In Ritoma, as in most nomadic area of the Tibetan Plateau animals more numerous than humans by tenfold. There are of course the herds of domesticated yak and sheep that roam freely in the surrounding pasture as well as horses and dogs. They are so numerous that it takes a while to see past them and notice the more discreet wildlife which nevertheless is an integral part of the ecosystem.
Most noticeable are the marmots that emerge from their hibernating sleep in the Spring. They are everywhere, popping in and out of their burrows, surveying the area standing on their hind legs and sending each other messages with shrill cries that fill the air while their young play and chase each other across the green pasture. Though they may look cute, even the bravest of dogs has learned to beware of their sharp teeth.
Then there are the hares, favorite prey of foxes, that is, after sheep. Large and fast moving, they appear in the Spring, sometimes whole families hopping, then freezing, sensitive to any movement. Wolves are also very much a part of life on the Plateau. Though they prey primarily on gazelles, they also have a pronounced appetite for sheep, to the point where the latter must be gathered every night and corralled near their owner’s tents for safety. Wolves are also known to attack humans, crouching in the long grass far from human habitation, lying in wait to ambush the passing motorcycle of a nomad.
Gazelles are most noticeable in winter, when they move closer to villages, usually followed by the wolves. Their tawny coats melt into the yellowing pasture, though they can be spotted in the distance, their white tell-tale tails bobbing across the grassland. Nomad often care for orphaned gazelles, keeping them as pets until they are ready to rejoin their herds.
The sky belongs to birds; Ritoma has no trees, so they nest on the open pasture. Most present and noticeable is the vulture, who has woven his way into human existence with his indispensable part in the practice of sky burial. Tibetans consider him to be the King of birds, known for his wisdom, and count on him to take the offerings of the dead, ceremoniously prepared for their consumptions by the villagers. Vultures are picky, and their no show at a sky burial is considered a bad omen. They also shun animal carcasses that have not been picked apart for them. There are the falcons, who favor standing on the top of the wooden telephone poles that line the road to the village, and the regal eagles, that circle the sky at picnics or more dangerously over sheep herds in early winter, ready to dive for a stray lamb. Ecologists measure the health of an area by noting the presence of both extremes of the animal food chain; eagles at the top, frogs at the bottom. Ritoma wetlands are full of frogs.
Summer welcomes back the migrating birds that populated the many lakes; wild geese, cranes and ruddy shelled ducks. In the late fall, they can be seen flying, heading south, in V formation. They stop over in Southern Tibet where they pick the grain left in harvested fields before heading further to India. Nowadays, some find comfort in Lhasa’s parks, where people feed them, and decide to end their journey in the City of Gods.