and Nepal to Bhutan and extreme south-eastern Tibet.
This monkey mainly lives in lush monsoon forests, occasionally found in scrubland and agricultural areas. It is quite common, and the population is fairly stable. Threats include habitat loss through logging, fire, and human encroachment, and it is hunted in Tibet for usage in traditional medicine.
The specific name is derived from Latin, meaning ‘slate-coloured’ – very pale slate, one must say!
Part of a large troop of pale-armed langurs, resting and playing in a meadow, Ghora Tabela, Upper Langtang Valley, central Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pale-armed langurs, resting on a stone wall, Kuldi Ghar, Modi Khola Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male pale-armed langur, resting in a tree, Tadapani, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These pale-armed langurs were photographed near Lake Dodi Tal, Upper Asi Ganga Valley, Garhwal, Uttarakhand. The one in the lower picture is feeding on buds and flowers of Viburnum grandiflorum. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Troop of pale-armed langurs, eating soil to obtain minerals, Banthanti, Annapurna, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This genus, encompassing 15 species, is distributed from Bhutan and north-eastern India eastwards to the southernmost parts of China, and thence southwards through Southeast Asia to the Indonesian islands Java, Bali, and Lombok.
The generic name is derived from the Greek trach (‘rough’) and pithekos (‘monkey’), referring to the dense fur of some species in the genus.
Trachypithecus geei Golden langur
This species occurs only in Bhutan and adjacent parts of Assam, between the rivers Manas in the east and Sankosh in the west. It lives in forests along the foothills of the Himalaya up to about 3,000 m altitude.
The total known range of this langur is less than 30,000 km2, and much of it is not suitable habitat. The estimated population is less than 1,200 individuals in India and around 4,000 in Bhutan. It has declined by more than 30% in the last 30 years and is expected to decline further due to habitat loss. The population in India is highly fragmented, with the southern population completely separated from northern populations due to the effects of human activities.
The population in Manas National Park, Assam, is threatened by hybridization with a close relative, the capped langur (T. pileatus). Formerly, these two species were separated by rivers, but a number of constructed bridges has now made it easy for them to cross these rivers.
The golden langur was described as late as 1956, but was known much earlier by naturalists. The story behind its discovery, and the origin of the specific name, are related on the page Animals – Mammals: Monkeys and apes.
Golden langur, Manas National Park, Assam. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These animals differ from other ruminants by possessing antlers, which are shed every year. The family contains 20 genera with about 90 species.
Deer live in almost all types of habitats, ranging from tundra to tropical rainforest. They are widely distributed, with native species present in all continents, except Antarctica and Australia. In Africa, however, only a single species is present in the Atlas Mountains. The largest concentration of species is found in Asia.
Muntiacus Muntjac, barking deer
This genus of small deer, comprising 12 species, is native to Asia, occurring from India and Sri Lanka eastwards to southern China and Taiwan, and thence southwards to the Indonesian Archipelago.
Males are characterized by their short antlers, often only about 10 cm long. Instead of using their antlers, they tend to fight for territory with their 2-4 cm long upper canines. Where the males have antlers, the females have small bony knobs with tufts of fur.
The generic name is a Latinized form of the Dutch name of these animals, muntjak, which is a corruption of their Sundanese name, mencek. The popular name barking deer was given in allusion to their alarm call, which is reminiscent of a dog’s barking.
Muntiacus muntjak Indian muntjac
This very widespread animal, in Hindi known as kakar, is distributed from India and Sri Lanka eastwards to southern China, and thence southwards through Southeast Asia to the Indonesian islands Java and Bali. 15 subspecies have been described. In the Himalaya, it is common up to an elevation of about 2,500 m.
Male Indian muntjac with antlers in velvet, between Sherpagaon and Surkhe, Lower Langtang Valley, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Female Indian muntjac, Begnas Tal, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cricetidae Voles and allies
This huge family of small to medium-sized rodents includes voles, lemmings, hamsters, and New World rats and mice, counting about 112 genera and 600 species. They are distributed in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
A small Asian genus of voles, counting about 12 species.
The generic name is derived from the Latin altus (‘high’) and colo (‘to inhabit’), thus ‘the one that lives at high altitudes’.
Alticola stoliczkanus Stoliczka’s mountain vole
This vole lives in high altitude desert areas in Tibet and in the northern outskirts of the Himalaya in Pakistan, India, and Nepal.
The specific name was given in honour of Ferdinand Stoliczka (1838-1874), a Czech palaeontologist, geologist, and zoologist, who mainly worked in India. He died of altitude sickness during an expedition to the Karakoram Mountains.
Stoliczka’s mountain voles live in burrows. – Tso Kar, Ladakh (upper 2), and Shigatse, Tibet. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Stoliczka’s mountain vole, basking in the sun outside its burrow, Shigatse, Tibet. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This one is stretching out on a patch of bare, salt-encrusted soil to suck up the warmth from the morning sun. – Tso Kar, Ladakh. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Equidae Horses and asses
In prehistoric times, no less than about 40 genera of this family existed, but all except one have gone extinct. Today, the surviving genus Equus contains 7 species, distributed across Africa and Asia.
The European tarpan (Equus ferus) went extinct as late as 1909. This animal and its close relative, Przevalski’s horse (E. ferus ssp. przewalskii), as well as the domestic horse, are described on the page Animals: Animals as servants of Man.
The name Equus is derived from Proto-Indo-European hekwos (‘horse’).
Equus kiang Tibetan ass, kiang
In the past, this wild ass was found in large herds on the Tibetan Plateau. Thubten Jigme Norbu (1922-2008), elder brother of the Dalai Lama, says: “We would often see kyangs by the thousand spread over the hillsides and looking inquisitively at our caravan; sometimes they would even surround us, though keeping at some distance.” (Source: Tibet is My Country: Autobiography of Thubten Jigme Norbu. Wisdom Publications, London, 1960, new ed. 1986)
The populations have decreased alarmingly in later years due to competition from huge flocks of grazing sheep and goats, and uncontrolled hunting, and today only scattered herds are found on the Tibetan Plateau, from the northern outskirts of the Himalaya and Ladakh northwards to the Kunlun Mountains. Thus, almost the entire population is in Chinese territories, with about 2,500-3,000 individuals in Ladakh and Sikkim, and very few along the northern border of Nepal.
The specific name is the Tibetan name of the animal.
Tibetan ass, Puga Marshes, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tibetan asses, Tso Kar, Ladakh. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Following genetic studies, this family is today divided in two subfamilies, Pantherinae with 7 species in two genera, Panthera and Neofelis, and Felinae, encompassing the remaining 34 species, divided into 10 genera. Cats live on all continents with the exception of Australia and Antarctica.
A small genus with 5 species of large cats, the tiger (P. tigris), the lion (P. leo), the leopard (P. pardus), the jaguar (P. onca), and the snow leopard (below). The lion is decribed on the page Animals – Mammals: Lion – king of the savanna, whereas the sad fate of the tiger is related on the page Folly of Man.
The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek panther, referring to the black-coated leopard of India.
Panthera uncia Snow leopard
This large and elusive cat lives in mountains of Central Asia, at elevations between 3,000 and 4,500 m, from southern Siberia, Sinkiang, and Mongolia southwards across the Tibatan Plateau to eastern Afghanistan and the Himalaya. In many places, it has been hunted to extinction because of its rich and beautiful fur, and today the global population is estimated at less than 10,000 individuals. This number is expected to decline about 10% by 2040. It is also threatened by habitat destruction.
In Buddhist areas like Ladakh, Sikkim, and Bhutan, and the Khumbu and Dolpo regions in Nepal, hunting is banned, and this rare cat here has safe havens, where it can prey on species like bharal (Pseudois nayaur), urial (Ovis vignei), Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), and alpine musk deer (Moschus chrysogaster).
For many years, the snow leopard was regarded as the sole member of the genus Uncia. However, genetic research has revealed that it is closely related to the other four large cats. The name uncia is derived from Old English ounce, ultimately from Ancient Greek lynx, originally alluding to the European lynx (Lynx lynx), but over time being used for the snow leopard as well as the cougar (Puma concolor).
These pugmarks in the snow signify that a snow leopard passed here the previous night, Jarsang Khola Valley, Upper Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Moschidae Musk deer
Although deer-like, musk deer constitute a separate family, which is not closely related to deer (Cervidae). They are small animals, reaching a maximum weight of c. 17 kg. The family was abundant across Eurasia and North America about 10-20 million years ago, but all genera except one have since died out. Today, only the genus Moschus remains, comprising 7 species, distributed in Central Asia, Siberia, and China.
The male possesses long canines, used during territorial fights with other males. He also has a musk gland, with which he marks his territory. This gland has been utilized in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine for more than 5,000 years. It is estimated that musk is currently being used in as many as 400 Chinese and Korean traditional remedies, employed in treatment of disorders of the nervous system, blood circulation, heart, and lungs. The musk is also reported to possess anti-inflammatory, anti-histaminic, stimulating, and sedative properties. In India, it has been used as an aphrodisiac for thousands of years.
In 747, armies of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907) and the First Tibetan Empire, ruled by Songtsan Gampo (c. 604-650), clashed on the banks of the famous Oxus River, now called Amu Darya, in what is today the Wakhan Corridor of north-eastern Afghanistan. The outcome of this battle would decide, which empire was in control of the route, leading through the Kingdom of Bolor, and over the Darkot Pass (4703 m) into the Indus Valley – an important branch on the ancient trading route of Central Asia, the Silk Road. Who controlled this pass, controlled the export of musk glands from the north-western part of the Indian Subcontinent – a commodity, which was worth 30 times its weight in silver. Incidentally, the Chinese army won the battle.
The musk has also been widely used in the perfume industry for thousands of years.
Several musk deer species are severely threatened due to excessive hunting of the males. According to TRAFFIC, which is monitoring international wildlife trade, and WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), 17,000-20,000 musk deer males are killed annually, in Russia alone, to supply the illegal trade in glands. (Source: National Geographic News, 2004)
Moschus chrysogaster Alpine musk deer
Divided into two subspecies, this animal is distributed from the Himalaya and southern Tibet eastwards to western China. In Chinese territories, it has become an endangered species due to illegal hunting and habitat loss.
In many parts of the Himalaya, where Buddhism is the dominating religion, populations are stable, as killing of animals is banned in these areas. One such area is the Khumbu region of eastern Nepal, where this animal is fairly common and rather confiding, as the local Buddhist Sherpas do not harm any wild animals.
The specific name is derived from Ancient Greek khrysos (‘golden’) and gaster (‘belly’), thus ‘golden-bellied’.
Male alpine musk deer, resting in the forest near the Buddhist Tengboche Monastery, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This male alpine musk deer is enjoying his meal of old-man’s-beard lichens (Usnea), which have fallen to the ground in the forest below the Tengboche Monastery. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male alpine musk deer, searching for food in a potato field, Kyangjuma, Khumbu. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This family of small to medium-sized carnivores, comprising 25 genera with about 60 species, includes weasels, martens, badgers, otters, and many others.
Mustela Weasels and allies
This genus includes 17 species of small carnivores, including weasels, stoats, and ferrets.
The generic name ultimately stems from Proto-Indo-European mysdersleh, meaning ‘mouse-grabber’.
Mustela sibirica Siberian weasel
This is the largest among the 5 species of weasel found in the Himalaya, males reaching a length up to 40 cm. It is widely distributed, from the Ural Mountains eastwards across the taiga belt to the Pacific coast, and thence southwards through China to the eastern half of the Himalaya. It is rust-coloured, with a black face and a white chin.
As I was resting near a small stream in the Annapurna Sanctuary, Upper Modi Khola Valley, central Nepal, a Siberian weasel came tearing along the bank, stopped for a few seconds to investigate me, and then disappeared like lightning. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ochotonidae Pikas, mouse-hares
These small animals, comprising about 30 species, are all placed in a single genus, Ochotona. With the exception of two species in North America, they all occur in the eastern half of subarctic and temperate Asia. Despite their rodent-like appearance, their nearest relatives are rabbits and hares.
They mainly live in rocky or grassy ares, where they either dig a burrow or live in crevices among rocks and scree. During the summer months, pikas collect large amounts of grass and other plants to store as winter food, as they do not hibernate.
The generic name is probably derived from the Mongolian word for these animals, ogdoi, whereas the name pika is derived from their Tungus name, piika.
Ochotona ladacensis Ladakh pika
As its name implies, this species is common in Ladakh, and is otherwise widely distributed across the Tibetan Plateau, from Sinkiang and Qinghai southwards to Pakistan and north-western India, at elevations between 4,300 and 5,500 m. The fur is grey or brown, or a mixture of the two.
Ladakh pika among lichen-encrusted rocks, Nimaling, Upper Markha Valley, Ladakh. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ochotona macrotis Large-eared pika
This animal is found in montane areas, from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Sinkiang southwards to Afghanistan, northen Pakistan, north-western India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and eastwards to the Qinghai and Yunnan Provinces. It lives in crevices among rocks and scree.
The specific name is derived from the Latin macro (‘large’), ultimately from Ancient Greek makros (‘long’), and Ancient Greek ous (‘ear’).
Large-eared pika, Gokyo Valley, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. In the bottom picture, it is feeding on leaves and flowers of Spongiocarpella purpurea (Fabaceae). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ochotona roylei Royle’s pika
This species is the commonest and most widespread Himalayan pika, distributed from Kashmir eastwards to northern Myanmar and the Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces. Like the previous species, it arranges its nest among boulders, but generally lives at lower altitudes in forested areas.
The specific name was given in honour of British surgeon and naturalist John Forbes Royle (1798-1858), who is chiefly known for his works Illustrations of the Botany and other branches of Natural History of the Himalayan Mountains, and Flora of Cashmere.
Royle’s pika, Bhaniakund, Garhwal, Uttarakhand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Royle’s pika, Rohtang La Pass, Himachal Pradesh. In the lower picture, it is eating leaves of Nepalese pinkweed (Polygonum nepalense). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Royle’s pika, Dodi Tal, Upper Asi Ganga Valley, Garhwal, Uttarakhand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pteropodidae Fruit bats
This large family includes about 46 genera and c. 180 species, occurring in Africa, Asia, and Australia, and on most islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The family contains the largest bat species, some having a wingspan up to 1.7 m and a weight up to 1.6 kg.
Pteropus Flying foxes
As the common name indicates, the head of members of this genus resembles that of a fox. They are distributed in tropical and subtropical areas of eastern Africa, Asia, and Australia, and on some islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Counting between 54 and 60 members, the genus is the largest in the family.
The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek pteron (‘wing’) and pous (‘foot’), alluding to the skin of the wing also being attached to the feet.
Pteropus medius Indian flying fox
This species, previously known as P. giganteus, is distributed throughout the Indian Subcontinent, from eastern Pakistan eastwards to western Myanmar, and from the lower Himalaya southwards to Sri Lanka. It is one of the largest bats in the world, weighing up to 1.6 kg, and with a wingspan up to 1.5 m.
In the Himalaya, it is found up to an elevation of at least 1,400 m.
Indian flying foxes, day-roosting in trees, Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A huge family with about 51 genera and c. 300 species, distributed in the major part of the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa. They have also been introduced by humans to Australia.
The family name is derived from Sciurus, the Latin name of these animals, in 1758 applied by Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) to the Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris). The word squirrel, which has been in use as early as 1327, is from the Anglo-Norman name esquirel, which is again from the Old French escurel, a corruption of the Latin sciurus, which is derived from Ancient Greek skia (‘shadow’) and oura (‘tail’), thus ‘shadow-tailed’, alluding to the habit of some squirrels to raise their bushy tails over the body, thus creating shade.
Many species of squirrel are presented on the page Animals – Mammals: Squirrels.
Dremomys Red-cheeked squirrels
A small genus of 6 species, restricted to warmer areas of Asia. They belong to the subfamily Callosciurinae, called Asian ornate squirrels.
Dremomys lokriah Orange-bellied squirrel
This smallish squirrel is brownish, with a bright orange underside. It is distributed in northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and southern China, living at elevations between 900 and 3,000 m. It is utilized for medicinal purposes by tribal people in north-eastern India.
The etymology of the specific name is not known, but probably some local name of the species. It is known that some early authors, when describing new species, used local names as specific names, without explaining the etymology. One such author was British naturalist and ethnologist Brian Houghton Hodgson (1801-1894), who described this squirrel in 1836. (Source: C. Srinivasulu 2018. South Asian Mammals: An updated Checklist and Their Scientific Names. CRC Press)
Orange-bellied squirrel, Manigaon, Trisuli Valley, central Nepal. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Marmots are large, ground-living squirrels, comprising 15 species, which occur in Europe, Asia, and North America. Most species live in burrows in family groups, hibernating for several months during winter.
The generic name is a corruption of the Latin muris montanus (‘mountain mouse’).
Marmota himalayana Himalayan marmot
This species lives in grassy areas above the tree line, at altitudes between 3,000 and 5,500 m. It is found from the northern outskirts of the Himalaya eastwards to the Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces, northwards across the Tibetan Plateau to Sinkiang, Qinghai, and Gansu.
Near Lake Tso Moriri, Ladakh, a colony of Himalayan marmots has found a peaceful haven. The local Buddhist people do not harm them, and they show no fear of people passing by. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A Himalayan marmot surveys its domain among lichen-covered boulders, blending very well with its surroundings, Nimaling, Upper Markha Valley, Ladakh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Petaurista Giant flying squirrels
This genus, comprising about 16 to 19 species of large flying squirrels, is found in forested habitats, from the Indian Subcontinent eastwards to Japan and Taiwan, and thence southwards through Southeast Asia to Indonesia. The taxonomy of these animals is complicated and far from being clarified.
The generic name is derived from Ancient Greek peteurister (‘acrobat’), naturally alluding to the elegant gliding of these animals.
Petaurista albiventer White-bellied giant flying squirrel
The white-bellied giant flying squirrel is distributed from north-eastern Afghanistan eastwards along the Himalaya to Nepal, occurring at altitudes between 150 and 3,000 m. Its upperparts are reddish-chestnut with many whitish hairs, whereas the underside, throat, and cheeks are whitish. The tail is brown, often with a black tip,
Previously, this species was regarded as a subspecies of the widespread red giant flying squirrel (P. petaurista). However, recent genetic research has split that species into a number of separate species. The white-bellied was also formerly reported eastwards to the Yunnan Province, but eastern Himalayan animals are now recognized as belonging to a recently described separate species, the Yunnan giant flying squirrel (P. yunanensis).
The specific name is derived from the Latin albus (‘white’) and venter (‘belly’).
In this picture, Indian forester B.P. Bahuguna shows a leaf of spiny-leaved oak (Quercus semecarpifolia), which has been partly eaten by a white-bellied giant flying squirrel. The squirrel always eats only part of the leaf, by folding it up and biting the central, less toxic part. – Asi Ganga Valley, Uttarakhand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
During a hike up the Asi Ganga Valley, we found many such leaves along the trail. This hike is related on the page Travel episodes – India 2008: Mountain goats and frozen flowers. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded September 2022)