The Legendary Gold-Digging Himalayan Marmot

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Image: Christopher J. Fynn/ Wikimedia Commons
The legendary Himalayan Marmots are ferocious, ground squirrels, whose protection is yet to be guaranteed.

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Herodotus wrote an account of the Persian empire that historians found hard to believe.

…There are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes, and from them the men are sent forth who go to procure the gold… Here, in this desert, there live amid the sand great ants, in size somewhat less than dogs, but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has a number of them, which have been caught by the hunters in the land whereof we are speaking. Those ants make their dwellings under ground, and like the Greek ants, which they very much resemble in shape, throw up sand-heaps as they burrow. Now the sand which they throw up is full of gold.

The idea of ants the size of foxes digging up gold seemed too ludicrous for many, and Herodotus was often branded a liar for this account. But in the late 20th century, the ancient Greek observer was vindicated by an anthropologist named Michel Peissel.

Tracing the Minaro tribal people who live in the high valleys between India and Pakistan, Michel waited 14 years just to receive a visa to study the Pakistani side. A single rumour kept him going – that of villagers collecting earth from Himalayan Marmot burrows because it contained gold dust. When he managed to visit the Pakistani side, this account was corroborated.

Locally known as the Brog-Pa, this community has a distinct and separate heritage from the Tibetan Buddhists or local Muslims. Megasthenes called these people the Dardae. And they are the only ones who still use the marmot to find gold.

Returning to Herodotus, we see that the ancient Indians had to flee the scene after extracting their gold – for fear of the marmot’s vengeance.

When the Indians reach the place where the gold is, they fill their bags with the sand, and ride away at their best speed: the ants, however, scenting them, as the Persians say, rush forth in pursuit. Now, these animals are, they declare, so swift, that there is nothing in the world like them: if it were not, therefore, that the Indians get a start while the ants are mustering, not a single gold-gatherer could escape… Such, according to the Persians, is the manner in which the Indians get the greater part of their gold; some is dug out of the earth, but of this the supply is more scanty.

Michel confirms that the marmots are indeed ferocious if you mess with their burrows. And Herodotus only error may have been one of translation – mistaking the Persian word for ‘marmot’ for the one used for ‘ant’.

The Himalayan Marmot

Himalayan Marmots reign at altitudes between 3,500 to 5,500 metres above sea level. They live in relatively safe surroundings, as they share their habitats with the endangered snow leopard – which gets them regional protection (but not protection from the leopards, which eat them). They dig deep and large burrows with which to hibernate within – inadvertently kicking up gold dust (if there is any) in the process.

Their protection is still not guaranteed. They remain caugh in aspects of illegal wildlife smuggling and were thus included in the list of lesser-known animals requiring protection under the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau’s Operation Lesknow.

In some places, they come into contact with humans – mostly tourists in Ladakh. This doesn’t seem to please them, as they avoid frequenting human areas – pushing themselves back to more reclusive surroundings. When standoffs between India and China reduced the tourist footfall in the region, they returned in small numbers.

They are essentially large ground squirrels, playful with one another and known to socialize by bumping their noses together, They whistle, chirp and have a separate alarm call for when predators are near. And thanks to their burrowing tendencies and habitation of high altitudes, they are not easily observed. This way, they have been relatively less studied too.

They range across the Himalayas, with some numbers present in the Russian steppes as well. They are marked as “Least Concern” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List – a factor partially attributable to the fact that most of their habitats lie in protected regions.

Not all that chitters is gold. The Marmot has a history of carrying the fleas that cause the bubonic plague, and incidents have been reported in China of a man catching the plague after handling a dead marmot.

The ancient tribal communities then had good reason to flee the angry marmot chasing them away from its precious burrows. Ultimately, it seems better for man and marmot that the two keep their distance from each other.

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