Tso Moriri is a lake in the Ladakhi part of the Changthang Plateau (literally: northern plains) in Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. The lake is at an altitude of 4,522 m (14,836 ft). It is the largest of the high altitude lakes entirely within India and entirely within Ladakh in this Trans-Himalayan biogeographic region. The official name of the land and water reserve here is the Tso Moriri Wetland Conservation Reserve.
The lake is fed by springs and snow-melt from neighboring mountains. Most water enters the lake in two major stream systems, one entering the lake from the north, the other from the southwest. Both stream systems include extensive marshes where they enter the lake. It formerly had an outlet to the south, but this has become blocked and the lake has become a endorheic lake. The lake is oligotrophic in nature, and its waters are alkaline.
Accessibility to the lake is largely limited to summer season, though Karzok on the northwest shore and the military facilities on the eastern shores have year-round habitation.
As per a classification of the Himalayan Lakes done on the basis of their origin, there are four groups and Tso Moriri falls under the third group of “remnant lakes”. The classification as reported states:
(i) Glacial lakes which are formed in and around glaciers; (ii) Structural lakes, formed by folds or faults due to movements in earth’s crust (e.g. Nainital lake in Uttarakhand), (iii) Remnant lakes which were originally structural but represent the remnants of vast lakes (e.g., Tso Moriri, Tso Kar, Pangong Tso in Ladakh, and Dal Lake in Kashmir), (iv) Natural dammed lakes i.e., temporary water bodies formed along the river courses due to deposition of rocks or debris e.g. Gohna Tal in Garhwal, Uttarakhand.
The Changthang Plateau in the eastern Ladakh represents a landscape of low productive ecosystems which protects unique floral and faunal species. The area is an extension of the western Tibetan plateau that lies above 4,500 m (14,800 ft) msl and supports diverse but low populations of several globally threatened mammals. The lake’s basin could also be categorised as an basin since it is a closed drainage basin that retains water and allows no outflow to other bodies of water such as rivers or oceans.
Tso Moriri Lake, Korzok, in Ladakh.
The lake is 20 to 50 kilometers southeast of the elevated valley of the core Rupshu Valley and falls within the greater Rupshu Plateau and valley area. The lake is ringed by hills rising over 6,000 m (20,000 ft). “Changpas”, the nomadic migratory shepherds (pastoral community) of yak, sheep, goat, and horses of Tibetan origin and who are engaged in trade and work on caravans in Ladakh region, are the main inhabitants of the area. Changpa (Champa) herders use the land of this valley as grazing ground and for cultivation.
The Working Report (2006) of the Planning Commission of the Government of India also reports:
Despite a poor vegetation cover, relatively low standing biomass and high anthropogenic pressure, this area sustains a considerably high livestock population. Steady increase in the livestock population in the area is mainly attributed to influx of nomadic herders from Tibet during recent decades and promotion of Pashmina goat production by the Animal Husbandry Department (AHD) for fine quality under wool (Pashmina). The herders and AHD officials, in recent years have begun to raise concern over degradation of pastures, resultant shortage of forage, and mass mortality of livestock during severe winters.
The Korzok Monastery, on the western bank of the lake is 400 years old and attracts tourists and Buddhist pilgrims. Tourism during May – September attracts large number of foreign and local tourists even though tented accommodation is the facility available, apart from a small PWD guest house close to the Lake. Northeast of Tso Moriri is a small lake which is known locally as Lake of Joy.
Further information: Leh
The lake is located to the southeast of Leh in eastern Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, at a road distance of 240 kilometres (150 mi). The road is in a good condition for the most part. One can also reach Tsomoriri directly from the Pangong Tso via the remote Changtang region. This is considered to be one of the most beautiful drives in the entire Ladakh region. Foreigners are not allowed to go beyond the Man – Merak villages on Pangong Tso as permits are not issued for them. The distance between Pangong Tso and Tso Moriri is 235 km and there are no petrol pumps in the area. Carrying enough fuel is therefore necessary. Leh is also connected by air with many destinations in India.
Hydrology and water quality
The lake, draining a catchment area of 120 km2 (46 sq mi) is enclosed by peaks exceeding 6,000 meters on both the east and west sides. On the south, a nearly flat valley connects with but does not drain into or out of the Pare Chu (river.) This valley contains the Nuro Sumdo wetlands (with a catchment area of 20 km2 or 7.7 sq mi), a boggy area that mostly drains into the Pare Chu. Several small mountain streams feed the lake, including one through pasture land at Peldo Le. The lake is fed by springs and snow melt and has a maximum depth of 40 m (130 ft). Aridity and cold desert conditions prevail in the lake region; with summer temperature varying from 0 ° to 30 °C (32 °-86 °F) and winter temperature recording −10 ° and −40 °C (14 ° to -40 °F). Geologically the lake is in Ordovician rock.
Fauna and flora
Tibetan Ass in the vicinity of Tso Moriri Lake
An avifaunal survey of the lake and its adjoining Nuro Sumdo wetland conducted in July 1996 revealed the following facts:
Thirty-four species of birds included 14 species of water birds (some are pictured in the gallery) of which following are the vulnerable species
Black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis) endangered.
Bar-headed geese (Anser indicus)– only breeding ground in India
Brown-headed gulls (Larus brunnicephalus)
Great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) (rare)
Black-necked grebe (Podiceps nigricollis) (rare)
Tibetan gazelle, Procapra picticaudata, Goa antelope (threatened)
Nayan Ovis ammon hodgsoni
Bharal (Pseudois nayaur) Himalayan blue sheep
Tibetan Ass (Kiang) or Equus kiang, endemic to the Tibetan Plateau
Great Tibetan Sheep
One species of marmot, Marmota himalayana in large numbers seen on the hill slopes surrounding the lake and also along the roadsides
One species of hare, Lepus oistolus
One species of vole, Alticola roylei
Three species of mouse hares, Ochotona macrotis, Ochotona curzoniae or Tibetan sand fox and Scincella ladacensis
Carnivores fauna reported are:
the snow leopard (Uncia uncia)
the Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus chanco)
Tso Moriri Lake during August
Vegetation While the deeper parts of the lake have no vegetation, the shallow areas are reported to have Potamogeton sps. Marshes have several species of sedges and reeds, particularly Carex, Caragana and Astragalus sps., which are all representative of the surrounding arid steppe vegetation. Details of the Vegetation recorded in the area comprises the following:
Characteristic Caragana and Astragalus species
Several species of Carex, Primula (low growing herb), and Pedicularis(parasitic plant)
Common species of Juncus thomsonii and Leontopodium sp
Phytoplankton species of Oocystis with density was 900 cells/L to a depth of 25 m (82 ft). Specimens of the diatom Cyclotella also recorded.
Pastures for domestic livestock
Ramsar site Largely based on the ecological diversity of the Lake (explained in the previous section) and its surroundings, the Tsomiriri was notified in November 2002 under the List of Ramsar Wetland sites under the Ramsar Convention. The justification could be summarized as:
The faunal collection is unique and has a large variety with endemic and vulnerable species
The herbivore species are also endemic to the region
The lake plays a fundamental role as breeding grounds and key staging posts on migration routes for several water birds belonging to six families, which is distinctive of wetland diversity and productivity
Threats to the lake
There are a number of threats to the Lake, such as:
Increase in the number of tourists visiting the lake affecting the breeding of avifauna
Additional road construction along the lake
Pasture degradation affecting wildlife, particularly wild herbivores (marmots, hares, ungulates)
An increase in the grazing of sheep in the wetlands surrounding the lake
The absence of a proper garbage disposal facility at the lake.
Dogs kept by the people who live near the lake are known to attack the cranes and destroy their eggs.
Jeep safaris have been known to chase wildlife such as kiang and approach close to the breeding ground.
Lack of regulations and monitoring by the government.
The need for evolving a strategy and an action plan to preserve the extreme fragility of the lake ecosystem has been recognized with the needed emphasis at the National and International level to develop the lake conservation activity with participation of all stakeholders. The actions initiated in this direction are:
Tso Moriri is an administratively declared Wetland Reserve. Legally, shooting wildlife is prohibited. The State Department of Wildlife has set up a check post near Mahe Bridge at the entrance towards the lake. WWF-India Project has established a field office at Korzok on the northwest shore of Tso Moriri for ‘Conservation of High Altitude Wetlands in Ladakh Region’ to carry out surveys, interact with tourists, tour guides, act as information centre and conduct education awareness programmes for locals, tourists etc.
Wildlife Institute of India has also set up a field station at Leh to carry out scientific research in the region. Nature clubs have been set up and Information booklet on the lake published. Efforts of WWF – India has also resulted in the local community declaring Tso Moriri as a ‘Sacred Gift for a Living Planet’ during the Annual Conference held in Nepal in November 2000.
Some of the other achievements so far reported on the Lake’s conservation are:
Regulation in consultation with local community Vehicular traffic flow and parking has been restructured with restriction of camping sites around the lake
The Indo Tibetan Border Petrol (ITBP), tour operators and local population have introduced regular garbage cleanup operations
Korzok community living around the lake has voluntarily built traditional and social fencing around the wetland to protect breeding and feeding grounds from vehicular traffic
Tso Moriri Conservation Trust has been set up.
Twenty Nature Clubs have been registered in different schools in Ladakh
The Indian Army has committed to support and set up a Nature Interpretation Centre at ‘Hall of Fame’, Leh.
World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) role
World Wildlife Fund for Nature — India (WWF-India) is spearheading the efforts at conservation of the Tso Moriri lake in particular, and the Ladakh region in general. WWF’s activities as a NGO have spanned more than 30 years. The main objective set by WWF is the main activities planned for the Tso Moriri and other wetlands in Ladakh regions are:
The Promotion of Nature Conservation and Environmental Protection as the Basis for Sustainable and Equitable Development.
Evolve plan to establish a Sustainable Tourism Model managed by Local Communities at Tso Moriri
Carry on with the biological and socio-economic surveys around selected wetlands and document for future reference
Organize capacity building training programmes for Tour operators, Army, Teachers and local communities
Frequent education and awareness Programmes for various target groups
Management Planning for Tso Moriri and also Tsokar and Pangong Tso lakes by involving major stakeholders
To set guidelines for introducing Eco-Tourism Certification Scheme in Ladakh
To mobilise financial resources to carry out a comprehensive Strategic Environment Assessment
Develop Environmental Management Systems, implement and certify the Environment Management Systems with special focus on tourism sector
Maintain and enhance existing field presence at Tso Moriri, Leh, and Tsokar and increase presence at Chushul and Hanle marshes as well to achieve better results
Clutching on to the last vestiges of their nomadic life, the Changpas believe their animals are a crucial link to the gods
It was four in the morning and preparations were under way to move to Norchen. It was dark and a cold wind blew all around us. Tashi Zangmo quickly lit a fire and made tea. Tharchen and Angchuk took the tent down, folded it lengthways, and inserted the poles in the middle before rolling it up. They rounded up the yaks and began to load them. Carpets and blankets were first laid across the animals’ backs, followed by saddle-bags, stove, stone hand-mill, and butter-tea maker. One yak carried a steel trunk containing prayer books, images of Buddhist deities, silver amulets and offering bowls. One of the more docile yaks was chosen for five-year-old Chogyal to ride on, and a seat fashioned for him among the luggage. He cried as he was lifted and strapped on to the animal’s back, but a few sweets quickly placated him. By five o’clock, Norgey left with the sheep and goats. An hour later the horses were saddled, and the nomads were ready to move. Tashi Zangmo balanced her perak (turquoise-studded headdress) on her head; she mounted her horse and led the way for her family. The caravan spread over at least two kilometres and within this the pack animals were kept close together. Yaks were driven in the front, followed by women and children. Dogs glided in and out, barking at the yaks to ensure they kept moving. The men came in the rear leading the horses. Behind them lay just a flat stretch of land, a few stone walls, and smoke rising from the burning embers of hastily doused fires. “Look at the kind of life we lead,” Tharchen once remarked between moves of the camp, “Always moving, always packing, never staying in one place.” “We have to keep moving,” Skarma, his younger brother, pointed out, “After all, we are the people who move behind the sheep and the goats.”Tharchen is a nomadic pastoralist herding sheep and pashmina goats. He lives in Rupshu (eastern Ladakh), residing in a brown yak-hair tent along with his younger brother Angchuk, their wife Tashi Zangmo, and their five children. His tent is one among several hundreds that dot the arid landscape of the vast, undulating plains of Changthang or the ‘Northern Plateau’. Camping at altitudes ranging from 12,000 to 15,000 feet, the nomads live in an extreme environment where temperatures drop as low as -50 degree C in winter. Tharchen is a learned yet humble man, a proficient craftsman and highly skilled tailor, regularly receiving orders to make brocade hats for weddings or to carve a prayer stone. He is also very religious, and in the absence of a lama in Rupshu often officiates as one. His younger brother, Angchuk, does not have quite the same versatility as him and relations between the two are often tense. Being the younger husband his position within the family seemed ambivalent and it was clear he had very little say in its affairs or control over finances. Their wife, Tashi Zangmo, was more protective of her younger husband but paid heed to the words of the older one. Nomadic life has a gentle rhythm, where everything is centred around the animals. In a land devoid of agriculture this is not surprising as livestock is a precious commodity and their produce (i.e. fibre and meat) translates into cash. It is also not surprising to discover that in a society that depends solely on pastoralism their animals are a crucial link to the gods. “My elders once told me,” Abi Yangzom, Tharchen’s mother said as we waited in her tent for the livestock to return, “that in the beginning our sheep were all different colours. These were mainly white, red, and blue. One day Gyamo Konjor, a princess from a neighbouring kingdom, came and took all the sheep for a walk. Along the way she came to a big river, and she made the sheep walk through it. The water washed away their colour and since that day we have only white sheep.” The Buddhist pantheon is represented by a three-tier division of the world. The uppermost level is inhabited by the gods, the lowest by spirits of the aquatic and subterranean worlds, while people live in between, in a world also inhabited by demons. The three worlds are depicted by a system of colours: white for heaven, red for earth, and blue for the aquatic and subterranean realm. That the nomad’s sheep were once mainly these colours is not, therefore, coincidental. Consequently, the nomads believe that their livestock are intrinsically sacred animals bestowed upon them by the gods and must be constantly consecrated.
Livestock are the reason the nomads follow a migratory route, shifting camp about 10 times a year. While the time spent at any one place is not fixed, each move is dependent on the availability of pasture and water. The children who take the livestock out grazing will tell their parents that the grass on the mountains is virtually exhausted, and the women will grumble that the flow of water in the stream has ebbed. These sentiments are conveyed to the chief, who meets with the men and a date is fixed for the move.Each move is typically carried out early in the morning, just before sunrise. By mid-day the nomads reach Norchen and each family moves to their hereditary tent site. The tent doors face east as it is inauspicious to turn the tent’s back to the rising sun. Once the tent is pitched, the women move in — the stove is the first to be set up, a fire lit, and soon tea is boiling away.Four months had passed since the entire camp had last been together, and people renewed contacts and exchanged news. Some shahtoosh had been apprehended at the border, Lanze had eloped with a Tibetan, and officers from the Air Force had come enquiring about a plane that had crashed in the winter — without evidence of the pilot’s body they could not declare him dead! The Manipa from Spiti had also arrived and would perform the stone-breaking ceremony, symbolic of the destruction of evil, read horoscopes and predict fortunes or unforeseen catastrophes. It was also time to shear the livestock. The weight of the thick coat was getting unbearable for the animals to carry. Soon the traders would come and the nomads debated who would give the year’s best price for pashmina as wool was generally bartered for grain. Despite its desolate character the Changthang earns annual revenue of Rs 15 crore for Ladakh — probably the second largest revenue earner for the region after tourism. Soon after the shearing is over, the nomads hold a large prayer ceremony. “It is for the good of our people and our animals,” Nawang Chogyal says, “To protect us all, cleanse us of our sins, and eliminate any misfortune amongst us.” Usually the Rinpoche from the Dubbock Gompa is invited to preside over the prayers. Dubbock is a small monastery, but the nomads of Rupshu have always sent their young monks and nuns to train there. No matter that it belongs to the Nyingmapa School of Buddhism, and they to the Kargyugpa. Nomadic life follows the same cyclical pattern, but change is also inevitable. In recent years, many nomads have migrated to Leh in search of what they consider a better way of life. Most of them end up doing menial jobs, as coolies and construction workers, on daily wages. Education has transformed many of the youth, who now perceive a nomadic life as ‘backward’. No longer demarcated as a ‘Restricted Areas Zone’, Changthang is now much visited by tourists who are attracted by the remoteness, stark beauty, and nomadic lifestyle of its people. But tourism has brought only marginal benefits to the people. Most of the Leh-based travel agents use non-local guides and horses resulting in an increase in pressure on the nomads’ grazing lands. Though each trekking group is meant to pay Rs 20 per pack animal this hardly compensates for the loss of pasture. Jeep safaris in Changthang are also hugely popular with tourists but often drivers take their four-wheel drives off the beaten track and this has an adverse effect on the pastures. Unprecedented amounts of garbage are also piling up at tourist campsites. There is an urgent need for eco-sensitive tourism on the Changthang. Tharchen’s children have all left. So have his two brothers and sister. Today he is a figment of the self-assured nomad I once knew, unsure of his future, dreading to have to leave the Changthang but faced with little choice as nomadic life is difficult for the elderly without the support of the extended family. As I leave, Tharchen clutches to the last vestiges of his nomadic life. A chill wind blows as he walks back to his tent, the mountains surrounding the campsite washed in the golden hue of the setting sun. Clouds are gathering in the distance. A dog barks and Tharchen bends to pick up a stone. A lone shepherd returns with his flocks, probably delayed because his animals had strayed too far off in search of pasture. In a few days it would be time to move camp, it was evident the grass on the high pastures was decreasing as the colour of the mountain tops changed from green to brown. But in this light it was difficult to discern.