The Silence of the Lambs

A mysterious Himalayan pasture that kills only sheep

01 April, 2016

“Bhagwan jaane kya ashubh chhupa hua hai wahan” (God knows what evil is hiding there), Kishenlal Negi, the leader of a group of migratory herders based in the Pin valley, in the district of Lahaul and Spiti, told me with a sigh. It was early August 2014, and I was in a remote sub-division of the district in Himachal Pradesh, surveying wild goats and vegetation for my doctoral research in wildlife biology. Negi, like many other herders, took his livestock grazing to the high mountains in the region during the summer months of July and August, and brought them to lower hills in the Shimla and Solan districts during winters.

Negi was telling me of a rumour: that the Shinsa, a small stream that flows through a high Himalayan pasture, had fallen under an evil spell, and that the pasture was killing herders’ sheep. He claimed he had had a direct encounter with the sinister pasture.

“Three years back, I decided to move my flock”—roughly 400 sheep and an almost equal number of goats—“from a pasture near the Bhaba pass to the Shinsa, deep inside Ensa valley,” Negi said. “I had been grazing them near Bhaba pass for about ten years. But the pasture had become very crowded and my flock was not growing well. I heard the Shinsa had no herders around it. So I made an arrangement with the villagers of Tailing”—the closest settlement to the pasture.

He paused to light a beedi, and then continued. “On the way, two of my donkeys carrying rations fell into the Pin river from the footbridge just before Tailing. One of them did not survive, and the other one was traumatised. The donkey that died was his close friend. It was difficult to handle the surviving donkey. He simply wouldn’t move. He would just stand like a buddhu and stare blankly at the surroundings. I sensed something was wrong. Some evil was working.”

He ashed his beedi before going on. “We reached Shinsa somehow. The area looked very dry, and difficult to negotiate with my flock. We had to cross water many times, and get past precarious, steep cliffs. Once we made it to the upper pasture, everything went fine for about two weeks.”

The beedi went out. He flicked it away. “Then, about 15 of my sheep fell ill. They started vomiting frequently. They ate less and ultimately stopped foraging completely. Within a matter of two or three days”—here he paused for a moment—“they died.”

This was the first time I heard a detailed account of the “evil” of the pasture. I began asking questions.

“Is there any particular time during summer when sheep die?” He wasn’t sure.

“Do the dead sheep belong to a particular age group?” I asked.

“Two kids died, along with roughly ten adults,” he told me.

“Is it only males? Or females too?”

“Both males and females.”

None of Negi’s goats, however, showed any signs of distress from grazing on the pasture.

Intrigued, I decided to visit the area where Negi had set up camp. Three days later, and with a few local helpers, I began the two-day trek to the Shinsa from Tailing. Lush fields planted with green and black peas, punctuated by patches of golden barley, welcomed us into the Ensa valley. On the second day of the journey, the terrain gradually turned unforgiving. We crossed gushing torrents, near-vertical slopes, and even an ice bridge, to reach the pasture, which stands at about 4,600 metres above sea level, by noon. We walked across the undulating pasture for about half an hour to reach Negi’s former camp.

In Tailing, I had asked several villagers if there were any poisonous plants on the pasture. They told me there were none. And they were probably right. In the roughly 33-square-kilometre valley, we studied various plant species. We did not find any unusual or poisonous plants in the area.

Kishenlal Negi (above, second from right) shared a rumour that the Shinsa, a high stream, had fallen under an evil spell, and that its surrounding pasture was killing herders’ sheep. ABHISHEK GHOSHAL

A highly plausible explanation for the deaths—a theory I could not verify—is that they resulted from a seasonal accumulation of one or more secondary compounds in a plant. The concentrations of different secondary compounds in plants peak at different times in a year. These chemicals might turn an otherwise palatable plant toxic for a certain periods. But, even if this explanation is true, why were only sheep affected?

I posed the question to Gopal S Rawat, an expert on Himalayan vegetation and the dean of the faculty of wildlife sciences at the Wildlife Institute of India, in Dehradun. In an email, he told me that digestive abilities can vary among sheep and goats:

“In Greater Himalaya, over consumption of Strobilanthes wallichii”—a local plant more commonly known as kandali—“especially in bud condition is known to have mass mortality of sheep (not of goats),” he wrote.

“Otherwise, this plant is nutritious and not toxic. It has been proven that goats are much more adaptive and versatile in their ability to digest toxic plants. Future research would require a lot more intensive interviews of the herders followed by food habits of goats and sheep.”

With our limited time and resources, we could not find out which compounds in which plant, or plants, might have caused the sheep deaths. Perhaps a larger team that samples the pasture’s vegetation across the seasons may have better luck.

Negi, however, has already found a solution to his problem. Last summer, he made an arrangement with a fellow herder in another part of the Pin valley. He temporarily exchanged his sheep with his friend’s goats, and at the end of the grazing season got them back again. The pasture claimed no sheep that year.