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The Ladakh urial (Ovis vignei vignei ) is an endangered wild sheep, inhabiting mountainous tracts of the Trans-Himalayan Mountains. The species occupies rugged as well as open areas in the Ladakh Region of India. It is not known how the sheep perform in different habitat types. Therefore, Safari Club International (SCI) Foundation and partners initiated a study to identify potential areas for conserving the species in Ladakh and beyond.
Currently, Ladakh has an estimated population of about 2,500 urial. The species is severely threatened, and is thus listed on the ‘Schedule I’ of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972. It is also listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN red-list of threatened animals, and is on the ‘Appendix I’ of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The population of urial in Ladakh is confined to narrow tracts along the banks of the Indus and Shayok rivers, with a total population around 2,500 animals. The banks of these rivers are also cultivated by small-scale farmers, and the urial is in conflict with these farmers, as the animals allegedly damage crops. Among all the wild ungulates in Ladakh, the urial has suffered the most due to pressures associated with modern development. For instance, the sheep can be found along the corridor of the Srinagar-Leh highway.
Ladakh urial suffered greatly due to military activities in India’s war with the neighboring Pakistan and China. The conflict led to a major influx of military personnel into the region and urial bore the brunt of a heavy onslaught by the under-provisioned forces. Additionally, unregulated hunting influenced urial populations. Despite these threats, there has been no apparent effort to understand the species’ ecology before now.
The primary objective of this study was to assess the influence of habitat structure on the population performance of urial in India. Rugged areas are known to support less vegetation compared to areas with more gentle terrain. Since quality and quantity of food affect body condition and lambing, we predicted a lower lamb to female ratio in the rugged areas. The results show that Ladakh urial are flexible in habitat use. Urial used flatter areas as available in the open site, while they used steeper terrain in the rugged area. The differences in habitat use influenced the reproductive success of the sheep. The team did not find any lambs in Skindyang (rugged area), while four lambs were recorded in Tsibskiangchan (open area). Group size was also larger in more gentle terrain, which further indicated that urial is faring better in more open areas.
Habitat selection theory advocates that animals disperse and occupy habitat patches that are most beneficial for their survival and reproduction if given the opportunity. Therefore, animals that choose (unknowingly) to occupy high-quality habitat are likely to have a higher success compared to those that occupy lower quality habitat. Knowledge of habitat requirements is important for the management of rare species in particular. Management recommendations of this important work in Asia include identifying areas that have more vegetation and more gentle topography to conserve for the persistence of urial.