Where the Wild Things Are: Fauna of the Rebgong Valley, Part 2: The Marmots of Doom

No marmots today!

Whenever I go running or hiking in the mountains above Rebgong, I make sure to keep my wits about me. While sometimes this vigilance fails to extend to the necessities of life, and though I often, lulled by the dreamy scenery, fall into semiconsious dreamlike reveries (e.g. “zone out”), I generally maintain a basic sensory awareness of my surroundings. This I do not simply due to the possibility of encountering mastiffs, wolves, or other large predators; I’m also looking for smaller creatures, scurrying shuffling rounded little rodents who, when threatened, enjoy emitting an ear-piercing shriek loud enough to wake the dead.

Yes, I’m talking about marmots.

Marmots, you are thinking confusedly. Large alpine squirrels which move with none of a squirrel’s (admittedly limited) grace, instead waddling awkwardly across the grasslands; beaver-faced, buck-toothed and cowardly – the animals dive into a whole at the faintest sight of danger – why should this writer be afraid of such an unusually unthreatening, even pitiful (and pitifully cute) animal?

The answer lies in the recent history of the Qinghai marmot. In late July 2009, a 32-year-old herder near the town of Xinghai suddenly became extremely ill after burying his dead mastiff. The dog had rapidly sickened and died after eating a marmot. Now, the herder was in dire shape. Representatives of the Qinghai disease control bureau arrived and determined his disease to be the pneumonic plague. Xinghai was placed under strict quarantine. The herder died within several days. The people who attended his funeral soon started to show symptoms, and were rapidly quarantined. Two others died within the week.

This was certainly not the first instance of the pneumonic plague being passed from marmots to humans. The Xinghai outbreak was Qinghai’s third that decade. As such, marmots are not simply marmots. They are marmots that are potentially carrying a life-threatening disease – plague marmots, if you will. The Marmots of Doom.

And this is real enough that I could actually envision an eponymous horror movie, a la Black Sheep, featuring these awkwardly cute little creatures gone bad (or, more exactly, gone sick). For there is nothing more frightening than the least threatening of creatures, all things cuddly and adorable, suddenly being transformed into a true danger and a legitimate cause of fear.

(photo courtesy http://arras-france.com/category/french-national-parks/ - I would never do this myself)

Consequently, take heed of this public service announcement. Stay far away from all marmots; resist the urge to pet or cuddle. They may be harmless – but then again, they may be infected, simply laying low and preparing to make their move. They may be the marmots of sweetness and light, or they may be the Marmots of Doom.

No, seriously – stay away from marmots. You don’t want what they might be carrying.

Next episode: Yaks (and sheep?)

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