Saturday, August 27, 2011

Shapi of Sikkim: Our legacy - i

Shapi, the so called living fossil was an exciting subject matter for me since it was first documented on Sikkim some seventy years back. I was looking for information on Shapi since last couple of years but with small success. A very little had been written about this rare animal that is regarded older than deer, goat and sheep. Considered a rare species and one of the most precious assets of Sikkim, this mammal was first discovered by Ernst Schäfer, a German doctor, on an expedition in 1938 in Fimphu, North Sikkim. 
I should not forget Margreth Paech from Germany with whom I had exchange of mails about the discovery of Shapi made by German Expedition team led by Ernst Schaefer in 1938. She was generous enough to help me in my research by sending photographs of Shapi from the German Archives related to Ernst Schäfer Expedition that helped me take a glimpse of that historic discovery. I looked on internet regarding information about Shapi but in internet too very little is written, until I came across the original video clip of the Ernst Schaefer 1938 Expedition that was uploaded at You Tube.
Prof. Dr. Ernst Schäfer died a decade back in 1992. He was a German Tibet researcher, scientist and ornithologist. Together with the American Brook Dolan, he had worked on the mystery of the bamboo bear (Panda) and the Takin (Rindergemse). He discovered the blue sheep (Pseudois schaeferi) as the last major unknown species.
Down to Earth, an environment magazine in its January 1988 issue does mentions about this mammal in a small article where it refers Shapi as an ancient genus.  The article mentions ‘Shapi’ or east Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus schaeferi) is a very rare animal inhabiting the alpine region and considered sacred by the Lepchas. It was sighted after a gap of 39 years in 1977 in Fimphu by divisional forest officer C Lachungpa. In this period Shapi was considered extinct.
This animal is said to have survived the last tertiary of the Pleistocene era, more than a million years ago. Long before the Ice Ages, different relatives of the Shapi were scattered throughout the Indian subcontinent, in the mountainous country in West Asia, and as far as west as the Alps and the foothills of the Pyrenees. With the formation of the Himalaya and the Alps, the climate changed and the continuous habitat of the genus was broken up. As a result, all the European relatives of the Shapi died out, save a lone representative in the West Asian highlands and two other species in India - the western Himalayan tahr and the Nilgiri tahr”.
Christopher Hale in his book Himmler’s Crusade: the Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race published in 2003 gives an account of Ernst Schäfer’s fascination to hunt a Shapi. Hale writes it was Timothy, a young Christian Tibetan who first told Schäfer about the secretive goat like creature. Schäfer was informed that this black mountain ghost was a sacred animal for the Lepchas, a god that no one must ham or even speak about.
Upon hearing this information about Shapi, Schäfer was very excited and ablaze with fire to search for Shapi; he called all his colleagues and told this discovery could contribute to the greater glory of the expedition. He pursued everyone that this could be the greatest scientific discovery of the expedition and this could bring success for Germany. The German Camp was very happy about the new great animal in the mountains. Even all biological findings pointed a success for Germans.
Schäfer had become crazy about this animal; he would dream of hunting this animal. Timothy showed him an ancient hide from a Shapi that was killed long time back, whose odour suggested it to be related to Tahr, another goat like creature of the mountains. Schäfer wanted the hunting of Shapi to be his heroic story. He splited the expedition; it was decided he and Geer, his most loyal colleague who would hunt the Shapi. Other would stay back at the camp.
Schäfer and Geer brought fourteen new Lepcha men as fresh porters from Chungthng. The Shapi hunting group walked between Talung and Lachen Valley. The search for Shapi was not as easy as they had thought. It was more difficult and dangerous. Climbing through the dense bamboo forests, they moved towards higher mountains where they came across huge Rhododendron trees. The Lepcha porters and Timothy believed that they were very near to their purpose.
On reaching the top of the plateau Schäfer spotted tracks and hair of Shapi that made him very excited. Soon afterwards he caught sight of his first Shapi, he took six shot at the horny black goat but he missed. The weather started retreating and the team left for nearby cave still known to local villagers as German Cave. Poor weather upset their hunting dreams and after a week another Shapi came into their glance. Schäfer took a shot but he again failed to hit the target. Schäfer was getting frustrated; he had the feel that the Lepcha porters were not helping him. After few days Schäfer again came across a Shapi, he pulled his trigger but this time the bullet hit the right eye of the Shapi and fell on the ground with a thunderous sound. Soon he hit another two males and three females.
Schäfer and Geer returned victorious to the camp. German scientific pride had been satisfied and the animal was named Hemitragus jemlahicus schaeferi when it’s stuffed was studied at Berlin Natural Museum a year later.