Tracking Himalayan wildlife

The Natural History Museum in Kathmandu revives the ancient art of tracking with an exhibit

Rai sikari hunters and Makalu-Barun Conservation Project staff deep in the forests in 1993. Photos: ALTON C BYERS

Animal tracking is an art that has been practiced by traditional peoples for thousands of years for hunting and survival. Gathering evidence about an animal with tracks, scat, and other signs, they locate, trail, and interpret its behaviour in the wild. 

In Nepal, although indigenous people like the Raute, sikari hunters and a few naturalists use tracking, the knowledge is diminishing.

Between 1993-1995, I lived in what was then the remote village of Khandbari of Sankwasabha district to help establish the 2,300 km2 Makalu-Barun National Park. I started making and collecting plaster casts of the mammal tracks encountered along the forest trails, riverbanks, fields, and alpine areas. 

My friend and co-manager was Narayan Poudel who was tragically killed in the 2006 helicopter crash in the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area. He was enthusiastic about the collection and encouraged me to make plaster casts of as many tracks as possible that could be used in a natural history book about the Makalu-Barun National Park someday. Natural History of the Wild Side of Everest by Frances Klatzel was eventually published.

My main teachers were the Rai sikari hunters whom accompanied me on treks through the park. They had grown up learning about the forests, animal tracks, and hunting and trapping (paso) techniques. They were also experts at identifying edible, utilitarian, and medicinal plants, and could live quite comfortably for months if given nothing more than a kukuri and a little salt.

Hunting was prohibited in the national park and buffer zone but there were local people with a hunting background who were among the best naturalists that I had ever encountered. They were fluent in the flora and fauna of the forests in which they lived. They could mimic dozens of bird and animal calls, follow a trail over solid rock, and often knew the names of the birds, mammals, and reptiles in three languages.

I observed my guide Bhakta Ram Rai examine a set of fresh tracks made the night before just outside of our camp near Walung. Just on the basis of that track he could infer that the tracks were rounded, wider than long, with three-lobed footpads and four, somewhat rounded toes.  No claw marks, except occasionally at steep and muddy trail inclines.  

The animal was large, walking, unhurried, with a body length of about 1.5m, shoulder height of 40cm, and weight of approximately 50kg, most likely male.  The tracks were made between 4 to 6 hours previously, just after the misty rain. It was the leopard which had dined on a barking deer recently. 

Fast forward to 2019. I had been to Nepal many times in the interim period and dozens of plaster casts I had made 25 years before remained stored in cardboard boxes in my basement wrapped in Rising Nepal newspapers from 1994.

Mammal tracking in Nepal
Rubber molds of various Himalayan mammals presented to the Natural History Museum in May of 2022.
mammal tracking in Nepal
Silicone rubber track molds (left) and the plaster casts from which they are made (right) for (top to bottom) sambar, Himalayan black bear, and tiger.

 I was able to make 30 or more plaster casts of bear, leopard, barking deer, tiger, chital, sloth bear, snow leopard, wild buffalo, blue sheep, and pika tracks, and turn them into a silicone rubber moulds to make them durable, so they could be used as a teaching tool for students of natural history.

The Natural History Museum in Kathmandu has a collection of over 50,000 plant, animal, and fungi. Its head Ganesh Bahadur Thapa was enthusiastic about using the track casts as an educaitonal tool and they are currently on display there together with later collections of snow leopard, blue sheep, Tibetan wolf casts, as well as Tarai species.

mammal tracking in Nepal
Students at the Basha Valley Shgar in Balistan, Pakistan examine a plaster cast they made from a silicone rubber mold of a snow leopard track during “Snow Leopard Day.” Photo: Baltistan Wildlife Conservation and Development Organization
mammal tracking in Nepal
Several of the silicone rubber mammal track molds are displayed at the Natural History Museum.

Ideally, the next step will be to develop mammal tracking and natural history educational programs for students throughout Nepal as they ahve in Baltistan in Pakistan.

“Making school children aware of snow leopard behaviour and its habitat, and teaching them about tracks and tracking from a young age will significantly contribute to survival of the species,” says Ghana Gurung, director of the WWF Nepal. 

Wildlife educational programs are particularly important at a time when Nepal becomes more and more urbanised, with children spending less and less time in the natural world. Tracking opportunities abound even on the outskirts of towns. Common leopard, wild boar, and barking deer tracks, for example, can be found along the sides of the roads on the Kathmandu Valley rim. 

A basic knowledge of tracks and tracking would also be of immense value to Nepal’s growing numbers of natural history and trekking guides, most of whom seem to be fluent in birds and mammals, but lack the interpretational skills of their forebears. Natural History Museum staff will also be trained in mould making techniques so that its tack collection can continue to grow.

Says Ganesh Bahadur Thapa of the Natural History Museum: “The first mammalian silicone rubber moulds amassed over three decades of work in Nepal is now a valuable asset of the museum. It can enhance awareness of wildlife in Nepal, and contribute to conservation efforts.” 

Alton C Byers, PhD is Senior Research Scientist at the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), University of Colorado at Boulder in the United States. 

mammal tracking in Nepal
Ganesh Bahadur Thapa (fourth from left) and Alton C Byers (third from left) at the Natural History Museum in Kathmandu in May 2023.

Natural history of the planet

‘Animal tracks are the transient reminders of who has passed and what they were doing – in short, a paragraph in the maker's life history book. Normally tracks are gone for eternity but casts retain the story of sentient beings for others to read, comprehend and contemplate through a thoughtful naturalist's mind. Learn to read the story.  Preserve a track, save the natural history of planet earth.’ -Dr Jim Halfpenny, President, A Naturalist's World, Gardner, Montana, USA