Imagine a vast amphitheatre surrounded by snow-capped rolling mountains at an altitude above 4,000 m. A turquoise Indus River flowed by. A plateau pika, a few Tibetan ground-tits, and hill pigeons foraged on the rare lush patch of pasture on the riverbank. A lone kiang wandered in the distance on the dusty undulating rangeland away from the river. This was Changthang in Ladakh, India, a high-altitude cold desert.

Silently basking in the morning sun were about 20 Himalayan marmots (Marmota himalayana). They stood on their hind legs, fore limbs near their chests, slightly bent forwards, with heads held high. Soon, they disappeared into their burrows, which seemed to be distributed all over the place.

Then, a large marmot came out from one of the burrows. It must have been about 6-7 kilos in weight and about 60 cm in length. It scanned the surroundings for a while. Right beside it, four young ones peeped out from the same burrow. A nudge from the bigger marmot sent the young ones immediately into the burrow’s safety.

Marmots stand on their hind legs like sentinels outside their burrows, surveying the landscape for any hint of any threat.
Cover image: Himalayan marmots are small, burrow-dwelling mammals found in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. They are rather skittish and will only head out of their burrows to forage on grasses, lichen, flowers, berries, and roots when they are sure the coast is clear. Photos: Shivang Mehta

Then the adult marmot slowly took a few steps towards a nearby bush that had grasses like Carex, Poa and Stipa and some herbs like Polygonum, Oxytropis, and Potentilla. The marmot foraged for a while and was soon joined by three adults from the same colony.

Meanwhile, a few other marmots emerged nearby, and still more from other burrows. Within a few minutes I counted at least 42 marmots had begun foraging on the grasses. Suddenly, they noticed that a wandering kiang had closed in. Perhaps it was a bit too close for their comfort, and in the next moment the marmots vanished into their burrows. A little later the kiang wandered off and sure enough the marmots re-emerged. For the next half an hour, they kept at their task, contained in a small area of approximately 70 m by 50 m. Proper foraging during this late summer season is crucial for marmots. They store fat in their bodies to see them through the 6-7 month-long hibernation during the harsh winter of the Changthang.

Left: An adult marmot rushes back to its burrow after being disturbed by feral dogs. Feral dogs and the guard dogs of herders often hunt marmots, whose body fat is used in traditional medicine for arthritis.
Right: Feral dogs are one of the major threats to wildlife, including ground breeding birds and small mammals in the Indian Himalayas. Photos: Abhishek Ghoshal

Perhaps the feeding would have continued, but the marmots were suddenly attacked by three dogs, that ran in from a nearby road construction labour camp. With a similar reaction to the kiang earlier, the marmots dived into their burrows, disappearing before the dogs knew what had happened. Sheepishly, the dogs moved from one burrow to the other sniffing around. Most of the burrows had narrow openings, so they couldn’t put their mouths in. At the few burrows that had wider openings, the dogs tried to push their mouths and forelimbs in as much as possible. At some spots the dogs dug out soil around the openings to gain access into the burrows, till they realised the futility of the effort. While the dogs were on a mission to find a meal of marmot, a few marmots kept peeping up from different burrows. As soon as the dogs chased the peeping marmot, it disappeared. The dogs would try hard to dig at its burrow, at which time another marmot from another burrow would pop up. The dogs would then rush to that burrow and again attempt digging. This frantic game of meal searching by the dogs and deceit by the marmots continued for 40-45 minutes. Little did the dogs know that marmots create an interconnected burrow system that may run up to 10 m deep. However, despite this intricate subterranean burrow system, at times marmots do run out of luck and fall prey to dogs.

Finally, the tired dogs gave up on their failed hunt and moved closer to the river to start bothering the brown-headed gulls. Chased by the dogs, the gulls flew away and settled down a little farther along the bank, or at small islands in the river. One dog, perhaps the most desperate, jumped into the river, followed by two others. Struggling through the torrent, they managed to reach one of the islands, by which time the gulls had shifted to the bank. Fortunately, there were no chicks with the flock of gulls, who kept eluding the dogs. Ultimately, the dogs crossed the river, and chased an adult kiang on the other bank for a while. Without any success the dogs disappeared into the high-altitude wilderness, possibly harassing some other wildlife elsewhere.

Expansion of roads and off-roading in their habitat are major threats to the shy and cautious Himalayan marmot. Photo: Abhishek Ghoshal

Expansion of roads and off-roading in their habitat are major threats to the shy and cautious Himalayan marmot. Photo: Abhishek Ghoshal

Once the dogs were gone, things fell silent on the site of the marmot residence for a while. Then, 10-15 minutes later, a large fellow emerged followed almost immediately by 15-20 others from nearby burrows. Instead of foraging, this time around, the big marmot moved with intention towards another large marmot lazing 20 m away. They brushed their bodies. One mounted the other for a while. And then they stood on their hind legs, forelegs locked against each other in an act of wrestling. They pushed each other and fought intensely, generating little bursts of dust, which plumed and swirled away immediately in the cold desert wind. A few other relatively smaller sized marmots watched the wrestling from a distance. Others watched keenly from atop of mounds of soil on their burrows. Marmots often wrestle to establish and defend territories and colonies. This silent act of marmot wrestling and their spectators turned the amphitheatre of the Changthang cold-desert into a colosseum.

Two adult male marmots engage in combat while an audience of other marmots watch. Adults may wrestle to settle territorial disputes and for rights to mate with a female. Marmot females gain sexual maturity at two years of age and may have a litter of up to 11. Photos: Abhishek Ghoshal

An advancing pickup truck interrupted the wrestling on the dirt road that runs right through marmot territory. The spectator marmots rushed into their burrows. The wrestler marmots dashed back towards their respective burrows as well, the fight postponed. However, they didn’t get into the burrows right away; they looked around, to ensure all the others were safe. The truck came tantalizingly close to some of the burrows as it roared by, blurring the marmot’s territory in a cloud of dust. Luckily no marmots were killed on this occasion.

Most of the marmots resurfaced after a while, to resume foraging and playing. Perhaps until the next intrusion, by dogs or a speeding vehicle, or until the next silent wrestling episode held the attention of the colony of marmots.

Abhishek Ghoshal

is a wildlife biologist. Since 2011 he has worked in the Indian Himalayas (and briefly in Central Asia) on ecology and conservation of red fox, snow leopard and its prey species, and the Ladakh urial.

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