What if 600 horses died climbing Pikes Peak?
DEHRADUN, Uttarakhand, India––One might imagine that the annual pilgrimage to Kedarnath, a temple in the Himalayas built in honor of Lord Pashupatinath, the Hindu god of all animals, might be undertaken with particular attention to animal welfare.
But then, one might also expect all four legs of the four-stop Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage to be organized with at least as much attention to the health and welfare of all participants as tens of thousands of visitors per year enjoy in hiking, bicycling, running, or riding horses to the summit of 14,100-foot Pikes Peak, Colorado.
Pikes Peak is just a popular tourist stop, visited by more than 600,000 visitors per year in all, most of whom get to the top by motor vehicle.
Completing the Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage cycle is recommended to devout Hindus at least once in a lifetime.
Test of faith in reincarnation?
The pilgrimage cycle has been completed by small numbers of devotees per year for more than 1,200 years, and by much larger numbers annually since roads to the vicinity were opened after the India/China border war of 1962.
Not part of the pilgrimage prescription is that the Char Dham Yatra should become a test of the faith of devotees in reincarnation, as it was for at least 125 of the reported 300,000 human participants in the first 30 days of the 2022 pilgrimage season.
The 2022 human death rate so far has been six times higher than in other recent years: 112 in 2017, 102 in 2018, and 90 in 2019. The Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage routes were not open in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Shocking as the 2022 Char Dham Yatra human death toll has been to much of India, as many as 600 of the approximately 8,000 horses and mules licensed to haul humans up to the four Char Dham Yatra temples died meanwhile, animal advocate Gauri Maulekhi testified on June 8, 2022 to the Uttarakhand High Court.
Maulekhi reportedly alleged that more than 20,000 horses and mules are in use for the Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage this year, most of whom would be unlicensed; that most of the horses and mules are sick, and that most are overworked.
Following Maulekhi’s testimony, Uttarakhand High Court acting chief justice Sanjay Kumar Mishra and fellow justice R. C. Khulbe of the High Court ordered the Uttarakhand state government, the Uttarkhand state animal husbandry department, and the district magistrates responsible for the various stops on on the Char Dham Yatra route to provide adequate food and water for the horses and mules, and to ensure that they get appropriate rest between journeys to the temples in question.
The Uttarakhand High Court is to review the status of Char Dham Yatra horse and mule care on June 22, 2022.
Even if the toll was “only” 140 horses, the deaths were avoidable
Two days after the June 8, 2022 hearing, Uttarkhand animal husbandry secretary BVRC Purushottam told media that the horse and mule death toll was actually only 140, and that departmental veterinarians had inspected 6,880 horses and mules, of whom 1,804 had received veterinary treatment.
Another 118 horses and mules were found unfit for further use during the Char Dham Yatra, use of 411 horses and mules “was stopped on the route,” and 91 horse and/or mule owners were cited for improperly using their animals.
The numbers stated by Purushottam are likely to be more accurate than those offered by Maulekhi, but would nonetheless suggest that about 10% of the horses and mules employed by Char Dham Yatra participants have not been suited to the work.
Chinny Krishna testifies
Much of the rising concern about the horses and mules has been rallied by Chinny Krishna, Blue Cross of India chief executive and board president since 1964.
Chinny Krishna, with his wife, cultural anthropologist Nanditha Krishna, and two of their friends, were among the early participants in the 2022 Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage cycle.
They were saddened, Chinny Krishna posted with an online petition, “to learn that over 60 ponies, horses, and mules died in the first 15 days of the Yatra on the Kedarnath road alone.
“At least 16 deaths of these poor animals occurred on the Yamunotri trail,” Chinny Krishna continued, “and I have video evidence of lame and limping ponies on this stretch. Extensive exchanges of messages and [sharing] the video with the animal husbandry team in Uttarakhand had no effect.
“The worst karma possible”
“My only request to those who want to do the Yatra is this,” Chinny Krishna said. “If you cannot walk or are unwilling to take a [sedan chair] carried by four healthy young men, don’t go. The curses of the animal [if a visitor rides a pony, horse, or mule] will bring you the worst karma possible. You are visiting Pashupatinath’s temple and he is the God of animals. Don’t make a mockery of this by perpetuating a cruel and horrific practice.”
Added Chinny Krishna to ANIMALS 24-7, “Sadly, every time I tried to stop the beating of a pony, everybody seemed to support me, but no one says anything until someone else starts.
“This obviously happens every year,” Chinny Krishna acknowledged, “but the crowds this year are unbelievable. After being restricted for two years due to COVID-19, people are traveling with a vengeance.
“Snow & bad weather”
“Kedarnath,” Chinny Krishna explained, “entails a trek of over 20 kilometers [about twelve and a half miles),” over a trail that “was closed due to snow and bad weather for two days when we were there.”
The destination, Chinny Krishna said, “was a village which was completely destroyed by rain and landslides in 2013, when a huge boulder stopped right in front of the temple and allowed only the temple to survive with very minor damage to one outer wall.
“Winters are so severe at both Kedarnath and Badrinath,” Chinny Krushna finished, “that the idols are taken down and kept in temples from October to April each year halfway down the mountains, since both places are under several meters of snow.”
The four Char Dham Yatra temple destinations, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Badrinath, are situated at distances of from seven to ten miles from road access to the trails pilgrims must take, shorter than the 13-to-19-mile Pikes Peak ascent routes.
The Char Dham Yatra temples are at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level, actually much lower than the Pikes Peak summit.
Though deaths of both humans and horses occasionally occur on the hike up Pikes Peak, they are rare.
On the other hand, hardly anyone attempts to climb Pikes Peak, whether running, walking, or bicycling, who is not in peak physical condition.
Of the 125 human deaths during the first month of the 2022 Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage, 75 victims were more than 60 years of age. Many were believed to have previously experienced COVID-19. Many also suffered from hypothermia, a perennial problem among participants from a normally hot climate who underestimate the Himalayan cold.
The terminal condition, among human victims, tends to be hypoxemia, meaning low blood oxygen, leading to cardiac arrest.
Hypoxemia occurs from insufficient acclimation to the altitude.
The effects of altitude on horses are similar, with a further frequently lethal complication.
Horses at altitude
Explains the Biozyme Inc. web site Amaferm & High Altitude: Keeping Your Horse at Peak Performance, posted in 2016, “Altitude begins to take its toll on horses above 5,000 feet and is prominent above 7,000 feet.
“At high altitude the air pressure is lower and there are fewer molecules of oxygen present in the air. For every 1,000 feet above sea level that you travel, the amount of oxygen in the air decreases by approximately 3%. That means that at 7,000 feet there is 20% less oxygen molecules available per breath. Therefore, the horse’s body must make adjustments to compensate for the difference.
“The most obvious way for the horse to compensate is by increasing its respiration rate, taking more breaths per minute. As the respiration rate increases so does the heart rate in order to pump oxygenated blood throughout the body.”
Full acclimation to working at altitudes of 10,000 feet above sea level may take a horse two weeks. Horses brought from lower altitudes to work during the five-month Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage season appear to be put to work, most often, with little or no acclimation.
Need more water
“Perhaps the largest concern for horses at altitude,” Biozyme Inc. continues, “is dehydration due to the dry air and increased respiration rates. In fact, above 6,000 feet the body exhales and sweats nearly twice as much moisture as it would at sea level.”
That means the horses and mules working to haul Char Dham Yatra pilgrims need two to three times more water than at normal elevations.
Instead, Char Dham Yatra chief veterinary officer Ashish Rawat told the Times of India, “The operators are taking excessive work from the horse and mules, giving them dry straw and chickpeas to eat and not enough water, due to which the animals are dying due to pressure on the membranes of the lungs.”
Water accessible to equines is scarce along the Char Dham Yatra routes because any ambient water tends to remain frozen, and water brought up in containers also freezes.
Heating water for the horses and mules is therefore necessary, but requires hauling fuel up to the watering stations, and horses used to haul water and fuel are not available to carry pilgrims, at prices ranging from the equivalent of $10 U.S. for an uphill journey only, to about $20 for the round trip.