Encounter - Royle's Pika

The Royle's Pika has to be the cutest inhabitant of the Himalayas
In May 2007, I had my first brush with the ills of altitude. Being the youngest (and I imagined vainly, the fittest) of our group of six, I took my physical prowess too seriously as I climbed enthusiastically (and too fast) from Loharjung Pass to the village of Didana. This was the first leg of our trek, which would eventually see us to the alpine meadow of Bedni Bugyal at about 12,000 feet above mean sea level. From Bedni, the source of the Bedni Ganga, most climbers proceed to Roopkund, the famous "skeleton lake" that Bill Aitken described in The Nanda Devi Affair. We, however, would trek downhill to Wan.

Before we reached Bedni, a hailstorm fell upon us. Drained by a fever I had caught the night before and addled by painkillers for my creaky knees, I was in no condition to welcome this terrifying act of god. For all its fierceness the storm was enchanting. Pearls of ice scattered around us and lay shimmering in the grass like gelid balls of dew. The temperature dropped and perhaps, so did the atmospheric oxygen levels as we climbed from the magical Ali Bugyal towards the valley that separated it from Bedni Bugyal. I started to hallucinate and frequently wandered to the edge of the trail. My friends had many stories to tell me about myself when I finally came to.

The stone hut at Bedni where I first encountered the Royle's Pika
A stone hut with a disintegrating roof accorded us shelter from the storm. Here, our guide Devidutt had stoked a fire. As I sat beside it thawing out my feet, my senses returned. The meadow was glazed with ice and a shaft of cold white light entered the doorway. It was then that I heard a squeak and saw a shape scuttle out of the hut. I pulled myself up to my aching knees and stepped outside to see what it was.

At first I saw nothing. But presently, a curious face emerged from under the slate slabs. Whiskers a-quiver, it was a tiny creature that was mouse-like and rabbit-like at once. It regarded me with beady eyes and then nonchalantly proceeded to chomp on a husk. I stirred only slightly to shift my weight to the other leg, and the little guy was gone in a flash.

I had just encountered the Royle's Pika (Ochotona roylei), a tiny lagomorph (the order Lagomorpha includes hares and rabbits) that inhabits the meadows of Himalayas. Over the next two days, I would see more of it and grow to love it. Pikas scurry about the hillsides like tiny stuffed toys. Two or more individuals sometimes chase each other in low-key skirmishes but most of the time they are content to sit down and do some energetic chewing. Blades of grass, flowers and seeds are consumed rapidly and with total concentration.

Battered by the elements at Bedni and dying to go home, I was consoled only by this little furball of hope. Animated, cheery and full of life as it scurried about the ruins of the shrine to Nanda Devi at Bedni, the pika brought me back to high spirits just as stuffed toys cheer up convalescing patients.

The Royle's Pika is one of 30 extant species found in the world (27 of these are found in Asia including seven in the Indian Himalayas). The name 'pika' is onomatopoeic and can be traced to the language of the Evenks, the indigenous people of Siberia, who mimicked the animals' soft piping call. Because pikas live in landscapes where food is scarce, they are known to consume their own faeces at night to extract maximum nourishment. This revolting aspect of the animal's character is compensated for by its very adorable looks.

Royle's Pikas can be seen basking on the rocks
and chewing meditatively on grass and seeds
I found the Royle's Pika to be quite abundant in Bedni Bugyal, which is a good 600 to 1,000 feet above the tree line. Surprisingly, our group also encountered a lone individual once in an oak-and-deodar forest a good 4,000 vertical feet below Bedni. I pointed to the animal and asked Devidutt what they called it in their language. He considered it sleepily for a minute and then informed me with a tone of authority that it was a chooha (the Hindi word for rat).

In 2009, I found pikas aplenty in the boulder-strewn meadows around Chopta and also all the way up to the temple precincts at Tungnath. We also found some individuals in the oak forest skirting the road to Gopeshwar, which circumvents the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Pikas usually scoot when you approach them, though they emerge after a while to study you through the corners of their eyes, a behaviour I found very amusing. On one occasion, we saw two Yellow-throated Martens trying to flush the pikas out of their hiding places (unfortunately, they vanished before I could pull out the camera).

The individual in the main picture appeared near my left shoe as Sahastra and I leaned against a rock outcrop for shelter from a sudden thunder-shower. It was so close to me that I shot it at 3x zoom. I've never been so close to a pika before -- or since.